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Ashes to assets, dust to diamonds

February 12th, 2004, 08:37 AM
A company can turn the cremated remains of your loved one into a different manifestation of carbon: diamonds.

By ADRIENNE P. SAMUELS, Times Staff Writer

Diamonds are forever.

And if you've got the moolah, Grandma Lucy or Spike the dog can be forever, too.

Earth's hardest natural substance is made from compressed carbon, and an enterprising Chicago-based company uses intense heat and pressure to grow diamonds from the carbon ash of cremated remains - human or animal.

The only difference between this synthetically made bling-bling and its naturally occuring cousin is a few hundred million years. LifeGem's quarter-carat to 1.3 carat diamonds are ready in around five months and range in price from $2,199 to $13,199.

Last year, the company sold 500 of the canary yellow beauties.

"When people hear about it, they react like "Oh my God, that's crazy,' or "That's weird,"' said Dean VandenBiesen, LifeGem's vice president of operations. "A few days later, they say it does make sense. ... It's something that's beautiful."

And unique.

The gems' color comes from trace elements left in ashes. Nitrogen turns a diamond yellow or brown. Then, depending on how it's cut, the diamond can appear pink. LifeGems range from yellow to orange, but they're working on other colors.

A heartbroken Gainesville widow says her husband's LifeGem will be a godsend.

"It was last November when they started the process," said Carol Thorndyke, 56, who expects her $3,000, princess cut, sunset orange diamond sometime in early summer. "I'm hoping the color will turn out the way I want."

Thorndyke heard about LifeGem on late-night television. She had her sons look for it on the Internet.

The gem will be placed in her engagement ring.

Gerald, who died in early 2003, wouldn't mind, she said.

"I think he would probably laugh and just say, "Oh that's a great idea."'

Twelve Florida funeral homes - and two Florida jewelers - now offer the diamond service. Two of those providers are in Tampa Bay.

Anderson-McQueen Funeral Homes in St. Petersburg signed up last year.

Ashes are rocketed to outer space or sunk to the ocean bottom, so why not turn them into diamonds, asks funeral director John McQueen.

"The funeral industry has changed so much," McQueen said. "Consumers want things to make service more memorable and they want unique ways to remember the deceased."

Like McQueen, Morgan Funeral Home in New Port Richey is fielding Internet queries.

"Cremation comprises about 70 percent of our business," said George Morgan, funeral director. "Cremation has changed over the years from an alternative to a funeral to an alternative to burial."

Turning the recently deceased into a jewel might be cheaper than other options. A basic cremation with no services and an urn can cost around $670, Morgan said. A full, traditional funeral with visitation, mass and cremation casket can cost upwards of $5,000. And then there is the cost of the burial ground.

"The only thing you'd possibly be saving on is the actual cemetery property," said Morgan. "A crypt can be upwards of $3,000 to $5,000 per person."

Diamonds at dinner
LifeGem's creators are two sets of brothers who were eating dinner and discussing death in 1999.

None is a chemist.

Dean VandenBiesen, operations vice president, was in steel sales. His brother, Rusty, is the chief operating officer and a corporate jet pilot. Mike Herro, the chief financial officer, is an accountant. Greg Herro, the CEO, started out in computer consulting.

"We were just at a family gathering and talking about our own mortality and realized that although we're all in favor of cremation, nobody seemed to like the existing memorial options for our loved ones," said Greg Herro.

"From there we started talking about how the human body is made of carbon, diamonds are made of carbon and the light bulb went off. We had the concept, but we didn't know if it was even possible."

They pooled their money and enlisted scientists from the United States, Russia and the United Kingdom.

The product rolled out in late 2002, but not without some mishaps. The LifeGem contract, found on the Web site, cautions the buyer: "While the formation of a LifeGem is normally successful, there can be no assurance that it will be successful in every case."

If the body is not large enough, there might not be enough material to grow the diamond.

Still, last year they expected 100 sales and ended with 500.

