Anyone can sparkle in the afterlife, for a price


By Christine Tatum
Tribune staff reporter
Published August 20, 2002

Now you can be brilliant and flawless forever.

But you have to be cremated first.

A company based in suburban Elk Grove Village has accepted its first deposit for manufactured diamonds made from carbon captured during the cremation process so that loved ones--family members or even pets--could be mounted into a ring, pendant or other jewelry.

A small number of U.S. funeral homes, including four in the Chicago area, have signed up to offer memorial diamonds produced by Life Gem. The cost will depend on the size of the gem, starting at $4,000 for a quarter-carat.

Already, a Joliet man who is seriously ill with emphysema says his family plans to place an order when the time comes. Jack French said he doesn't want to be Life Gem's first customer, but that he would like his remains fashioned into diamonds so that his wife and five children will have something far more intimate to pass down than his few personal possessions.

"This will be something that is beautiful, has value and comes right from me," he said.

Greg Herro, chief executive officer of the company, acknowledges that some people will consider Life Gems a "pretty wacky idea." But, he says, "that's exactly the way revolutionary innovation often happens." At the moment, Herro is the only full-time employee. Three partners work part-time with Herro and have other jobs.

The company uses a well-established manufacturing process, and Herro says his company hopes the increasing number of U.S. cremations will provide a growing market for the product. The Cremation Association of North America reports that about 26 percent of the 2.3 million U.S. residents who died last year were cremated, and predicts that the nation's cremation rate will jump to nearly 40 percent by 2010.

Herro said the company also wants to begin marketing its service in Japan, where the national cremation rate is more than 98 percent, and in veterinarians' offices across the U.S.

"People would wear a Life Gem to show off the love, light and energy that came from their animals too," he said.

When left to natural forces, the creation of the world's hardest substance can take millions of years. But since General Electric introduced diamond-making to the world in the 1950s, the manufacturing of the stones for industrial purposes--everything from coating drill bits to building better computer chips--has broadened to include synthetic diamonds for jewelry.

There's no reason why Life Gem's process shouldn't work, said Kenneth Poeppelmeier, a chemistry professor at Northwestern University.

"At first I thought, `This is odd, but it's a well-developed science,'" he said. "Then the more I thought about it, the more I realized that this is an odd, well-developed science a lot of people would appreciate. I suspect many people in the lab will wish that they had thought of it first."

Life Gem's chief operating officer, Rusty VandenBiesen, said he came up with the idea three years ago after deciding that he didn't want his final resting place to be in a cemetery or in an urn left on a fireplace mantle.

VandenBiesen said he didn't know much about biochemistry or manufactured diamonds when he began his research. Given that the body is largely made up of carbon and that diamonds are made from carbon, VandenBiesen figured that if there were a way to retain the element from cremated remains, it should be possible to produce the stone.

Up to 50 stones

After three years of trial and error using the cremated remains of several animals and a cadaver, VandenBiesen said, a diamond-manufacturing laboratory outside of Munich, Germany, reported success in April. The lab, owned by an American company, said that one human body could yield up to 50 stones of varying sizes, VandenBiesen said.

The company's owner, a well-known executive in the diamond-manufacturing industry, confirmed that the German lab created diamonds for Life Gem from carbon extracted from animal and human bone. The executive spoke only on the condition of anonymity to protect the lab's location and work and "because we're not sure how we want to be affiliated with Life Gem just yet." The executive also said the lab would continue producing the stones while Life Gem plans to build its own diamond-making facility in the United States.

Doug Ahlgrim, director of Ahlgrim & Sons Funeral Services' four locations in the Northwest suburbs, said he is training his staff to explain the new product to customers. Two funeral homes in New York and one in Wisconsin also have agreed to be vendors, Life Gem said.

"This is sorely needed for families who choose cremation," Ahlgrim said. "An urn is beautiful in its own right, but you certainly can't take it wherever you go."

Life Gem says the diamonds will take about eight weeks to produce. The company is selling blue diamonds and plans to offer other colors. A .25-carat gem is $4,000 (the company requires a minimum order of two stones), and a 1-carat gem is $22,000. Life Gem said it will make only as many stones as are ordered. The company applied for a U.S. patent on the process in March.

The notion of having a constant reminder of her husband that dangles from her neck comforts Jacki French of Joliet. She said she cringed when her husband, Jack, announced that he'd like his ashes scattered in the woods where he often played as a boy.

"I don't even know where those woods are, and that's not where I would go to remember him," she said. "And I don't do cemeteries real well. I only go because I feel like it's something I'm supposed to do."

The Frenches' son, Dave, said he found out about Life Gem from a colleague at work, where VandenBiesen also is employed.

The French family has deposited a small amount of money with Life Gem for the service.

Something to keep

One expert on death and dying said that survivors who scatter a loved one's ashes sometimes have more difficulty coping with death because they don't have personal mementos to cherish--a gravesite to visit or a vessel to hold onto.

"There is a strong human need to have something tangible because memories fade and float away," said Kyle Nash, a grief counselor for physicians at the University of Chicago.

Life Gem officials acknowledge they are bracing for skeptics. In response, they say they would allow customers to view any part of the diamond-making process. Life Gem also will provide a certificate from the European Gemological Laboratory in New York identifying the stone as a man-made diamond, said Herro, who sold his Rockford consulting firm in 2000 to work full-time on Life Gem.

For customers who want to make sure the rock they receive is indeed made from their loved one's carbon, the company is working with the lab in Germany to develop isotopes, or chemical markers, that can be attached to the collected carbon and identified in the finished product by an expert.

Collecting body's carbon

Life Gem officials say the process begins when technicians control oxygen levels during cremation to prevent carbon in the body from converting to carbon dioxide. The incineration is interrupted so the technician can collect the body's carbon in the form of a dark powder.

The powder then is sent to a Pennsylvania company where it is heated in a vacuum at extreme temperatures to produce graphite. Only about a thimbleful is needed to produce a stone, Herro said. The graphite is sent to the German lab and placed into autoclaves that simulate the intense pressure and temperature needed to create the stones.

Because so little material is needed to make a stone, a family still would receive an urn containing their loved one's ashes. Life Gem says it guarantees that diamonds can be made only when the company oversees the cremation process.

Parkview Cremations in Fond du Lac, Wis., has conducted test cremations for Life Gem and is the only crematorium in the United States certified by the company. Herro said he is working to find other crematoriums.

Nothing about the process appears to be in violation of state laws regulating Illinois' 66 registered crematoriums, said Kim Kuntzman, a spokeswoman for Illinois Environmental Protection Agency.

"There's just nothing in existing regulations to prohibit this," she said. "Until now, why would there be?"