Tuesday, Jul 26, 2016
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Life memorialized as art

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Lifting a colorful pebble-size piece of glass from his pocket, Richard Schroeder is reminded of an accomplished woman known for fun New Year's Eve parties and achieving the distinction of being the first female newscaster on Ohio TV.

That woman, Jane Marie Ruhfel — known to viewers on Toledo's former WSPD-TV as Jane Schroeder — was his mother.

And the hand-blown glass object contains a small portion of the cremated remains taken from an urn after she died in March, 2009, at age 95.

“It keeps her near me. I pull it out, and every time I do I think of her,” the Sylvania man says as he thoughtfully stares at the object.

Just as the nation's huge Baby-Boom generation changed everything from the music that drifts into our ears to the food we stuff in our mouths, it is adopting novel ways of disposing of and memorializing the dead.

Dozens of firms that perform the service can be found on the Internet.


Glass, left, and the cremains, right, are set out to be blended with the glass to make a heart


Artist Shawn Messenger, who operates a glass studio near downtown Toledo, has created about 15 of the works.

“It's becoming more popular,” says Ms. Messenger, who plans to suggest the memorial to her father.

The artist was first approached to create such a memorial a few years ago by a Toledo funeral home after the death of glass artist Brian Lonsway, who had been producing the works for the mortuary.

Less than a tablespoon of remains is used in the process, she says. Initially, she worried about dropping a portion of the ashes in her glass furnace. “That would have been disrespectful,” she says. But, with the method she uses, that hasn't been a problem.

With funeral industry groups estimating that about a third of people who die each year opt for cremation over a traditional burial, there is no shortage of potential customers.

“People are bringing cremated remains down from the bookshelf,” says Mr. Schroeder, who is the business manager for Glass Whispers LLC, a firm he started six weeks ago with Toledo glass artist Gretchen Brell-Zientek, to make and market art-glass memorials.

The pair, whose memorials sell for $230 to $280, produce the memorials as hearts, teardrops, globes, disks, and rubbing stones.

Religious denominations differ on the appropriateness of such memorials.

But the glass works are one of many novel ways that surviving family members and friends are using cremated remains to remember the dead, says Steve Turner, president of Turner Vault Co. in Northwood.

For about $16,000, some families are having remains converted to 1 karat diamonds.


Gretchen Zientek adds cremains to her piece of glass.


Others are sending ashes of loved ones into space or south to Florida reefs.

Mr. Turner's family-owned firm, which deals exclusively with funeral homes, provides cement casket vaults as well as cremation services.

He is assisting Glass Whispers in marketing its services. Mr. Turner sees glass “as an inexpensive way to memorialize” a family member or friend. And, because only a small quantity of ashes are needed to produce a memorial, multiple glass objects can be made from each individual's remains.

In part, he says, the popularity of cremation and remembering the dead in ways that don't involve flowers and regular visits to cemeteries are a reflection of the mobility of modern-day America. “We used to live in Genoa, Ohio — the whole family,” he says, using the northwest Ohio community as an example. “Everyone was there from the grandparents to the grandchildren. Now we're worldwide.”

The first memorial made by Ms. Brell-Zientek was for a co-worker of Mr. Schroeder at the Cleveland Clinic, where he is an advanced cardiac surgical nurse who assists with bypasses, transplants, and other heart procedures.


Examples of pieces that Gretchen Zientek and Richard Schroeder made, incorporating cremains


Upon seeing the memorial, Ms. Brell-Zientek's 20-year-old daughter told her mother: “It's kind of creepy, but kind of cool.”

The artist sees the memorials as a “celebration of life” similar to the way that family members spread the ashes of a deceased person over an ocean or a favorite meadow.

She has left instructions that when she dies, usable organs be donated, her body cremated, and a glass memorial be made with a portion of the ashes.

Ms. Brell-Zientek also made a glass memorial with Mr. Schroeder's father's remains. They rest on a coffee table not far from a larger memorial made with Mrs. Ruhfel's remains at the same time as the rubbing stone.

“If you choose, you tell people who come over,” Mr. Schroeder says. “If you don't, it's just a beautiful commissioned work of hand-blown glass art.”

His mother's obituary noted that, in addition to being a TV newscaster, she had worked as a model, hosted an early children's show called Fun Farm, and relished throwing “large and lavish” parties at the Old West End home she shared with her sons and second husband.

“I knew that she would like nothing better than to be a piece of art,” Mr. Schroeder says.

Contact Gary Pakulski at gpakulski@theblade.com or 419-724-6082.

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