PetGems are rising in popularity too. So far, the company has turned dogs and cats into diamonds, but they are also fielding numerous calls from horse owners, Herro said.

"Less than 10 percent of our orders are pets," Herro said. "It's a newer idea."

PetGems cost the same as LifeGems because the process is identical. Owners would have to take their animal to a special crematoriam for the cremation. Pets also come out with yellow tones.

LifeGem offers the service through 314 funeral homes across the United States and at least a dozen total in Hungary, the Netherlands, the United Kingdom, Australia, Canada and South Africa.

"If we would not have thought of this, somebody would have eventually," said VandenBeisen. "Burial doesn't make a lot of sense to me. Just being put in a box, put in the cold ground and left there forever seems a little unusual."

The process
Here's how it works:

The body is cremated by regular means.

A technician collects eight ounces of the remains and mails it to LifeGem headquarters just outside of Chicago. (An adult human body yields enough carbon to make 50 stones.) Unused cremains are returned to the family.

LifeGem separates the carbon and sends it to an undisclosed lab on the East Coast. There, a specialist heats the element in a low oxygen environment, which turns the carbon into a pure grade of graphite (the stuff found in a pencil tip.) Sometimes extra graphite is added.

The graphite is placed into a diamond press and subjected to about 3,500 degrees of heat and 800,000 pounds per square inch of pressure. (Which is the equivalent of a block of concrete three feet across and 2,000 miles high being dropped on your toe.)

A crystal is grown in six to eight months. The larger the diamond, the longer the gestation.

The simplest way to envision this might be to remember elementary school science fairs. The gems are grown in ways not unlike how kids grow crystals with a jar of salt water and string, said LifeGem officials.

In the end, a rock is born.

"It's a raw diamond much like you'd find in the earth," said Greg Herro, LifeGem's CEO. "If you held it in your hand you might not recognize that it's a diamond. In step four, we cut it, and polish it and it becomes a diamond that everyone expects a diamond to look like."

The Gemological Institute of America certifies the stones.

Yes, they are real.

"What LifeGem is doing is feasible," said Alex Angelle, GIA spokesman. "They have created diamond material - synthetics."

The LifeGems are not flawless, said Herro, the CEO.

"We like to say we're not flawless in life, we're not going to be flawless in passing," he said.

Synthetic diamonds are not new, Angelle said. In fact, they've been around for 50 years. Initially they had industrial uses, for drills and record player needles.

In recent years, gemstone quality synthetic diamonds - not to be confused with cubic zirconia, which is not a diamond - have been marketed. Gemesis, in Sarasota, is one of a handful of companies that deal in synthetic diamonds.

LifeGem appears to be the only company creating diamonds from human remains.

Diverse reactions
The science behind LifeGems sometimes sparks something of a debate.

"It's easy for Judaism," said Sheldon Isenberg, chair of the religion department at the University of Florida. "For anybody who pays attention to traditional law, we don't burn bodies. ... To me, it seems utterly tasteless, but then again, people haul around urns of ashes."

It's a no-no for hard-core Catholics.

"What the church would say is they should be buried or placed in a mausoleum," said Doug Reatini, director of the office of worship with the Archdiocese of St. Petersburg. "A diamond would not probably be what the church allows."

One Buddhist pondered whether LifeGems square with his teachings.

"I don't know where to begin," said Cralle Hall, a senior student at the Karma Thegsum Choling Tibetan Buddhist Meditation Center in Tampa. "What we espouse is that if it's beneficial toward myself and other human beings, then we are all for it. But if it's a commodities thing, then there's no purpose."

Carol Thorndyke, the woman awaiting her husband's LifeGem, isn't concerned with what anyone else thinks.

After 36 years of marriage, she wanted more than an ash-filled urn in her TV room.

"It's such a beautiful option, really," said Thorndyke. "I asked my two sons if they want one. They both said the same thing - they said this was just for me."