Justin Crowe’s Chronicle Cremation Designs forges a path to normalize mortality through new mediums
Written by Lauren Goldstein
Photography by Ash Haywood and Morgan Capps
Sex, death, and birth are all experiences routine to the human condition. For centuries, entrepreneurs have built businesses around all of them, but death remains the most shut off, contained, and elusive. However, the tide is changing. 2015 marked the first year that cremation—a process that costs an average of $1,500—outperformed traditional burials that cost an average of $8,500, for both ecological and economic reasons.
Enter New Mexico artist-entrepreneur Justin Crowe, founder of Chronicle Cremation Designs, who is reimagining our living relationship with cremated human remains—or cremains—by making the powerful experience of death and cremation more invitational and palatable. Lifeware, a line of bespoke pottery and jewelry, offers personal exploration into the universal but individual experience of grief through art.
From Conceptual Art to Business Venture
The Lifeware pottery collection started its journey as a dinner party—a conceptual art project that Justin composed after the death of his grandfather. “It wasn’t like I got a phone call unexpectedly in the middle of the night,” Justin says. “This had been a process. I saw him healthy, then saw him sick, then in further decline, then on his death bed, then death itself.” Justin contemplated what it meant to be party to this process, and how the experience offered a sense of closure that he wanted to explore further. “It was comforting,” he explains, “it normalized mortality.”
For the concept art dinner party, Justin legally collected 200 human bones from the internet and had them cremated. He integrated the powdered cremated remains into a clear glaze which coated each piece of functional pottery, and served a delicious meal on the finished collection.
The work attracted national and international media attention from outlets such as The Guardian, as well as a German television crew that flew out to interview him. It had an appearance on a French TV comedy show, and over 15 million YouTube views, which resulted in enough incoming clients to get business rolling. Most requests were for custom memorial pieces, like jewelry and vases, made with a loved one’s ashes. Chronicle Cremation Designs was born and flourished, but not yet with enough revenue to fuel organic growth.
Art and Entrepreneurship, Intertwined
Justin, a trained potter, has been an entrepreneur since he first sold handmade nametags to classmates in first grade. As an adult, he raised capital for his digital venture Dizbe.com, a platform to help distinguish art quality on sites such as Etsy. The bigger and more valuable experience, he says, was that Dizbe started him toward a new path. Justin went on to backpack across the US and Europe while writing for visual culture blogs.
On the intertwined relationship between art and entrepreneurship, Justin adds, “It’s vital. I always tell my alma mater when they call for donations that I will donate, but it has to be for a program that places business students in art classes. It’s not yet flown.”
Throughout his entrepreneurial journey, he remained interested in pottery and the amount of influence that an object can have in an individual’s everyday life. “As an artist, if I were a painter, I could make twenty or so paintings a year that you passively observe on a wall,” he remembers. “Pottery is functional, creative, and intimate and I can place it in the hands of hundreds of people per year. It’s the combination of reach, impact, user experience, and influence that is appealing to me. For instance, I could build an app and satisfy many of the traits I enjoy about functional pottery. Entrepreneurship, building businesses, is just another medium.”
The Arrowhead Accelerator Experience
Though Arrowhead Center at New Mexico State University was not Justin’s first entrepreneurial stop, its 2017 TechSprint program offered the space for customer discovery and two significant new paths for Lifeware.
TechSprint, sponsored by New Mexico Gas Company, was a business accelerator that provided mentorship, coaching, and $2,000 in participant support. Teams entered the four-week program with an entrepreneurial lead, a technical lead, and a business mentor, and had to successfully conduct 30 interviews with potential customers.
Justin interviewed many funeral home directors, who surprised him when they repeatedly asked the same questions—if he had experience with adhesives. After multiple interviewees mentioned the same thing, he dug further with more questions and discovered that when cremains are put in a ceramic urn, there’s no way to secure the top on, so funeral homes often glue them shut.
As a designer, artist, and problem-solver, Justin recognized this as a shortcoming in the design. Using his background in pottery, he developed a prototype for a ceramic, screw-top urn design. “It wasn’t something I was looking for, but I found it through the interview process.”
The second pivot was Justin’s decision to expand with a full line of custom jewelry. Lifeware jewelry, made with sublime colors, appear different from any other cremation jewelry available. Through a trade-secret process, the cremains are not visible in the final glaze. This means that Justin’s work, set in smooth sterling silver, has the fine look of semi-precious stones. The integration of the cremains in this way allows anonymity for the wearer. On the other hand, it offers a chance, as with pottery, to interact with memories every day.
Lifeware bottles Keep your memories close with Justin’s unique coupled bottles.
Based on his customer research in the TechSprint program he knew the jewelry would have a wider appeal than pottery, so the decision to expand in that direction seemed logical. However, when it came to marketing his jewelry and finding distribution channels, Justin has found it difficult to open up significant channels that are outside of funeral homes. He would need far more revenue for ads and additional capital to create a platform for sales, in order to scale the company.
Justin also took into account his time and where his energy would be directed. In what amounts to selling the jewelry to funeral homes in a door-to-door fashion for the next 20 years, he knew it wasn’t feasible, satisfying, or rewarding—especially from his perspective as someone who has made his entrepreneurship lifestyle include world travel. While still maintaining the business of Lifeware’s jewelry and pottery lines, Justin also turned toward an opportunity to revolutionize the cremation industry itself, and shifted his focus to building new relationships.
Revolutionizing the Industry
Justin is currently working through New Mexico Small Business Association with Los Alamos National Labs on a related project that has the potential to disrupt the cremation industry. He plans to enter the new technology innovation into the National Science Foundation’s I-Corps program to further the reach of this particular evolution of the company. I-Corps is a NSF initiative to leverage university research to create new innovative businesses and increase the economic impact of inventions created at research institutions around the country.
“My fascination with how design and user experience impacts how we interact with the world is a constant in my creative practice in entrepreneurship and in art,” he explains. “When cremated remains are set in the middle of a table, no one will touch them or interact with them because it’s uncomfortable. But when I set an ash-glazed Lifeware vase on the table oftentimes a viewer’s first reaction is to touch it. By transforming something that is traditionally unsightly into something beautiful, you can change the entire relationship with the object. That’s the vision for our next product—to create a fundamentally improved form of cremated remains.”
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Chronicle Cremation Designs
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