Memorials move out of the graveyard and into the home – the rebirth of family heirlooms?

Charles Cowling



Posted by Kate Semple

We are all, of course, unique and completely different from one and other. So as a sculptor working in stone who is passionate about creating original, bespoke art, I recently asked myself why after death the favoured physical reminder of a loved one had to be an inscribed stone slab – destined to be permanently and uniformly displayed within a cemetery or graveyard. Why don’t those of us who aren’t devoutly religious have, instead, a unique, personal and beautiful commemoration – something that can be reflected upon and enjoyed in a meaningful place, like at home or in the garden? Something portable, that can be taken with us wherever we move in life?

Just over 18 months ago these questions gave birth to a minor, personal revelation. I decided to join forces with a group of fellow artists and craftspeople to design and make bespoke memorials for the home – ranging from hand-blown glass candle holders made to include cremation ashes, to large garden sculptures designed to reflect the life, spirit and memories of the person being commemorated. Some have secret compartments for keepsakes, while others have lines of poetry engraved. All are portable and capable of being future family heirlooms: cherished possessions which can be passed down in a family through succeeding generations. We called ourselves Elysium Memorials and as well as being part of a revolution in changing attitudes towards death and funeral customs, we’re part of a revolution in the consumer’s shift from wanting mass-produced goods, to the handmade. The two recent and significant cultural phenomenons have become intrinsically and, in my opinion, healthily entwined.

You see the veil that surrounds death is slowly lifting and strangely this is helping the handmade cause. Something like 3.5 million baby-boomers are set to reach pension age in the next five years. Many of them are from the Woodstock generation – they’ve spent their life rebelling and questioning outdated social taboos. The recent funerals of several friends and family members really brought home to me the new, intelligent and individualised send-offs this generation is creating and using. People seem to be celebrating a life instead of accepting sombre, off-the-peg arrangements from their local undertaker. The internet has broadened horizons and an absence of religion is also interesting. You’ve probably seen recent reports, for instance, claiming half of the country’s funerals are now “a celebration of life”, rather than church affairs. I guess this explains why many of the funerals I’ve attended in recent years have been Humanist services – and often eco-friendly natural burials. Of course as well as being cheaper than traditional burials, natural graves in woodlands and meadows are left unmarked so the land can return to nature. For me, their popularity sheds light on the sudden demand I’ve experienced for memorial art for the home. Few who choose a natural burial want a headstone at their family home, whereas a sensitively designed garden sculpture or a hand-blown glass bowl inscribed with a poem seems a tasteful and meaningful alternative.

Interestingly, many more families today live in different parts of the country, or all over the world. This makes it difficult to visit the grave of a loved one. I recently created a piece of memorial art for a lady named Lisa, from Somerset. She’s pregnant with her first child. She lost her dad 20 years ago when she lived with her family in Berkshire. Her dad was cremated and his ashes scattered at the local crematorium, and at a favourite holiday spot in Cornwall. Because Lisa and her mother now live in Somerset, visiting Berkshire or Cornwall is difficult, so they thought commissioning a memorial for her home would be a fitting and practical way to remember her dad and for her newborn child to learn more about him. For Lisa, a memorial for her home felt spiritually right and an affirmative way to remember her dad. Her eight-inch-tall sea blue blown glass bowl invokes memories of her childhood holidays in Cornwall, while the sculpted Welsh slate base it sits on reflects her father’s Welsh ancestry. As a piece of art, she hopes it will be appreciated by people who don’t even know it’s a memorial and perhaps one day her new born son will pass it on to his children.

Today’s tendency to fill our homes with cheap, factory-made furnishings shipped in from far-flung destinations across the world will almost certainly not provide the BBC’s Antiques Roadshow with future treasures. So for a generation whose lives and homes are cluttered with flat-packed belongings; handmade artefacts like memorial art can definitely provide the heirloom of the future.

I think a lot of us despair of our throwaway society and wish things were still made with the quality we remember in the past. Most people used to have something passed down to them through the family – a piece of jewellery, or a silver box perhaps. But what are we going to pass on from our own era? The luxury items we spend our money on today tend to be electronic, with a shelf life of less than five years. Through a rise in popularity of memorial art, I hope we’re beginning to see a major shift away from the corporate and glossy, to the handcrafted and made to last. I think we’re fed up with the faceless, nameless, mass produced and want to feel in touch with the objects around us. We want to relate to the human hand that has made them.

Right from the start, way before Elysium Memorials was conceived, I’ve been inspired by William Morris. He was a man who founded the Arts and Crafts Movement between 1860-1910. The movement was a reaction against the Industrial Age and introduction of mass produced goods at the time. Members inspired a rich period of renewed interest for traditional craft skills, making objects which were well designed and with a sense of purpose.

“If you want a golden rule that will fit everything, this is it: have nothing in your houses that you do not know to be useful or believe to be beautiful,” said William Morris.

This is the maxim I’ve lived and worked by, and it’s transcended through to Elysium Memorials today, as I and my fellow craftsman face similar difficulties to those of 100 years ago. All of the bespoke memorials we create are made with the eye, hand and heart of craftspeople that are highly respected within their own fields – all the ingredients I hope Morris would agree make a fitting heirloom.

