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Loved Ones Remembered With Cremation Jewelry

 When someone dies, a lot of people honor the memory of a loved one with a funeral.

Those who chose a traditional casket burial spend about $7,000 or more. A service that includes a cremation costs about a third of that.

But there’s a growing number of people who want to remember their loved ones long after the funeral ends in a different way.

One Tampa Bay area artist creates a memorial with a non-traditional twist.

Inside her studio in a two-car garage in Land O’ Lakes, Michele Palenik looks for the perfect shade of green for a necklace pendant. After she finds it, she cuts the glass into a circle with a handheld scoring tool and taps the edges. The small circle pops out.

She used to focus on carving wax to cast gold jewelry.  A few years ago, the artist at Purple Cloud Studio, added fused glass products to her repertoire. 

Her husband, a freelance funeral director, eventually urged her to make art using cremated remains.

She was a bit squeamish at first.

"Ugh, ewww, ewww. I don't want to do that,” Michele Palenik said about the first time she heard of cremation jewelry.

But now she’s been making it for 13 years.  

Credit National Funeral Directors Association
The Florida Channel
International Cremation Statistics. Click to enlarge.

Michael Nicodemus, the vice president of cremation services for the National Funeral Directors Association, said that once upon a time, urns were the only place option for storing ashes.

Not anymore.

"Bird baths, wind chimes, sun dials, pyrotechnics,” Nicodemus said of some of the options. “Who would have ever thought of this 15 or 20 years ago? Abstract paintings with cremated remains mixed into the paint and so on."

Nicodemus said now families go online and find jewelry makers like Michele Palenik. Other companies, like DNA2Diamonds, turn ashes into diamonds, and Eternal Reefs mixes ashes into the cement used to make artificial coral reefs.

"People find me online and apparently cremation jewelry is a very highly searched for Google term,” Michele Palenik said.

Nicodemus said cremation is cheaper than traditional burial and can be more environmentally friendly. Those are just two of many reasons more people are turning to cremation.

"Right now, in the year 2015, it's 63.4 percent and in 2020, that will jump to 69 percent and in 15 years, the year 2030, that will be 77 percent, so almost 80 percent of all Floridians by the year 2030 will be cremated,” Nicodemus said.

The NFDA Cremation and Burial Report: Research, Statistics and Projections  

Credit National Funeral Directors Association
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Palenik's husband, Marty, wasn't always sold on the idea of wearable urns.

"I thought the whole concept of that was kind of ludicrous,” Marty Palenik said. “I thought, ‘who's gonna want to wear mom and pop around their neck?' I thought, 'that's not gonna work.'"

But it does work. Michele Palenik gets several requests a week for cremation jewelry. The pieces start at $75 and go up depending on size and complexity. 

But not all Michele's customers feel comfortable telling people what's hanging around their neck.

Nelson Jantzen, 77, ordered a necklace five years ago. His wife, Dianne, died 10 years ago. But now, everywhere Jantzen goes, Dianne does, too.

"I don't say it's my deceased wife's ashes,” Jantzen said. “People get freaked out."

Dianne's ashes are nestled in a rectangular glass pendant in the shape of a cat's face.

"I asked my present wife if she minded if I had it made, of jewelry with the ashes,” Jantzen said. “And we love cats, so Michele made me a beautiful onyx-looking one with a cat’s face and ears, which is the ashes."

Jantzen said he likes that the jewelry is not as obvious an urn atop a mantle. Only close friends and family understand the necklace's significance, but Jantzen takes comfort in knowing a part of her hangs close to his heart.

"She's not completely done away with, forever and ever,” Jantzen said. “There's part of her still here."

Michele Palenik says the jewelry is a tangible reminder that their loved one is still around in some form.

Back in her studio, she pours a tiny mound of ashes onto the green glass. She presses the ashes into shapes like hearts or swirls or even teddy bears -- whatever the family wants.

"I think people need that closure, the need to feel close,” Michele Palenik said. “People pass away with a variety of family issues and struggles and challenges, and I think there’s a lot of emotion tied up and maybe you haven’t made peace with your family.”

“Maybe having that person memorialized in a piece of jewelry is something you can see and feel in touch every day, its gives you a more visceral experience."

It’s just another way to work through the tears, she said.  

Credit National Funeral Directors Association
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.
Credit National Funeral Directors Association
The Florida Channel
Leon County Judge John Cooper on June 30, 2022, in a screen grab from The Florida Channel.

Daylina Miller is a reporter with WUSF in Tampa. WUSF is a part of Health News Florida, which receives support from the Corporation for Public Broadcasting.

Daylina Miller is a multimedia reporter for WUSF and Health News Florida, covering health in the Tampa Bay area and across the state.