It was one of those assignments where you’re not quite sure whether to approach it as a lark or as a serious topic.
Rene de Diego of Remembrance Diamonds Corp. of Vancouver had contacted the CBC newsroom here in St. John's with the offer to talk about his company’s diamonds made from human ashes.
I called his number, left a message, and then my mind went awhirl.
I thought of all the ways humans have come up with to dispose of their dead. And what all those ways have in common — burial, entombment, cremation, funerary cannibalism, you name it — is the assumption that human life is somehow more special than any other life on earth.
Clearly, the thought of dissolving or crumbling back into mere star dust after having been so breathtakingly present, especially in our minds, is too packed with futility to be easily swallowed. We've preferred the notion of an afterlife in some shape or other, even at the imagined risk of spending the rest of eternity in a place like hell.
Yet we have no idea whether any of the Viking chiefs burned in their long ships ever reached the shore of Valhalla. Did any of the pharaohs ever make it through the Field of Reeds to the Hall of Judgement? How many of the great khans and caliphs are still slumbering in their tombs and mausoleums wondering what awaits them on the Day of Reckoning? How many Christian souls are currently biting their nails in Purgatory?
Days before the moon
All so muddy and confusing, I thought. Then I remembered a short story by the Cuban-Italian writer Italo Calvino.
A very ancient being reminisces about youth and love in the days before the moon. Back then, according to the being, life on earth was ruled by crystalline structure, by facets and edges, angles and intersections, reflections and refractions, and by spectacular harmonies of certainty.
Clearly, the thought of dissolving or crumbling back into mere star dust after having been so breathtakingly present, especially in our minds, is too packed with futility to be easily swallowed.
Then came the moon. In Calvino's story, it's covered with a sticky goo, a revolting slime which gets pulled down to the earth by gravitational forces.
Now it's the moon that's the diamond in the sky. Down here on earth, the slurping and burping begins, the munching and crunching, the gurgling and burbling of existence we know as organic life with its coming and going, its birthing and dying, its laughing and crying, its hoping and despairing.
I'd always loved that story; now it got me right excited. I said to myself, 'Ashes to diamonds — what was that if not an attempt to return to the timeless life of Calvino’s Garden of Crystals?'
Was I ever out of touch!
Memorialize, not immortalize
Rene de Diego called back the next morning, and we arranged an interview. We met at the place where he and others were setting up booths for the trade fair of the Funeral Service Association of Canada's annual convention held in St. John's this year.
After the first few obvious questions, I steered him toward the idea that his diamonds were really about the age-old quest for immortality. After all, diamonds are forever, aren't they?
"As opposed to immortalize, the word is memorialize," de Diego set me straight.
He basically told me to stop looking in the wrong direction. I took his point by checking out what was on display at the trade fair and, later, by Googling current trends in the funeral service industry. And this time, I think, I got it right.
The biggest trend of all is the shift from the traditional funeral, with its subdued and sombre decorum of sorrow for the loss of another one of us, to the new age celebration of another life which has done what all life does: come to an end after blazing or slowly burning its own unique trail.
The memory of life mortal
It seems every kind of funeral goes these days, as long as it errs on the side of life instead of death. Personalized services of every description; memorial videos and website shrines to keep individual stories alive; biodegradable urns with soil, ashes and seeds to start trees; even ashes cemented into "coral reef balls" to help regenerate coral reef growth; not to mention the ultimate return to cosmic dust by having your ashes scattered in space.
Some funeral directors in the United States are working on turning their funeral homes into spiritual community centres. Others are talking about leasing out space to Starbucks coffee kiosks, even having dining rooms for funeral feasts with fully stocked bars.
And I realized this is where Rene de Diego’s remembrance diamonds fit in; not the crystal silence of life eternal but the messy exuberance of life mortal.
De Diego had his own story to add to all that. He lost his father when he was quite young but gained a substitute mentor in one of his grandfathers. After his grandfather's death and cremation, he found himself at a loss what to do with the ashes. Then he heard about the option of turning them into a diamond.
De Diego says he hasn't had the opportunity to do anything with the gem that was his grandfather, other than keep it in its jewelry case. But his plan is still to have it mounted on a signet ring and wear it, maybe spin it on his finger every now and then and have a conversation with an old familiar voice that, inside him at any rate, is still very much alive.