Cremated Loved Ones Turned Into Diamonds

My wife is a real gem — now that she's dead. That could be the slogan for LifeGem — a company that turns the ashes of your late loved ones into diamonds.

The remains of a 27-year-old woman from Phoenix have been transformed into six precious stones and are set to be delivered to her family and friends on Friday. LifeGem's first order could be the start of a new age in the funeral industry.

The woman, who died of Hodgkin's disease, had asked that her ashes be distributed to loved ones. To honor that last wish, her family turned to LifeGem, hoping to create something special from this tragedy.

"When I look at her ashes, I know what they are and they make me sad; when I look at her LifeGem, it is a very positive experience," her father says in video footage the company is releasing to document its first sale.

The father worked closely with the company, which was founded two years ago outside Chicago. The diamonds, certified by the European Gemological Laboratories in New York, have been set into rings and have "the same brilliance, fire, and hardness as any high-quality diamond you may find at Tiffany's," according to company literature.

Out With the Urn, in With the New

You might think that LifeGems are the ultimate in tacky jewelry. But the company claims it's working on more than 50 orders and are on pace to ring up more than $1 million in sales — and many of their customers are grieving pet owners.

These sparklers aren't cheap. A .25-carat diamond — the smallest LifeGem sells — has recently been marked down from $3,950 to $2,095. Even at the reduced price, that's more than twice the cost of a natural diamond. But don't get the idea that you're worth more dead than alive. You're still only worth something to the people you love.

Still, LifeGem is refining its process in order to create more spectacular gems, in various shades of red, blue and yellow. The top-of-the-line, three-quarter-carat rocks go for nearly $10,000, and the company is promising "near-flawless diamonds of up to 3 carats in the very near future."

LifeGem puts a new twist in the classic family feud — Who's getting mom's jewelry when she dies? With the company's patent-pending process, a cremated human can yield 100 certified, high-quality diamonds — enough to mollify a Kennedy-sized clan.

Of course, diamonds are already vested with meaning. They're a girl's best friend, the ultimate way to say I love you. Just try getting engaged with a cubic zirconium.

But what does it say if you pass off a LifeGem as an engagement ring? I can already imagine a Hitchcockian thriller, involving a man who murders his wife, has her crushed into a LifeGem and passes her remains off as a token of his esteem — to his next victim. Call it The Man Who Proposed Too Much … or perhaps Dial G for LifeGem.

Despite the jokes, Dean VandenBiesen, one of the founders of LifeGem, is confident that diamonds can take on a new meaning in death. His brother Rusty came up with the idea three years ago, when he decided that he didn't want his final resting spot to be in a cemetery or an urn left on a fireplace mantle.

"If you think about it, carbon is the building block for all life, and that's what a diamond is made of," VandenBiesen said.

Frisbees … And Other Ash Alternatives

In nature, carbon crystallizes into diamonds after millions of years of intense heat and pressure — forming the hardest substance on earth. In the 1950s, General Electric developed a process to manufacture diamonds in a lab. These synthetic diamonds were first used for such items as drill bits and other cutting devices. Later on, synthetic diamond jewelry was introduced.

In an age when burial costs are climbing, more people are turning to cremation, and VandenBiesen sees that as an opportunity. The cremation rate is now 26 percent and forecasted to rise to 36 percent or higher by 2010.

One reason for the trend: embalming, coffins and memorial service expenses have pushed the average cost of a funeral to more than $6,130. A cremation can cost less than $1,000.

Just as many Americans make their own funeral arrangements, to spare their families that dreaded task, Jack French is planning a final resting spot on his wife Jackie's neck — as a necklace.

"Like everyone, I thought the idea was crazy at first, but now it's a great comfort," says the 69-year-old former plasterer from Joliet, Ill., who is suffering from emphysema.

And if French should survive his wife, she would live on as a diamond ring.

"The doctors gave me two or three years to live, but that was back in 1993," said French, who blames his illness on working with asbestos for more than 40 years, although he also says he regrets having been a smoker.

But if your late loved one wasn't the jewelry type, check out these ash alternatives:

Ultimate Frisbee: When Frisbee inventor Ed Headrick died last August at 78, family members announced that they would honor his wish and mold his ashes into a flying disc. That's great news for kids. Even after the memorial service, they can play catch with grandpa.

Sponging Off Relatives: Eternal Reefs in Georgia is putting a new spin on burials at sea for ecologically minded baby boomers. The company mixes cremated remains with cement to form seabed habitats for sponges and ocean coral. Costs range from $1,500 to $5,000.

The Final Frontier: In September 1999, the ashes of Star Trek creator Gene Roddenberry, along with those of LSD guru Timothy Leary, boldly went where no urn had gone before — into orbit, via a U.S. satellite. After two years, the satellite was expected to re-enter the Earth's atmosphere, where it would be smashed to fiery bits.

Painted Love: The Eternally Yours company promises to make everlasting art of a loved one's ashes. For prices ranging from $350 to $550, your dead husband will hang around forever.

A Comic Ending: Marvel Comics editor Mark Gruenwald was a creative force behind such classics as Captain America and Quasar. In 1996, his wife honored his final request and mixed his ashes with ink during the printing of a comic book. There's a little piece of him in Squadron Supreme, a limited-run poster of Marvel characters that's popular with collectors.

Buck Wolf is entertainment producer at The Wolf Files is published Tuesdays. If you want to receive weekly notice when a new column is published, join the e-mail list.