Greg Lundgren's Death Wish

A Seattle artist and entrepreneur wants to give the death industry a makeover
Brangien Davis  |   October 2012   |  FROM THE PRINT EDITION
Artist Greg Lundgren believes that changing the way we memorialize death can improve the way we live our lives. He is pictured with one of his cast-glass headstones

Imagine you are dead. If you’re the type who thinks ahead, you’ve probably already told someone whether you’d rather be cremated or buried. Maybe you even suggested where your ashes should be scattered, or to whom you’d most like to lie next to for all eternity. But most of us don’t get that specific, simply because we don’t enjoy pondering our own death, much less what to do with our deadness.

Greg Lundgren, however, would like you to think a bit harder about being dead. The First Hill-based co-owner of two arty Seattle bars (The Hideout and Vito’s) and public art provocateur via his ongoing project Vital 5 Productions, Lundgren, 42, is also in the business of death, designing cemetery monuments, cremation urns and memorials. As he puts it, “I want to see the art world and death meet each other.”

The two are well acquainted at the Lundgren Monuments storefront on Boren Avenue, just two doors down from The Hideout. Although the space, open since 2008, has the proportions of a grave (tall, deep and narrow—only 9 feet across), the interior is bright, and the array of offerings is colorful and captivating. Passersby stop briefly to puzzle over the window display, which features one of the gorgeous colored-glass headstones that comprise 90 percent of Lundgren’s business. “People ask me, ‘Is this for real?’ They think it’s an art experiment.” And, of course, in a way it is.


Customized glass monuments by Lundgren Monuments

Lundgren’s adventures in death began with a eureka moment. In the early 2000s, while working as an architectural glass designer, he was commissioned to do the sanctuary windows at a funeral home in Bothell. “I was making big, chunky things out of glass, and I saw all this chunky granite in cemeteries,” he recalls. “It was easy to make the leap.” In 2002, he made his first cast-glass headstone, and after research and development, debuted a line of glass memorials at the National Funeral Directors Association convention in 2004.

It was not a hit with the death-care crowd. “The industry has changed very little since WWII,” Lundgren says. “There’s no impetus to innovate, so it doesn’t evolve.” One of the main distributors of funeral goods is Service Corporation International (SCI), which also owns hundreds of funeral homes and cemeteries in the U.S. “They’re the Walmart of death,” Lundgren says. “They only give you choices A, B or C.” (You can also buy caskets and urns online from the actual Walmart, as well as Costco and Amazon.) Noting the standard, drab offerings of urns, caskets and memorials, he points out that baby boomers, especially, are used to customizing everything from ice cream to ringtones. “My clients are the ones saying, ‘Those are my options? I’m looking at brochures from the 1960s. Are you kidding?’”

 

Pretend you’re dead again. Look around. Are you sitting in a nondescript wooden urn on a neglected shelf? Are you lying in the interior of a coffin you never would’ve chosen? Is there anything about your surroundings that remotely reflects the vibrant life you lived, your personality, your favorite things? If the answer is no, don’t blame your survivors. The problem, Lundgren says, is that the death-care industry has “no craftspeople involved, no artists.” In short, “The industry needs an extreme makeover.”


Urns designed and crafted by Greg Lundgren from cast glass and wood; and cardboard and tissue paper

For starters, he’d like to revolutionize the cemetery landscape. “The cemetery has become a culturally irrelevant space,” he says. “It’s like an ugly neighborhood. Would you want to live there?” But, he says, despite the enormous environmental concerns (see: overpopulation, sourcing wood from rain forests, burying nonrenewable resources underground), cemeteries aren’t going away.

“So why not reactivate it?” He envisions cemeteries looking more like the Olympic Sculpture Park. “With the sculpture park, they took something ugly—it was basically a cemetery with no bodies—and turned it into a green space with art.” Of course, that park also cost a lot of money. But his point is that if you buy a cemetery plot, you should be able to use it as a “sculptural depot,” even if you never bury a body there.


