01/27/2014 12:46 pm ET Updated Dec 06, 2017

First World Problems: 'Ash to Flash'

by guest blogger Renee James, essayist and blogger

Before going one step further here, I'd like to ask you to keep in mind the Ship of Theseus theory as you read. The Ship of Theseus, or Theseus's paradox, raises the question of whether an object that has had all its components replaced remains fundamentally the same object.

Now consider the following: According to a recent NPR story, cremated human remains can be heated, compressed, and formed into diamonds. Yes, diamonds. (I'd heard about this several years ago, but it still fascinates me.) Timing seems to vary from company to company, with the process taking anywhere from 3 to 12 months, but that's much sooner than the millions of years it takes nature to create a diamond. Costs range between $5,000 and $22,000. Nature, not to mention De Beers, exacts its costs in any number of ways.

"Commemorating" a loved one by hardening his or her remains into a shiny, pretty stone requires several steps. First, ashes are heated to more than 5,000 degrees Fahrenheit, leaving only carbon behind. Heating this carbon for a few weeks creates graphite. According to one website, the next step is to, "place the graphite in a core metal catalyst and add a diamond seed crystal." (No, I don't know what those are or what they do, either.) Then the core goes into a diamond press, where it gets more weeks of high heat and enormous pressure to turn the graphite into a crystal. That crystal then gets cut and polished to the buyer's specifications.

Rinaldo Willy, the CEO of Swiss company Algordanza, which makes the stones, says it takes about a pound of ashes to make a diamond. The good news is the group has created as many as nine diamonds from one person. (What a relief for those beneficiaries!) Another company, LifeGem, notes that ashes from a child or a premature birth often yield "insufficient source material," so LifeGem adds more carbon to it to make a stone. (Yes, the company quantifies that, with just that much compassion.)

The same technology can utilize carbon from a strand of hair to create a "hair diamond." That means mourners who choose burial over cremation can wear the same type of stunning commemorative jewelry. No news on what--if anything--can be made from the Resomation process, which basically liquefies a corpse. Someone somewhere is working on it, I'm positive.

I have a few questions here--well, more than that, but I'll pose just a couple. First: What? You can make what? And this: Remember the Ship of Theseus? I can't quite buy the idea that separating, heating, combining, compacting, diluting, and then pressuring carbon from cremation remains (which are mostly pulverized bone, since body organs and skin basically vaporize in the process) will deliver a new version of Great Grandma to my naked finger. It may deliver a pretty stone, but it's not her.

And what about those committed to the environment? I don't imagine all that heat and compression are generated by wind power. Enter Bios Urn and The Spíritree. Bios Urn, a biodegradable container made from a coconut shell, compacted peat, and cellulose, also contains a tree seed, and the ashes you place inside feed the plant. Quoting here: "So all it takes is a couple sprinkles of Nana and Pop Pop, and that seed will expand and a healthy sapling will be growing in a matter of weeks."

The Spíritree is a container with an organic bottom shell and an inert cover. The bottom holds cremated remains; the top protects them from dispersion. When planted with The Spíritree, the plant feeds itself from the calcium-rich remains in the biodegradable shell. The growing tree eventually breaks the cover and becomes a living monument to your loved one.

Fine. Lovely. But can't you simply choose to mix ashes with soil and accomplish the same thing when planting a tree in remembrance?

I give up. At this point, the Bios Urn and Spíritree feel completely logical. But let's assume I have several thousand dollars in hand. The next time I grieve the loss of a loved one, I'll donate to one of his or her favorite charities. I'll raise a toast and share stories that bring a smile. I'll keep him or her in my heart, and help comfort those left behind.

And I'll do it all without the new bling.

Renee A. James works at Rodale Inc. and also wrote an award-winning op-ed column for The Morning Call, the Allentown, PA, newspaper, for almost 10 years. Her essays were included in the humor anthology, 101 Damnations': A Humorists' Tour of Personal Hells (Thomas Dunne Books, 2002), and are also found online at Jewish World Review and The Daily Caller. She invites you to "like" her Facebook page where she celebrates--and broods about--life on a regular basis, mostly as a voice in the crowd that shouts, "Really? You're kidding me, right?" (or wants to, anyway) and welcomes your suggestions, comments, and feedback to the mix.

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