Butler’s workspace, with ashes, paints. A completed, framed 11-by-17-inch painting costs $900 (Photo: David Swanson)

At first glance, it could be just another painting: A landscape, seen through a maze of trees, features a gazebo by a pond. Sarah Hopkins said it depicts the North Carolina property her family once owned – the place her father would go each evening with a drink and a smoke and watch the day close.

But this painting is special: It gets its texture from the cremated remains of Hopkins’ father, who died in 2000.

“I felt this memorialized him better than anything I’ve seen before,” said Hopkins, 38, of Glenside. “For me, it was a way to heal.”

Jenkintown artist Michael Butler uses the remains of the dead to create art for the living. His company, Loved Ones Art, isn’t the first or only business to offer such a service – a quick Internet search reveals multiple artists who specialize in art made from human or pet remains. But that may be what’s most notable: The world of mourning and remembering has changed, with more people looking for unique ways to leave this world or stay behind.

“I’m focusing more on the life than the death,” said Butler, 49, who mostly works with land- and seascapes. “It’s not for everybody, and the whole topic is weird for some people, but we’re all going to go through it. We’ve all lost loved ones we miss. Is there a way to make the pain a little less stinging? That’s what I do.”

Journalist Hunter S. Thompson went out with a literal bang, having his remains packed into fireworks and sent into the air over his Colorado farm. Families can have their loved ones’ cremated remains pressed into diamonds, incorporated into bracelets and necklaces, sent into the ocean to feed a growing reef. Cremains are appearing in things like paperweights, comic-book ink and mini-statues for families to treasure for generations.

“Nobody wants to be forgotten,” said Bob Fells, general counsel for the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association, a 121-year-old trade organization based in Virginia.

Fells said about 33 percent of America’s deceased are cremated every year, roughly 790,000 people. That percentage has steadily increased from 50 years ago, when only about 4 or 5 percent of Americans chose cremation. Reasons vary: Consumers tell Fells’ organization that cremation is just more natural, following the idea of “ashes to ashes, dust to dust.” Some believe it more environmentally friendly, a debatable issue. Still others find cremation more cost-effective than a full-blown funeral with embalming.

Fells expects that as more of the baby boomers – the Me Generation – begin to face their mortality, unique memorializing will become more common.

“They’re going to want something of a permanent nature that says, ‘Hey, I was here. I walked the Earth. I made a difference.’ I don’t think you’re going to see a lot of people content with a little marker.”

After Hopkins’ father died, he was cremated, his ashes kept in an urn in her mother’s New England home.

Later, Hopkins met Butler through a friend. Having an art background herself, she felt a painting would be the perfect way to memorialize her father and to have a piece of him close to her.

“This is part of our family, just like the urn,” said Hopkins, who was so impressed with Butler’s painting that she now promotes his company. “This helps me remember Dad in a very different way.”

More than 25 years ago, Butler paid his way through Philadelphia’s Hussian School of Art by working as a gravedigger at a local cemetery. He remembers seeing people pass time at their loved ones’ graves, caring for the markers and the grounds. “It struck me to see how people reacted,” he said. “It was obviously important to them.” Years later, as a graphic and package designer, he designed his mother’s headstone.

Last year, Butler decided he wanted to change his professional course and pursue his fine-art dream. He remembered those gravedigging days. And he noted that times had changed: People were more transient, and not everyone lived within an easy drive of their family plots. They were busier, with children and activities and work. Even he found he was visiting his mother’s resting place only twice a year. The traditions surrounding death – with generations using the same funeral parlor, choosing interment in the same cemetery – were fading.

After a discussion with a friend who didn’t know what to do with the remains of a family member, the idea for Loved Ones Art was launched. Now his studio fills the sunroom of his home, a peaceful, bright space. On the table next to his canvas sits a mortar and pestle, used to make the cremains finer. Dollops of bright paint outline a square tray. In the center are the ashes currently in use.

Butler needs about two tablespoons of ash for each painting. (A body yields between four and eight pounds of ash.) He dips his brush in linseed oil and mixes it with the cremains before dabbing the canvas – “I treat it like another pigment,” Butler said. The texture the ashes bring to the painting could be mistaken for the uneven surface typical of oil paintings.

Since Butler began promoting his business this summer, he has completed about a dozen works. He charges $900 for a completed, framed 11-by-17-inch painting. Once he talks with the family and looks through photos, the painting takes about a week, and three more for it to dry.

Butler’s current commission is for Meg Schultz, a Massachusetts woman who lost her husband, Steve, suddenly last year. The work-in-progress is affixed to his easel so the artist can layer on the paint as he interprets a photograph of a beach scene taken by the deceased.

“I think it was important to him, so I make it important to me,” Butler said of the image. “I do feel a connection to the people. I don’t see how you couldn’t.”

Schultz, 50, said her husband loved photography and he loved Cape Cod, where they’d settled permanently shortly before his death. Unsure what to do with his ashes, she found Butler’s business during an Internet search. She called the artist and immediately felt comfortable with him, appreciating that he’d visited the Cape and understood how special it is.

While she notes that art from cremains may be a bit “outside the box” for her, she’s excited to see the finished product and has had the support of friends who know about the project.

“What you do after the death of a loved one is always a very personal thing and everybody does things differently. Some people have funerals. That wasn’t what my husband wanted,” said Schultz, of East Sandwich. “I really wanted the work of art. It’s going to be one of those things where people may not even know what it is. There will always be part of him here in this house.”

Natalie Pompilio
Philadelphia Inquirer