Greg Lundgren, an architectural glass designer and former head designer for Seattle Stained Glass in Wallingford, aims to create a healthier culture and healthier attitude about death.

People need to “know the alternatives outside of funeral homes’ catalogs,” he said. “I’m selling ideas — they’re not wrapped up in shopping bags.”

Lundgren is referring to headstones and other memorials made of something other than granite. He prefers that memorials be more personal to the individual it’s for and to the family left behind — whether it be a portrait of the loved one, a record or a ceramic vase made of cremated ashes, an urn made of fabric or Legos, a wine crate made into a shrine or even having the deceased be shot into space.

“Few artists and designers are engaged in this conversation” of death care, he said. “It’s an open field no one’s playing in.”

Not only does he create his own line of headstones made of glass, bronze and other nontraditional materials, he wants “to get others to think creatively about our own mortality,” he said.

In addition to the regular exhibits showcasing various types of non-standard urns at his First Hill boutique, Lundgren is considering an event that would encourage chefs to create the “last meals” as found in various cultures.

“Most artists just need a reason to go there. If given the opportunity, people will stand up [and take part],” he said.

“Does it creep some people out? Yeah, sure,” Lundgren said. 

But he sees art such as sculpture as a means of carrying on a family history. “The container becomes worthless once people forget who you are,” he explained.

 

Honoring the deaths

Stefan Gulassa and Arne Pihl are two artists who have taken up Lundgren’s challenge.

Gulassa, who specializes in custom-designed furniture and accessories, also sculpts stainless steel urns and vases for Lundgren Monuments. 

A standard urn is like “wearing our heart on your sleeve,” he said. “It’s not personal anymore, not intimate. Nobody needs to know what it is; urns can be just a beautiful object.”

Western society’s approach to death is “antiseptic,” Gulassa said: One is expected to “buy this plot, buy this casket…. We’re there for the birth, but we wash our hands for death.” 

In other cultures, like those in North Africa, births and deaths are celebrated. It is this connection he hopes to bring to this part of the world, he said.

“Funerals are for us, not for the deceased,” he explained. “This is a nice way to be part of it: to acknowledge our mortality and help you appreciate every moment.”

Pihl, a carpenter and poet, makes his urns out of smaller burls and wood shapes he finds in backyards and salvage yards.

“There’s potential in creating unique pieces,” he said of circle patterns and grain inlays in the wood. “Wood is such a fascinating medium…. It’s more beautiful than an abstract painting.

“I create a piece knowing that what’s going to happen — I honor that attention,” he said of making his urns. “Whether it’s words or wood, you’re taking one experience and processing it and translating it to another experience. I’m making a centerpiece of an intense and emotional ceremony for a person.”

 

Seeing the light

Art has historically been used to memorialize people. Portraiture is among the oldest forms of keeping people in our thoughts. In Rome, there are large sculptures that memorialize people.

It was also common to engage with the cemetery, particularly during the Victorian era, Lundgren said. Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, N.Y., is exemplary of monuments being used not only as memorials but to draw people in as if it were a sculpture park. 

“[Visitors] see blue in a sea of gray and black,” he said. “They see the light, they see hope, they see something that makes them smile. They’ll gravitate toward it.”

These days, Lundgren said, even the Lakeview Cemetery on Capitol Hill, the last resting place for Seattle’s founding families, is “now generic,” with more recent headstones imported from overseas. 

“It doesn’t have the hands of designers,” he said.

Rather, he’d like to see the thousands of cemeteries around the country become dynamic places.

“It’s a relevant place to help subsidize artists in the city…. It’s underutilized,” Lundgren said. “A cemetery of sculpture is community-centric.”

 

Leaving a legacy

While Lundgren and his family spread much of his father’s cremated ashes a few years ago, he also chose to remember his father with two painted portraits and an action figure in his likeness.

“You don’t deal with [grief] in one week. I still deal with it on a daily basis,” Lundgren said. “It’s my way of interfacing with someone I loved.… We need that permission to have [our grief] last as long as it’s needed.

“It’s partly my job: to help [people] realize there’s no wrong or right [way to deal with grief]. I give them license to do it differently,” he added.

Lundgren finds that most of his work — which has traveled to such places as Hong Kong, Japan, United Kingdom, New Zealand, Australia and Canada — is to memorialize children.

“I preconceived [my clientele] to be older,” he said. But more than half of the memorials he creates are for people under age 21, mostly female, who’ve died in car accidents, he said.

Lundgren’s commissioned memorials “glow and radiate” like the people they represent, he said — “not as cold and lifeless” as stone headstones are.

He said he wants to be remembered for having “helped birth a renaissance in how we approach death and dying. He’s even working on his second children’s book about how to handle death.

“My memorial [will be] my legacy,” Lundgren said. “I don’t need a headstone or a good-looking urn.… I like to think my work carries over. My legacy [will be] inspiration.

“My friends find me maybe a little eccentric. But it’s not a morbid thing: My headstones are pink and purple,” he said.

Lundgren Monuments, 1011 Boren Ave., will next showcase “The Softer Side of Death,” an exhibit of urns taking the forms of fashion accessories, such as shoes or handbags. It will run May 3 through June 3.