The old phrase “ashes to ashes, dust to dust” may need a makeover.
Parting Stone is a “death tech” startup that can turn the cremated remains of your loved ones into “solidified remains” that resemble smooth, stone-like objects but are in fact almost 100% ashes. Self-described as the first company to provide such a complete alternative to ashes, Parting Stone allows for a more meaningful experience that can be held comfortably, shared with others, displayed, or even scattered. It also fits into an ever-growing death care industry—expected to be worth about $68 billion by 2025— that is increasingly catering to the desire for more personalized, meaningful, and often sustainable ways to honor the departed.
Parting Stone’s patent-pending technology was developed with ceramic engineer Chris Chen of Los Alamos National Laboratory. It involves a few simple steps following cremation. After arriving at the Parting Stone lab in Santa Fe, New Mexico, the full amount of cremated remains is refined through a milling process that turns the ashes “from a granular consistency to a really fine powder,” explains founder Justin Crowe. After that, a small amount of water and a “glass-like binder” helps turn the powder into a clay-like substance that is formed and placed in a kiln before being polished and returned to the family.
Typically, the remains from an average adult weigh about 4 to 8 pounds, or what Crowe says equates to about 10 cups. “All we do is take that material and compress it into solids,” he says. In the end, the family gets between 40 and 60 stones. Sizes vary from that of a thumbnail to the size of your palm, and colors range from one person to the next, from white to light-green hues, with the occasional deep blues, chocolate browns, or even lavender with speckles of blue.
Crowe says these colors are completely natural and not at all influenced by the firing process. The company is doing research to identify the reasons, but Crowe’s team has a few theories that range from the medication people were taking, to their diet and lifestyle, to medical implants they may have had.
Parting Stone officially launched in 2019, but Crowe came up with the idea in 2014 when his grandfather passed away. “That was the first death in my life,” he says, adding that “his remains felt meaningless. I wanted to feel a connection with them, but I didn’t want to look at them.”
After that, Crowe set out to understand other people’s experiences with death and loss. Typically, cremated remains come in a bag, and Crowe quickly realized this level of care doesn’t match the love people have for those they’ve lost. “We don’t accept this experience in any other part of modern life. Why are we accepting it for people we love?” he says.
In 2017, about 55% of bodies in the U.S. were cremated rather than buried, and according to the Cremation Association of North America, the number of people choosing cremation over burial is predicted to rise to 60.7% by 2024. Meanwhile, about 25% of the U.S. population, or 75 million Americans, choose to keep the cremated remains of their loved ones in their homes. Those people, Crowe says, “they get it.”
When a family chooses the urn, Crowe says, “what they get is the end of the experience.” With Parting Stone, “it’s the beginning of their experience,” he notes, referencing the sheer portability of the stones, and how easy it is to share them with friends or other family members. “It’s a canvas for the experience, not the experience itself.”
That experience costs $695 for adults, and around $300 for pets. Compared to an urn, the service is costlier, but Crowe believes that a collection of stones provides a more meaningful connection. “The trend that is clear right now is that people want death to feel personalized,” he says.
In the last decade, this quest for more meaningful, alternative solutions to traditional burial and cremation has translated into a multimillion-dollar industry and a sea of death tech startups. Ashes can now be repurposed into diamonds, pressed into vinyl records, or even scattered into fireworks. A more down-to-earth experience involves spreading the ashes under a redwood tree in a 20-acre forest.
Parting Stone is a public benefit corporation, whereby a company’s very purpose is to combine for-profit services with the pursuit of social good. In 2019, the company received a $100,000 grant from the Los Alamos National Laboratory to study the environmental impact of scattering stones compared to ashes. Conclusive results should be ready next January, but initial data shows that solidified remains have a lower pH level, and therefore a lower impact on the environment, than cremated remains, which are considered highly alkaline, with a pH level close to that of ammonia.
About a third of Americans whose loved ones have chosen cremation end up scattering the ashes—and almost 20% do so at non-cemetery locations—so Parting Stone may have a meaningful impact on the environment. But for Crowe, it’s also “a matter of user experience,” he says, hinting at that dreadful moment when people don’t check the direction of the wind before scattering the ashes.
Crowe remembers an epiphany he had at a business incubator conference. “I had a stone made from human remains, and about 200 people asked me to hold it,” he says. “All we did was change the form of remains and it made them comfortable, desirable. This is a design solution.”