Turn Dead Grandparents Into Coffee Mugs

Justin Crowe is changing how people talk about grief and mortality. 

Morgan Capps/Ash Haywood

Artist Justin Crowe wants people to think about the dead. He thinks the deceased deserve a place in the heavily curated, hectic daily lives of Americans. And, remarkably, he’s been able to create one using old-school pottery class chemistry. Crowe uses cremated remains to glaze usable ceramics, transforming former “World’s Best Dad” coffee mug owners into coffee mugs for their sons and daughters.

Working out of a studio in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the 28-year-old uses the cremated ashes of clients’ loved ones to create glazes for various ceramics. Each time he gets a new order, he sends out a collection kit to the customer so they can send him back some ash. Once he has a baggy of remains, he turns them into a fine powder for the glaze recipe, coats his work and bakes the whole thing at 2,400 degrees Fahrenheit. People can choose from a variety of forms they’d like the ashes to be transformed into. Ashes can be incorporated into coffee mugs, candle luminaries, jewelry, and china.

Crowe had the idea of the business venture after completing his first art project involving human remains. For that work, “Nourish,” he combined the ashes of 200 people into a ceramic glaze for functional dinnerware. When people started asking if he could make objects out of their loved ones’ ashes, Crowe realized he’d accidentally identified a market. Inverse spoke with him about what it means to sell pottery to the bereaved and what it means to make the deceased into art.

So first off, where did you get the inspiration for blending together the ashes of all these people for art?

Bone ash is a typical ingredient in glaze and bone china is made of about 40 percent bone ash, typically animal bones. So I knew I could incorporate human ash into pottery, but never pursued it. But a couple of years ago my grandfather died. That ended up being an inspirational experience. Of course it was also really sad; he was one of my heroes.

He died in his home, and I watched that whole process. There was something about experiencing a death and confronting this idea of mortality in a domestic space. I wanted to try to recreate that feeling. That’s what this functional dinnerware was supposed to do. I wanted to coat something you would use on a daily basis that would symbolize mortality so you could confront that everyday but on this really mundane level, possibly to kind of normalize this idea. That’s where the “Nourish” series started.

Morgan Capps/Ash Haywood

Why do you think we need new perspectives on death?

At least in U.S. culture, we have this tendency to avoid the subject. It’s very uncomfortable, very taboo. You kind of experience it and deal it yourself and sweep it under the rug. Throughout this project, I’ve realized that when we experience someone dying, we’re not just losing that person. We’re also staring at a reflection of our own eventual demise. For me that was a profound experience. As a culture, we can be more comfortable with talking about death and being open to different methods of memorialization.

What do you think are going to be future ways that we remember our loved ones?

What’s been really interesting about creating ceramic objects from the ashes of passed loved ones is that it allows the owner or the person who has the pieces to interact with them. It integrates them into their daily life, rather than looking at a picture on a shelf or a cremation urn on a mantle. You now have this object that is very much a part of your life. So you can have coffee with your grandmother, or a bowl on your table that brings up memories and stories during family dinners. Or you have a piece of cremation jewelry which you can carry with you.

The largest growing sector of memorialization is custom memorial objects. Cremation jewelry is a popular part of that. And I think it’s because of that interaction. I don’t know specifically what the future of memorialization looks like, but I wouldn’t be surprised if it was in the direction of integrating their memories into life than observing them from a distance.

Morgan Capps/Ash Haywood

How does it feel handling the remains of people’s loved ones while creating these pieces?

I just launched the business last week, so I’m just processing my first clients right now. It was a lot different than with “Nourish.” With that project, everyone was anonymous and I actually had one person that wanted to give their ashes to the “Nourish” project. I didn’t accept them because it would’ve been a lot different to have a personal connection to this and a specific identity with it. As with the new business where I’m dealing exclusively with personal memories and ashes, it feels really good that I can create an object that is going to impact peoples lives and help them remember, help them honor their passed loved ones.

How did you choose what sorts of ceramics you wanted to offer?

They were picked either for really specific circumstances, like a couple. Theres a male and female bottle that you can order so it might be used for a husband or wife who have passed, or a husband and husband or wife and wife. They can continue to be with each other and be by each other’s side after they’ve died. The candle luminary, which is actually my favorite product, because as it flickers and flutters it kind of creates this sense of presence. To have the light diffusing through the glaze and fluttering is a really special, comforting experience. The coffee mug is a more intimate product. When you lose a loved one, dinners or mealtimes can be a difficult period because all of a sudden that seat isn’t filled.

What’s been the reception so far?

We’ve had a really massive mix of responses. Some people saying this is incredibly disrespectful, “I can’t believe this is legal” and things like that. Other people have been really supportive: “What a really special way to think about death and experience mortality.” The idea of death and how to treat it is such a personal thing that there’s been really polarized viewpoints on the project. I had one person learn about the project, and she started emailing me, threatening me daily and telling me she’s having me investigated and that I was going to hell and she was quoting the bible. That was good because it kept me aware of the sensitivity of the subject matter, but ultimately it wasn’t the most encouraging response.

Shortly after that I had somebody contact me and was really excited and thought this was amazing and wanted to participate. That’s been the whole project, this polarization of opinions about it. The whole idea of the project is to initiate these new ideas, these new perspectives. The first step to doing that is having a conversation about what is wrong, what is right, what is ethical, what is not, what is a meaningful experience, what is a gross experience, how you want to interact with those memories, how you want to interact with mortality. Conversation is the best thing that can come out of this.

This interview has been edited for brevity and clarity.

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