Biz: Gone but not forgotten

The inspiration for launching a business can come from the unlikeliest of sources. The death industry, for example, is lucrative and about as steady as they come—but that’s where the attraction ends for most entrepreneurs, who prefer something a little sunnier.

Ashes to ashes: Adrienne Crowther displays some specially handcrafted cremation urns marketed through her Asheville-based business, Shine on Brightly. Photo By Jonathan Welch

Asheville resident Adrienne Crowther, however, believes she’s found a way to inject a ray of light into what many would consider a bleak and even morbid topic.

Her Web-based business, Shine on Brightly, went live in April. The primary focus is artisan-crafted cremation urns for both humans and pets ranging in price from $90 to $5,000; another product line offers other ways to memorialize loved ones in such media as glass, textile art and quilts, books and text, sculpture and jewelry. All are created by highly skilled Western North Carolina artisans and artists and a handful of other Southeastern artists, says Crowther, who headed the Asheville Area Arts Council for more than eight years.

Art and elegance are the key words here, she emphasizes. Although many funeral homes and Web sites sell urns and other memorial products, the vast majority are mass-produced. “They’re not at all personal or aesthetically pleasing,” she maintains.

Crowther’s tenure at the Arts Council laid the groundwork for her new business, she explains. “I got to know the arts community really well. I got to know what the strengths really are, and I think we have a really, really strong tradition in fine crafts.”

The idea for her business, which was sparked by a conversation with a friend, seems demographically sound. The massive baby boomer generation is now experiencing the deaths of parents and even some older boomers themselves, she notes. Further, cremation rates are growing exponentially as boomers and their parents choose alternatives to traditional burial.

More than a third of Americans who died in 2006 were cremated, according to the latest data compiled by the Cremation Association of North America. That’s up from 27 percent in 2001.

The Carolinas are below the national average for cremations but showing rapid growth, the association notes. In North Carolina, cremations jumped from about 18 percent of deaths in 2001 to nearly 24 percent in 2006, the data show. In South Carolina, cremations rose from 15 percent in 2001 to 20 percent in 2006. Reasons cited for the growth include much lower cost than burial, increased flexibility and lead time in assembling friends and relatives for a service, and environmental concerns.

“I just thought, wow, here’s a really good need for some really beautiful, hand-crafted items, and this would be a perfect application of fine craft,” says Crowther. “That’s how the idea evolved. Then when I started talking to artists locally, so many told me that they are commissioned to do this type of work privately and don’t have the time or interest in marketing it. So most were really happy to jump on board.”

This “all-star lineup,” says Crowther, includes a diverse array of artists, as follows. Ceramics: Amy Goldstein-Rice, Rose Tripoli Mueller, George Handy, JR Page, Tom Turner, Kim Dryden, Louis and Christine Colombarini; Glass: Robert Levin and Rick Melby; Wood: Ray Jones; Bookmaking: Mary Carol Koester; Metal Sculpture: Haley Sullivan and Julia Burr; Textiles: Norma Bradley; Jewelry: Kathleen Doyle and Thomas Reardon; Painting: Joan Maxcey; Biodegradable urns: Frank Brannon; Memorial poetry: Lisa Sarasohn.

Business is starting to pick up, with several sales or commissions per week. Crowther splits the proceeds with the artists 50-50. The urns and other products are either sold on consignment or commissioned by clients who work directly with the artists to produce truly one-of-a-kind pieces, she says.

A New Jersey native who moved to Asheville 11 years ago from Rhode Island, Crowther says she’s never run a business before, “but I come from a big family of entrepreneurs.” As a sole proprietor, Crowther has had to navigate a steep learning curve in running a Web-based enterprise. Primarily, that means mastering search-engine optimization so her site will pop up near the top of the list. For now, most of her business is local, coming either through her site or through marketing herself to local funeral homes, though she’s hatching plans to reach out to an international clientele.

And though North Carolina is not among the top states for cremation, “There are pockets that are really high,” she notes. “Hendersonville has a really high cremation rate because of all the transients and all the transplants, and even Asheville has a high rate. Right now, I have a client in Raleigh; I’m dealing with two funeral directors in Asheville and one in Hendersonville.”

While building her business, Crowther says she’s depending on her husband, Hugh Crowther, for financial support. “We’re, like, the weirdest couple,” she says with a laugh—her husband works 21 days on and 21 days off as a tugboat captain in the Gulf of Mexico, helping out with her business when he’s home. Eventually, however, she expects her site to provide a healthy full-time income. Boomers, she believes, will be the business’s lifeblood—and not just because of the numbers.

“Most baby boomers break tradition with everything,” says Crowther, who at 51 is a card-carrying member herself. “I’ve seen the cremation rates, and they are just going crazy because of environmental and spiritual reasons. So when I started seeing how rapidly the rates are increasing and what the projections are, and then when I saw the products, I realized this is a really great opportunity.”

At the moment, the trend in the mainstream funeral industry is offering theme-based urns and caskets that reflect the deceased’s passions (such as hunting/fishing or NASCAR) or profession; there are even caskets for those who worshipped the rock band KISS. Crowther, however, sees her boomer clients, many of whom are well-heeled, wanting something more refined.

“I think ours will be more artfully created,” she says. “We do customize to a certain extent, but in a tasteful and artful way. We’re going to stay away from the commercial, but customize and personalize it as much as possible to reflect that person.”

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