NORTH SYRACUSE, N.Y. -- Fred Fergerson already offers his customers options. They can have their ashes blasted into orbit, sprinkled on the slopes of the Swiss Alps, or used in patching coral reefs in the Pacific Ocean.
Now he proposes eternity as a diamond.
By extracting the carbon from cremated human bodies, a Chicago-based company is giving the dearly departed a chance to sparkle forever as a synthetically produced diamond.
"It sounds a little weird at first - a little off-base - but we also put remains in orbit. Nobody has ever asked for that either, but we have it as an option," said Fergerson, a funeral home owner in upstate New York who was among the first in the country to offer LifeGem diamonds.
No clients have signed up yet at Fergerson's. But in the first month, he said, about 30 people made serious inquiries.
"I see it as just another service. People usually ask what can we do with the cremains afterward. Anything you want, including make a diamond out of them. I'll tell you, that starts a conversation," Fergerson said.
Lynn Gage, a 35-year-old businesswoman who runs a restaurant, sports bar and health salon in Rockford, Ill., thinks it's not such a bad idea. She and her husband recently put down a deposit on a pre-need contract with LifeGem. Gage is thinking about having her cremains pressed into a 1/2 -carat diamond that can be set in a family ring.
"It's natural to want to keep something of a loved one, and many people do," she said. "But it's not complete. It's not really them, it's only a possession. This is complete. This will really be a piece of me.
"This is something that will keep forever and can be passed on as an heirloom."
LifeGem, which is still awaiting approval of its patent application, introduced the unprecedented service in late August, and the response has been dramatic. The company's Web site is registering 45,000 hits a week, said Greg Herro, one of the four co-founders. Initially, six funeral homes nationwide - including Fergerson's - offered LifeGem's service.
By mid-October, that number had climbed to more than 50.
"I know there will be a million jokes about it, but if it provides comfort and connection for the bereaved, it's a good idea," Herro said. "Remembering the life of a person, instead of their death, is what it's all about."
The idea was born in 1999, when Herro, his brother Mike, and their friends, Rusty and Dean VandenBiesen, were discussing mortality. The talk turned to funerals.
"Everyone thought being able to somehow stay close to your lost loved one was important," Herro said.
Rusty VandenBiesen suggested diamonds. The body is made of carbon. Diamonds are made of carbon. So why not make diamonds from people, he wondered. The partners began investigating the possibilities, undeterred by the many friends and relatives who said that even if possible, it was just too bizarre.
The process of making synthetic diamonds was pioneered by General Electric Co. in the early 1950s and has been refined and improved over the years. The critical question for LifeGem's partners was whether they could extract enough carbon from the cadaver. It took the company four years of trial and error using mostly animal remains and those of one human cadaver to devise a process.
"As long as it has carbon, you can use anything to make diamonds," said William Bassett, a professor of geology and mineralogy at Cornell University. "To prove his point, a scientist once used peanut butter to make a diamond."
The quality - and value - of a synthetic gem depends on the care and diligence used in creating it, Bassett said. Many synthetic diamonds are of higher quality and worth more than natural stones.
Following a 16-week process, a diamond emerges with a bluish tinge, like the famous Hope Diamond. The blue color is the result of trace amounts of the element boron, which occurs naturally in the human body, Herro said.
There is enough carbon in the human body to yield 50 to 100 diamonds of varying sizes, from 1/4 -carat to 1 carat. The ashes are returned to the family.
Eventually, LifeGem will offer diamonds with yellow, red and clear hues, determined by the elements not removed during the process, Herro said.
No human bodies have yet been turned into diamonds but there are 50 of them undergoing the process, Herro said. The first deliveries are scheduled for late December.
A 1/4 -carat LifeGem diamond sells for $3,950; two can be purchased for $2,950 apiece. A full carat diamond costs $22,000. Although that cost does not include having the diamond fashioned into jewelry, Herro said it is comparable to traditional funerals.
"The cost may seem exorbitant, but not when you consider that what you are getting is something that will last forever and can be handed down as an everlasting heirloom from generation to generation," Herro said. "From a practical perspective, it's not just money going into the ground."
LifeGem also can produce diamonds from previously cremated human and pet remains. Herro said about half the inquiries the company gets are from pet owners.
More than one in four Americans opt for cremation - 630,800 people out of more than 2.4 million deaths in 2000. The Cremation Association of North America projects the number will climb to 40 percent by 2010 and 48 percent by 2025.
David Walkinshaw, a funeral home director in Arlington, Mass., and spokesman for the National Funeral Directors Association, thinks there will be a market for LifeGem diamonds.
"Funerals used to be very traditional. Everything was done one way. People today want to explore more and more options. This is just another option. You let people decide for themselves what's best for them," Walkinshaw said.
"It may not be appropriate for everyone but there are people, I think, who will find it very fitting and meaningful."
The LifeGem is a certified, high-quality diamond created from the carbon extracted from a cadaver.
The 16-week process begins with cremation. Technicians control oxygen levels during cremation to prevent carbon in the body from converting to carbon dioxide. The incineration process is interrupted so the technician can collect the carbon, which is in the form of a dark powder.
The ashes are returned to the family.
The carbon powder is shipped to another lab where it is heated to about 5,400 degrees in a vacuum to burn off all the impurities and convert the carbon to graphite. Only about a thimbleful is needed to produce one stone. Whatever is not used to create diamonds, is recorded and stored.
The graphite is sent to labs in Germany or Russia. To aid the crystallization process, the graphite is placed around a piece of seed crystal a few thousandths of a millimeter in diameter. The material is then placed into a machine called an autoclave, where it is heated and pressurized - equal to 80,000 Earth atmospheres - for 7 to 20 days.
Customers are allowed to view any part of the diamond-making process.
LifeGem also will provide a certificate from the European Gemological Laboratory in New York City identifying the stone as a man-made diamond.
On the Net:
Cremation Association of North America: http://www.cremationassociation.org
National Funeral Directors Association: http://www.nfda.org
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