Need an Action Figure of a Dead Loved One? Meet Jeff Staab

by Rachael Maddux

Can’t Take It With You #4: Jeff Staab, Proprietor of Cremation Solutions

When it comes to grief, what’s meaningful and what’s creepy is often a matter of largely unpredictable personal preference. I recently came across a website selling 12-inch poseable action figures that are customizable to resemble a dead loved one, whose ashes you can also get sealed inside. After an initial reaction that was something along the lines of “oh HELL no” and a swift x-ing out of the browser window, a minute later I found myself back on the page, scrolling through all of the options: “Trendy Male,” “Casual Female,” “Male Grey Suit,” “Nice Nurse,” “Karate Male/Female.”

I can’t imagine a scenario in which I’d be capable of drawing comfort from the depths of the uncanny valley, but grief has a way of imbuing the strangest things with healing powers. Somewhere, at some point, someone has taken great solace in one of these eerie flat faces — and it’s entirely possible that one day some unrecognizable future version of myself will, too. Or maybe it will be a Cremation Crystal Companion or a custom portrait with cremains pressed into the glass or a life-sized human head custom made in the likeness of my dear departed whoever.

These things are all available for purchase from Cremation Solutions, an online store run by former funeral director Jeff Staab. Like Sarah Wambold, who you met in Can’t Take It With You #1, Staab is a funeral industry ex-pat who’s trying to forge a saner path through the wilds of death and mourning in America. It all started with Staab’s invention, a few years ago, of an urn that converts into a memorial birdhouse once the ashes are scattered; since then, he’s written widely about cremation and ash-scattering best practices on his blog, and recently began working with certified celebrants to offer personalized funeral-writing services. The goal, generally, is to find a middle path between the stuffy, expensive world of funeral homes andthe chaos of a haphazardly dumped Folgers can.

By way of this interview with Staab, I’m happy to welcome Can’t Take It With You back from an accidental summer vacation (uh, YOLO?). Are you someone whose life or work intersects with death and money in an interesting way? I’d love to hear from you.

So once I saw those poseable action figures I was like, “I need to talk to the person behind this.”

Yep, that’s a new thing I’m doing. I actually just sold one yesterday — Superman. Someone was getting their dad as Superman.

Was that the first one you’d sold?

Oh, no. It’s the big heads I don’t sell very much of. They get written about a lot, but I hardly sell any. They’re really expensive and they creep people out. They’re too real-looking, really. They look just like the person. As good as the photograph you give us — that’s as real as they look.

One reason I did those was because that was the chant in the industry: “Personalization! You gotta put pictures on it.” I said, “Well, what’s more personal than a person’s head?” And it ends up, they look too real. Even though people have used busts and things since the Greek times, when you add the color and detail, they just look like a head. But they help me with link building, so that’s good. People like to write about them and link to the website. That helps me sell other urns, so I can’t complain about ‘em.

You started as a funeral director and a counselor, and I was wondering if you could trace for me how you got to this point in your career.

I was a funeral director on Long Island and in New York City and then got kinda fed up with the rat race, so I came up to Vermont, ski bummed for a while, then got back into being a funeral director and did that for 15 years. It’s a lot different — I’m really in the country now. It’s not like city funerals where everybody’s crying and falling all over. It’s a lot more natural. People take death a lot more naturally up here.

Scattering is getting really popular and the cremation rate has been growing here in Vermont. I invented the birdhouse memorial urns, so that’s what kind of got me out of being a funeral director and into being a supplier. I patented them and I went to all the big funeral conventions with them and they weren’t received very well by the funeral industry. As I’ve learned over the years, nothing’s really received well by the funeral industry, especially if it’s new or forward-thinking. It’s just a very backward, very slow-to-try-anything industry.

But I just kept plugging along at it. And I wanted to learn about scattering so I started doing some research and there really wasn’t much out there. I came to realize that the industry pretty much just abandons people that want to scatter, I think because they don’t see money in it. They don’t try to help them scatter or attend the scatterings or anything. So I started writing about that, and I learned a lot from celebrants. And then I became a certified celebrant.

Tell me about celebrants — I’m not familiar with them.

Oh, that’s gonna change the American funeral. That’s the best thing that’s happening in this country right now. Ceremonies have been very cookie-cutter and not very personalized in this country for a long time, and as a result a lot of Americans aren’t having funerals anymore. They’re having private memorials and scattering and having a party in the backyard.