Globalisation, changing belief-systems, space, cost, environmental concerns and thirst for the hand-made; they’re all changing the way we perceive death and mourning. Everyone has different beliefs and personalities in life and so it’s only logical our funerals and memorials reflect them in death. Personally speaking, I’ve learnt how for some people, memorial art can capture the spirit of a loved one and help with bereavement in a more meaningful way than a headstone. It’s portable and can be fused with technology to bring people together. And in these throwaway times, it’s wonderful to have a precious object, made with skill and care, to hand down through future generations. Moreover, as a craftsperson, it’s so satisfying and meaningful to produce artwork which keeps the spirit of a person alive beyond the grave – or wherever they choose to be laid to rest.

Kate Semple, sculptor, and founder of

4 thoughts on “Memorials move out of the graveyard and into the home – the rebirth of family heirlooms?

  1. Charles Cowling

    Thanks for your reply, Kate. Good luck with business. I hope craftsmanship is appreciated more and more.

    As an aside, I was also taken with this pebble coffin, written up here, which can be used as a piece of furniture before it’s used as a coffin:

    As another aside, my old father had a milestone birthday last year and we bought him a silver box, which he uses to store his cufflinks and spare watch. It’s engraved ‘To father, with love from all the family’ (suitably unspecific just in case it’s ever sold on!). When handing it over, my mother said to him, ‘your box is so smart that, if you go before me, I’ll bring it downstairs from the bedroom to the drawing room, and use it to hold a pack of cards and a pack of cigarettes for guests’. Her allusion to his departure wasn’t tactless. I myself was thinking it would be viewed more on a coffee table, and would form a nice reminder of him after he’s gone. To be honest, I was hoping I’d inherit it one day for my own home.

    Charles Cowling
  2. Charles Cowling
    Charles Cowling

    Really interesting and thought-provoking ideas here, Richard. And lots of them. I hope Kate will do you a big answer.

    How many people keep ashes on the mantlepiece? (How many people have a mantlepiece?) I really don’t know. I think most ashes kept at home are in the airing cupboard or wardrobe, waiting for a group decision to name a day and scatter them. Is it the case that most Brits want em gone? Some can’t bear to of course. There was that resolute atheist who, against all his beliefs, kept his wife’s ashes in the wardrobe because there, he knew, she would be dry and warm and close. To the Dragons’ very reasonable question I would respond that people need to find their own bonkers and have the courage to follow it through. To commission something from intelligent and empathic people who have come together for the specific purpose of creating commemorative pieces will, I think, be something of a USP.

    Charles Cowling
  3. Charles Cowling

    There are many memorials where the dead they commemorate do not reside, a public statue, for example, separate from the grave of a notable figure. There are also many family heirlooms cherished as mementoes, jewellery of a dead relative, perhaps, or an old armchair.

    If there’s growing demand for new memorial statues for the private garden, or candle sticks or urns for the home interior, then Elysium delivers admirably. ‘Bespoke’, ‘hand-crafted’, ‘enduring quality’ are all buzz consumer values in an age of mass-produced homogeneity. Personalised and symbolic products certainly gain value surpassing even their material or aesthetic worth.

    I would, however, like to know how widespread is the demand to keep ashes at home. I’m familiar with the urn on the mantelpiece, and the Victorian locket for a curl of hair. But I’m also, of course, familiar with those who have buried the ashes or body of a loved one, returning them to the ground from which they came, commemorating the spot with a gravestone or small plaque, while still keeping them close both through memory and physical personal belongings.

    Aside from the containment of ashes, engraved objects in glass, wood, stone or marble can be ordered from many places, whether as a memorial or a tribute to the living, to mark a death, a birth or any other anniversary. If you went on Dragon’s Den, would they ask, why stay within the memorial niche? Is the key the ashes, or the art itself as personal memorial?

    Charles Cowling
    1. Charles Cowling

      As an artist questions can arise at times of doubt, such as “why am I making this” and “what is it for”? One of the great things about working with memorials is that the purpose of the art is absolutely clear, and that gives me a huge boost. I can see why I am doing it, and feel I’m contributing something of great significance to people, which is incredibly rewarding.

      In these times of the massed produced it has almost become impossible for craftspeople to survive, working in their given fields. Handmade objects are not essential, and because of the time it takes to design and make them, relatively expensive. People may admire them, but it becomes harder and harder for serious, professional craftspeople to find a regular market. A memorial is something an individual or family may be willing to raise the budget to commission something really special.

      The ashes question is interesting. It seems there is a quiet revolution happening involving every aspect of death,and how and what we do in this country is being completely rewritten. The internet has opened up opportunities for people to do their own research and make their own decisions, and there are some excellent sources of information to tap into – as we know! People are beginning to make their own minds up, and are having their own ideas, and Elysium is open to working with that. Ashes can be included, but they don’t have to be. Clients can choose from our existing range, or we can make something totally personal.

      That is the joy of making everything by hand, using local craftspeople….flexibility. We’re just completing a piece for someone who lost her father 20 years ago, she’s just had a baby, and wants an artwork that reflects different aspects of her father to use as an aid to talk to her child about him in the future, and then to pass it on. It’s definitely not all about ashes, we can work with what is important to the client.Our job is to collate what they would like to say, and turn it into a beautiful artwork they will enjoy through the generations.

      Charles Cowling

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