Making art from ashes—yes, those ashes

The first official piece of Eternal Ware was made with the ashes of Carole’s mother, Helen Gurnon, who passed away last year. Her name is inscribed on the bottom of the memorial. (Linda Baumiester/Review)

Carole and Ron Javner work with nationally-known artists through Eternal Ware, creating beautiful, one-of-a-kind memorials using loved ones’ cremains. (Linda Baumiester/Review)

Oakdale couple starts cremains memorial business

When people make preparations for what happens after they die, the big questions are burial or cremation. From there, they’ll have to debate: monument or marker? Urn or scattered ashes?

Becoming a piece of art may not be the first thought to come to mind.

However, cremains art is a growing trend among those looking for a non-traditional burial method.

Not in, but a part of artwork

Carole and Ron Javner are long-time Oakdale residents who started a business from this idea. Their company, Eternal Ware, memorializes loved ones, or even pets, by combining their ashes with clay to be turned into a piece of artwork.

The Javners are recent retirees; Carole worked as a juvenile institutions supervisor with Anoka County Community Corrections and Ron was a special education teacher for 15 years. His most recent stint was with Northeast Metro 916 Intermediate School District as a work evaluation counselor in the career and technical center.

Ron says he never considered what would become of his body after he died until shortly after the couple married 36 years ago.

And, he admits, Carole didn’t leave him much to consider.

“My wife came to me and said ‘We’re putting some future [parts] of our lives together’...addressing living wills, things like that. She said, ‘I wanted to let you know we’re being cremated.’

“At the time, I wasn’t even thinking about cremation. All my relatives, friends, almost everyone I knew was buried.”

With the “what” of cremation taken care of, Ron started ruminating on the “how.”

He returned to his alma mater, the University of Wisconsin-River Falls, to talk to one of his art professors about an idea he had.

“I went back to find the best potter to make a piece of art out of my ashes,” Javner, who graduated with an art degree, said. “Those were my wishes.”

Starting a business

The concept of creating a business for cremains memorials came after Ron’s mother passed away about four years ago, around the time he retired.

“I just mentioned to [Carole] one day, ‘I’m going to pursue the idea of turning this thought into a little bit more than just me,’” he said.

Carole said they began working with SCORE, a nonprofit organization offering mentorship to help people start their own small businesses. The organization paired them with a former business executive who advised them on their business plan to get Eternal Ware going.

For three years the couple worked on developing the business, including finding sculptors and potters interested in being part of the company’s community of artists.

“I was looking for artists,” Ron said. “It couldn’t be just anybody.”

The couple winters in Florida, and during that time Ron said he would go to as many art shows and festivals as possible in order to locate some artists interested in expanding their portfolio.

“I’ve never had anyone turn me down,” he said. “This adds a new presence to their work.”

How it works

Someone interested in this type of memorial first must decide how much ash they would like to be worked into the clay. Ron says this is what sets Eternal Ware’s process apart from those of competitors; others may only use a small amount of cremains. However, Javner says, he and Eternal Ware potter Jay Jensen have perfected a method of melding the ash with clay that allows customers to use as much or little as desired.

From there, clients choose an artist. The Javners work with seven potters from around the country to meet customers’ desires to own a one-of-a-kind, personal sculpture. Pieces may be functional, such as a vase or pitcher, or decorative, such as a plate or figurine.

Mounds View resident Franny Hyde works with Eternal Ware from her studio at Northern Clay Center in Minneapolis. Hyde specializes in pet cremains, creating sculptures in the likeness of a beloved beagle or horse, for example.

“I’m inspired by the wonderful personalities of animals—their quirks and opinions, their grace and their style,” Hyde explained. “My style just follows their lead.

“While I’m working on the sculpture I love to think about the pet and its life with its owner—how much they gave each other and how much fun they had.”

Hyde’s sculptures are priced starting at $250, depending on size. Other artists’ prices range from $145 for a small pitcher to $2,700 for a large outdoor pot.

Then, the ash is sent, either by a funeral home or survivor, to Eternal Ware, where it is refined and sent to the chosen artist.

“There’s a refining process for the ash,” Carole explained. “When we get it, it’s not necessarily the right consistency to meld into the clay.”

The potter then has two to three months to complete the piece. Then, it is shipped directly to the customer.

When Carole’s mother, Helen Gurnon, passed away last year, about a quarter of her cremains were used in the first official piece of Eternal Ware: a decorative vase designed by Larry Allen.

“We found our potter, brought the ashes down to him in Alabama and picked up the piece a few months later,” Carole explained.

Trend toward the unique

Both the Javners and Hyde say they are usually met with enthusiasm when explaining the service their company provides.

“Mostly we get very positive feedback,” Carole said. “A lot of people aren’t familiar with the concept, but they know that people get cremated all the time.”

Hyde says most of the people she talks to about her work with Eternal Ware are interested to learn more, and, in fact, are glad to know someone offering that option.

Non-traditional burial rituals are a growing trend, one the Javners noticed while developing their business model.

For example, “green burials” where bodies are frozen and turned into powder and buried in an eco-friendly cemetery amidst trees in lieu of headstones are becoming more popular as people become more aware of the ecological impacts of the chemical embalming process.

Plastination, the process by which one’s body is preserved in a permanent way for educational display, is a growing trend, highlighted by the popular “Body Worlds” exhibit that debuted at the Science Museum of Minnesota in 2006. In fact, the exhibit was the most well-attended in the Science Museum’s history at the time, and wrapped up another visit earlier this year.

A small amount of ash can also be used to form diamonds, blown glass or crystals to be worn as jewelry.

The Javners say these trends indicate people are looking for unique ways to honor their loved ones.

“The younger generation is going to have fewer burials, less space to bury people in and there are fewer people staying in one place for a long time. Our memorials are something you can take with you,” Carole explained.

“People are unique and they’re looking for unique ways to remember their loved ones.” 

To learn more about Eternal Ware, visit

Johanna Holub can be reached at or 651-748-7822. Follow her on Twitter @jholubnews.

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