Celebrants are an alternative to, like, clergy doing a funeral. It started in Australia, and now in Australia celebrants do probably 90 percent of all the funerals and weddings. I found out that there was a branch of them in Montclair, New Jersey, that’s probably been around for about 10 years. They’ve been slow to be received by the funeral industry, but they’re doing really well with weddings and slowly, slowly breaking into the funeral industry.

I just started a couple months ago a celebrant writing service where you can hire a celebrant to write your funeral, but not perform it. You can have a family member or a friend or whoever — someone who’s a good speaker — give the ceremony. You can go on my website and sign up and you get an interview form to fill out, and then the celebrant interviews you on the phone or Skype or whatever. You get a much more personal funeral service. That’s probably the thing that I’m most excited about right now.

I generally have an idea of how it works when you want a traditional funeral — the funeral home handles the body, that whole process. But when you’re scattering, as you said, it seems like people are sort of turned out on their own. What’s the usual path for someone who wants to scatter?

The usual is confusion, because people don’t go into detail enough when they say, “Just scatter me.” They don’t say where, when, and how, so a lot of times people sit on the shelf for a year before their families even get the courage up — or get the guilt built up enough — that they just go out and do it. It is giving people a lot of guilt because they’re not sure if it’s even legal, so they’re afraid to talk to the funeral director about it. It’s getting a lot of people left on the top shelf of the hallway closet. So I’ve been trying to put out a lot of information on the how-to’s and laws and hopefully I’m helping people get what they want.

The people that do scatter, it makes them feel good. It’s rewarding. It just feels natural to them and they do it in places of beauty or places that were important to the family or the deceased. And then it can be a cool place to visit.

I know cremation is on the rise, so I assume scattering must be as well.

Cremation is almost 50 percent now, in this country. And in a lot of states it’s over that. Here in Vermont it’s probably close to 70 percent cremation. And then those that get cremated, more than half are scattering.

What do you think accounts for that? Why are people more interested in it than they used to be?

The younger generations don’t like visiting cemeteries. The purchasing the casket, the vault — right now it’s really more the economy than anything that’s driving cremation. Because funerals are $8000 and cremations are $2,000. So that’s really driving it. Who’s got $8,000 kicking around for an unexpected expense?

I didn’t realize the difference was so stark!

You can get cremated for $1,000. I’d say the average funeral home charges about $2,000. If you shop around for a cremation society, Google “discount cremation” in your town, someone will come up probably that does it for $1,000 or less. For the same exact service for the funeral home you could pay $3,000 for the same thing. The prices vary that much.

The products on your website — where do they come from?

There’s a lot of different sources. I’ve got urn makers that are in the country, people that import urns, jewelry makers, glass and bead artists. I’ve probably got 25, 30 different suppliers and then I have some stuff I’ve done myself. I’ve done some importing of jewelry, I have the birdhouse urns and a couple other urns. The newest thing I just put out is the Loved One Launcher, which is pretty cool. It’s like a hand-held ash scattering cannon. I gotta get some videos up and stuff ’cause it looks really cool. You can put ashes in it — it takes a couple of CO2 cartridges, and I like to fill it up with confetti and streamers and you can just blast the ashes up and confetti comes down. It’s pretty festive.

I was on Joan Rivers’ show last year; It was a funeral for her dog that I helped her do, and then there’s a scene with me in her living room, showing her all the different products. She picked the Loved One Launcher for her dog and said she loved it and now I’m hoping they call me to scatter her ashes with the Loved One Launcher.

Do you often get called in for pets?

I’m doing more and more pet stuff and I like working with the pet market. It’s a little more forward thinking and I look forward to going to some pet conventions. I’m selling pet monuments, jewelry that holds the ashes, and pet urns. And I’m hoping to get busy enough with that that I can hire enough help to work the human side. I just want to go into the pet side. It’s a little more fun. I’m getting burned on people’s funerals — I’ve been doing it long enough, I guess.

Working in this industry, in various forms for so long — how has it influenced the way you think about your own family and your own personal plans for when you go?

I’m into the green burial movement myself, personally. That’s my plan for myself, it’s just the most natural and seems to appeal to me — I’m a little bit of a tree hugger. Cremation’s great but it’s not the greenest thing in the world, burning fossil fuels and all. But people do like it, and for whatever reason they consider it natural. But for me, green burial is the way to go: Biodegradable casket, no embalming, shallow grave, no vault. Back to dirt as soon as possible, that’s my way.

More from this series.

Rachael Maddux is a writer and editor living in Decatur, Ga.

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