Some of Kevin Ellsworth’s happiest moments were spent on his mountain bike.

Now a sculpture of him pedaling his beloved fat tire cycle along a rocky trail by Lake Superior will be his final memorial. His cremated remains will be contained in a red velvet bag tucked into the base of the sculpture.

The 57-year old Chanhassen resident and longtime chief financial officer of Scott County has terminal cancer.

During his illness, Kevin and his wife, Patty, have had time to talk about, and plan for, his death. Together, they wrote his obituary, prepared notification cards for friends and bought a lakeside memorial bench at Excelsior Commons, their favorite dog walking route.

The Ellsworths also contacted Foreverence, an Eden Prairie company that uses 3-D printing to produce one-of-a-kind urns. They met with a designer to talk about options for Kevin’s customized container.

“Crazy as it sounds, once you get past the idea that you’re dying, the process [of designing the urn] is fun,” Kevin said in February. “It was a collaboration. We envisioned a thing that didn’t exist and started throwing out ideas.”

In the past, religious tradition governed funeral practices and the final disposition of remains. Today, memorial services are often less standardized, less somber than in the past. Instead of following a set script, many services focus on the personality of the deceased, including his or her favorite music, food and activities.

That kind of personalization is now an option for cremation urns.

“There’s been a huge increase in the number of people choosing cremation, but the funeral industry hasn’t evolved,” said Pete Saari, founder of Foreverence. “You still pretty much settle for a blue urn or a yellow vase and ‘personalization’ means attaching an engraved nameplate.”

Since founding the company in 2014, Saari’s team has fashioned urns shaped like a Corvette, a cowboy hat and a cabin. One woman provided a photo of her father’s tattoo of a fish and asked for a 3-D representation.

The company’s most famous custom urn is on display in the atrium at Paisley Park.

Prince’s family sought out the company to create a permanent receptacle for the icon’s ashes. The container, which sits in a glass case, is a miniature replica of Paisley Park, with Prince’s signature symbol on the front. His ashes are contained in a small column.

“It’s the only piece we’ve ever done where we were asked to finish the inside. It has his piano and the dove mural on the wall,” Saari said.

Saari describes Prince’s sister Tyka Nelson as “deeply involved” in selecting the design. She and her son reviewed the Foreverence sketches several times and made specific requests.

“She didn’t want the column sealed; that felt claustrophobic to her. We built it so the front slides into grooves; it is secured but not adhered,” Saari added. “It has seven jewels on the front. She came out and placed the final jewel in the center of the piece. She wanted to touch and feel it.”

At Foreverence, talking through what Saari calls “the human stories” is the part of the job that challenges and touches him.

“A family comes to us and says, ‘Dad loved his convertible.’ We ask them to think in greater detail. Anything special on the license plate? A perpetually broken headlight? A car club sticker on the windshield?” he said. “In one family, it meant putting a box of eight-track tapes in the back seat.”

Before starting Foreverence, Saari had no experience in the funeral industry. He was involved in 3-D printing. Officially known as additive manufacturing, it’s the high-tech process that uses layering to build objects of any shape, size or geometry.

The finished products, priced by size and complexity, typically cost “four or five times” the price of a standard urn, Saari said, but are custom-made for each client.

“A woman came to us wanting a White Castle hamburger urn for her sister. She died of cancer after going though many rounds of chemo,” he said. “The sisters would steal away and eat White Castle hamburgers as the reward after a long and difficult day. That became their very special time.”

Rico Mace, CEO of consumer research firm Orman Guidance in Bloomington, said he’s not surprised to learn about the interest in customized urns, calling them “the last selfie.”

“We see personalization as a trend in every category,” he said. “Consumers want to interact with companies to create something customized, and emerging technology makes it possible.”

A lasting gift

But ashes, however they are contained, can present a dilemma that the people who choose cremation might not have contemplated.

“It was easier generations ago, when most people went into their family plot,” said Prof. Michael LuBrant, director of the mortuary science program at the University of Minnesota. “With cremation, there is something tangible at the end. The cremated remains are fraught with meaning, and something has to be done with them. Someone has to make a decision.”

Scattered? Buried? Kept on the mantel? LuBrant urges people to hold family discussions about their preference for their ashes. Clear, written plans that spell out last wishes and authorize an agent to carry them out are essential.

It’s important to think about how these remains will be passed from generation to generation. If they’re not interred for permanent memorialization, they will eventually wind up with someone who didn’t have a personal attachment and doesn’t know what to do with them. We think about the here and now, but what about inheritors down the line?

Kevin Ellsworth had time to make plans for his ashes. He asked that a third be scattered on the North Shore, a third be buried in a family plot and the rest be placed into his Foreverence container, which is placed on a dresser in the master bedroom.

“It’s not going on the coffee table in the living room,” Patty said. “This is just for me.”

When she and Kevin were talking about his end-of-life wishes, Patty told him she wanted to be cremated, too.

“Someday, I hope many, many years from now, Patty’s ashes will go into the plot beside me and the Foreverence urn will be buried with her,” Kevin said.

Until then, it’s Kevin’s fervent hope that the sculpture of him on his bike on a glorious Minnesota day will be his final gift to his wife. 

“I’m at peace,” he said in February about his impending death. “Leaving her is the only thing that chokes me up.

“I thought she would look at this and smile. A box on the mantel? You don’t smile at that.”


Kevyn Burger is a Minneapolis-based freelance broadcaster and writer.