Grief takes many forms. Among them: carbon extracted from the ashes of your loved one, heated and pressed into a synthetic diamond.
Why not? Your loved one was precious. A diamond is precious, too. Your loved one was beautiful. A diamond is beautiful. And a diamond is, as commercials constantly remind us, forever. As a metaphor, the dead-person-turned-diamond is breathtakingly neat.
A Chicago company called LifeGem has been offering this unconventional solution to earthly impermanence since August, through -- at latest count -- 139 funeral homes across the county. No diamonds have yet been delivered. LifeGem says its process takes about 16 weeks. It claims success producing diamonds with animal remains and a cadaver. It promises delivery to its first customer in mid-January. The company projects 50 orders by year's end, but would not give out the total so far.
About a quarter of all people dying nowadays are cremated. Those who study this trend say there's a vast array of options that go along with it: cremation lockets to hold ashes; urns for gays, decorated with upside-down triangles; paintings and pottery made with cremation ash. Even those choosing traditional burial are less traditional. A funeral home manager in Hampton, Va., tells of recent memorial services featuring the music of Pink Floyd, Jimmy Buffett and P. Diddy. Web sites sell caskets decorated with auto-racing themes or messages such as "Return to Sender."
So now a diamond. As Dean VandenBiesen, one of LifeGem's co-founders and the vice president of operations, points out, "It's not for everybody."
But for those who choose to have their loved ones pressed into the hardest substance known, the LifeGem seems like a salvation. Here, at last, is something permanent and portable, better than an urn on a mantelpiece or a gravestone miles away. Here is a little piece of Dad to wear always. VandenBiesen says the LifeGem can offer great solace to survivors at a difficult time.
"In a situation that you think would be very sad, these people are excited," he says. "It's a new thing for them. They says things like, 'Dad -- this is what he wanted.' "
VandenBiesen, who founded the company with his brother, Rusty, and another set of brothers, Greg and Michael Herro, likes to think about one family in particular who signed on to have their father made into a LifeGem. VandenBiesen met with them in November at the funeral home near Seattle. As the family -- the late man's wife and his four children -- were examining the stones, the clouds broke "and all of a sudden, the sun's shining." They asked if they could take the diamonds outside.
"They're playing with the diamonds in the sunlight," admiring their beauty, VandenBiesen recalls. It was a touching scene. The family signed on.
"He was always into the latest technology or gadget or whatever," says aviation executive Jack Trunnell, 43, one of the children of the Seattle area family. Trunnell's father is to be one of the first LifeGems on the West Coast, and though the family never got a chance to discuss the option with him, they feel certain he would have loved the idea of his own carbon traversing a technological frontier.
Dean VandenBiesen says his brother Rusty is the visionary behind the company. The youngest of three, Rusty had always been acutely aware of his own mortality, and options like burial and cremation alone "never brought him peace." Three-and-a-half years ago, Rusty came to Dean with an idea and the brothers mulled it over. Dean had a background in geology and began to research the concept with manufacturers of cremation equipment and companies that purify carbon.
"We look at it as kind of a natural progression," Dean VandenBiesen says. After all, people contain carbon, and diamonds are carbon. Typically, carbon is incinerated and turned into gas during the process of cremation, but LifeGem hit on a method of capturing the carbon before that happens. The company then sends it to a company in Pennsylvania that purifies it and turns it into graphite by heating it at nearly 6,000 degrees Fahrenheit, VandenBiesen says. (It's possible to make a diamond out of remains previously cremated, and LifeGem offers that option, but it's a bit more complicated.)
The graphite is then sent to a laboratory in Russia. To make the smallest diamond LifeGem offers, a quarter carat, the company places about five grams of graphite into a press, where it is subjected to enough heat and pressure to turn it into a diamond over the course of a month. LifeGem can have the stone cut in any style and mounted as a pendant, a ring -- you name it. It can even have the stone engraved.
The cost of a quarter-carat diamond, not including cremation or setting, is $1,995. A three-quarter-carat diamond costs $9,995, and the company hopes to offer larger sizes one day soon. All the diamonds the company currently offers are blue due to the presence of boron, but LifeGem plans to offer red, yellow and white diamonds in the future.
VandenBiesen says all four founders will one day become LifeGems themselves.
Don Olson, a diamond and gemstone specialist for the U.S. Geological Survey, and Charles Pibel, a professor of chemistry at American University, both have heard about LifeGem and say the process seems feasible based on what they've read in media accounts. "The carbon in you is the same as the carbon in a graphite pencil," says Pibel. "It's the same element."
As for whether it's desirable to -- as Pibel puts it -- "take your recently departed loved one and turn them into a keepsake," that's a separate issue. "I think it's kind of gruesome," Pibel says. "I can see how it sort of would be nice to have a keepsake from someone you like, but the process of doing it is sort of off-putting."
Off-putting? Placing a loved one's remains into a press exerting 1.6 million pounds per square inch? Converting a loved one into what amounts to a cliche of American materialism?
"People need to make meaning out of death, right? And so I'm not one to sneer at how they do that," says Stephen Prothero, a professor of religion at Boston University and author of "Purified by Fire: A History of Cremation in America." But with the concept of LifeGem, Prothero says, arguably "there's a confusion about what's 'precious.' She was 'precious' to me and now she is a 'precious gem.' She's worth $1,000."
On the other hand, isn't the equation of love and diamonds what engagement rings are all about?
VandenBiesen says people are so excited about his idea that some even want to make LifeGems out of their pets. But he is disappointed by the few negative reactions he's gotten. "Our goal was to revolutionize dying and the funeral services industry as a whole . . . to try to shed some positive light on the inevitable to provide a deeper level of comfort and a more personal style of memorialization." But a few shock jocks, he says, have been less than complimentary about his product. "They want to put this weird spin on it," he says. And one funeral director asked him to leave when he heard the LifeGem idea.
"There's an expression that says great minds will always encounter a lot of conflict from mediocre ones," VandenBiesen says.
But do the shock jocks and the doubters matter if the LifeGem offers comfort? Craig Berg has found some peace in being able to convert his wife's carbon to a LifeGem, and -- after her three-year struggle with and recent death from leukemia -- that is what matters.
"My wife's favorite color was always blue," Berg says. "The LifeGem would essentially make her a shining blue diamond forever."
Everything about the LifeGem just feels right, Berg says. "My wife had this absolutely radiant smile," as radiant as a diamond, he says. Now, "I'm going to have her radiant smile with me."
Berg and his wife, Eliana, had always wanted to be cremated, feeling it was the right thing to do both environmentally and emotionally, because fire is "purifying." This past September, Berg told his wife he was thinking of having her carbon converted to a diamond and added to the ruby on her wedding ring, so he could wear them both around his neck.
"Her eyes welled up," Berg says.
He, too, would one day like to be made into a LifeGem and added to the ring. And he imagines passing on the tradition to his relatives, making "a whole family tree of gems that would last forever."