Urns by Lundgren Monuments made from wood and Legos

In June, Lundgren crystallized this idea in a playful children’s book called Greenview Cemetery (illustrated by Seattle artist Jed Dunkerley). In it, a scary cemetery is transformed when a kooky inventor dies and, instead of a headstone, has a robot memorial that entertains visitors at his grave. Soon, other clever and artistic memorials start filling the cemetery, and it becomes a fun place to visit. “It’s my propaganda,” says Lundgren, smiling. “I want to change the mentality by showing an approach that could be magical or cool or therapeutic.”


When Lundgren began casting glass monuments, he suspected he would be making them for wealthy arts appreciators and old eccentrics. But his clientele has proven to be largely families with children who have died. He believes this is because the glass monuments (such as the customized examples shown here) radiate light and, therefore, seem to have life to them

The radiant cast-glass memorials Lundgren has been creating over the past decade go a long way in this effort. And over the last three years, he’s been actively inviting a wider artistic community to transform the thinking behind cremation urns as well. He has designed several himself—from an urn that calls to mind Frank Lloyd Wright’s Falling Water house, to pleasingly geometric cardboard vessels covered in colorful tissue paper—and has used his Seattle space as a gallery, hosting exhibitions of new ideas for urns via invitational shows such as The Architect and the Urn (creative takes by architects), The Softer Side of Death (urns by fiber artists) and Rest in Paper (using “a pauper’s material” to create something beautiful). “I love putting this challenge out to artists,” Lundgren says. “I want the creative class to engage in conversation about death, mortality and cultural identity.”

This conversation was especially lively at the Softer Side of Death show in May, which featured such innovative takes as Jennifer McNeely’s mother’s leather fanny pack (the zippered pocket is where the ashes go); Mark Mitchell’s stunning amber and sea-foam cinched bag, made of hand-dipped silk and designed to disintegrate in the ocean; Christine Chaney’s deconstructed men’s black suit rewoven into a basket shape; and Susan Robb’s ironic gesture, a black shopping bag from Forever 21.


Urns crafted and designed by Lundgren from cast glass and steel.

Lundgren says the group of entries is usually about two-thirds conceptual, one-third practical, and he works to bring the latter into his regular slate of offerings at the shop. “My role is to be a pied piper,” he says, “to get artists to consider proposing alternatives.” To date, he’s had more than 100 artists create urns who had never done so before. “It’s a constant experiment,” he says. “You’re going to fail sometimes. But I hope to harvest some ideas for new rituals that catch, and fortify the arsenal of options.” Previous exhibits of urns by woodworkers and potters resulted in salable models, and now Lundgren is considering future invitationals for guitar makers, metalworkers, chefs and songwriters.

While Lundgren loves the idea of subsidizing the local art community with commissioned urns, he also hopes big creative names will consider the memorial market. “So many people have designer brands—Martha Stewart will design your whole damn life,” he says, “but when it comes to death, you’re abandoned.” He’s frustrated by the disconnect.

“Look at the arc of someone’s life,” he says. “They go from a person of style to being put in an anonymous container. It’s an injustice.” Why not instead choose the option of an urn or casket designed by Gucci, Tiffany or Coach? “It’s a natural evolution, just beyond the flatware line,” Lundgren says. “If Chanel made an urn? It would be huge.”

But he also stresses that revolutionizing death care isn’t just for the rich. “You can have your kid make an urn out of Legos or origami, you can use a cookie jar,” he says. Lundgren is currently at work on a line of beautifully designed cardboard coffins, for example. “The industry makes you feel like there’s a ‘right’ way to do it, but there is no right way,” he says. “You can invent your own ritual.”

In the end, all this talk about how we deal with death is really about how we conduct our lives. Lundgren says he’s highly influenced by the 1973 Pulitzer Prize winner Denial of Death, by cultural anthropologist Ernest Becker, who wrote, “To live fully is to live with an awareness of the rumble of terror that underlies everything.” Admitting that you’re going to die (and thinking about where your dead body will end up) imparts a sense of urgency to your goings-on while you’re alive. For that reason, Lundgren believes, “Changing death care is a way of trying to alter the way people live their lives.”

The "Rest in Paper" show runs through October 13 at Lundgren Monuments, 1011 Boren Ave., 206.910.2432; lundgrenmonuments.com

Take a video tour of the Lundgren Monuments storefront, narrated by Greg Lundgren:

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