Copyright © 2019 Albuquerque Journal
Parting Stone founder Justin Crowe, 31, wasn’t always a morbid person. Not so long ago, he was a carefree college student studying ceramics at Alfred University in upstate New York. But his life changed when his grandfather died.
Crowe came to Santa Fe when he heard the end was near for his grandpa and was around a lot during his final months. The death triggered a strong reaction in Crowe, who started mourning his own mortality. As part of the healing process, he bought 200 human bones on the internet, crushed them and created glaze for dinnerware.
What Crowe didn’t realize at the time was that he was planting the seeds for Parting Stone, a business that is disrupting what is known as the death care industry. Fast forward to 2018, when Crowe’s idea to transform cremated human remains into beautiful stones won the top prize in Santa Fe’s bizMIX startup competition.
But the formula needed some fine-tuning. New Mexico Small Business Assistance put Crowe in touch with Chris Chen, a ceramics engineer at Los Alamos National Laboratory. At no cost to Crowe, Chen and his team helped him develop a process to chemically alter ashes so they became stone-like solidified remains.
Thanks to the collaboration with LANL orchestrated by NMSBA and the support of bizMIX, Parting Stone has become one of the hottest startups in Santa Fe. Even before he officially launched the company in September, Crowe attracted $500,000 in private investments from local financial backers. On Nov. 14, the Regional Development Corp. announced that Parting Stone had been chosen for a $20,000 technology and manufacturing fund loan for 2019.
Crowe is no stranger to fanfare. During a presentation at The Alley in DeVargas Center, he described how a mannequin selfie stand he designed went viral on the internet and garnered attention from big media outlets such as CNN, “Late Night With Seth Meyers” and Buzzfeed.
Then lightning struck a second time: Crowe’s line of memorial ceramics glazed with the ashes of loved ones and pets was profiled by NPR, driving up sales at his online company Lifeware.
But once the publicity died down, so did sales. Crowe ended up closing his business after a year, he told a crowd that gathered to hear him speak Nov. 19 as part of Santa Fe’s Global Entrepreneurship Week.
Along the way, Crowe said he “fell in love with the death care industry. It’s totally bizarre and completely outdated.”
Despite the growing acceptance of cremation, Crowe said the industry is “doubling down” on embalming, working on the regulatory front to force funeral homes to maintain equipment that they may not need.
“The typical story is that great-great-grandfather started the business, but the model stopped working 15 years ago,” he said.
Part of the reason is a waning adherence to religious doctrines that ban cremation, but the real reason is cost, Crowe said. Burial with a coffin averages $8,500, versus $1,500 for a typical cremation, depending on which part of the country the deceased is located. Parting Stone’s service costs $595.
Crowe and his investors see huge potential in the business of transforming cremated remains into small mementos that can be distributed to family and friends, and placed in meaningful places – say, next to a lake.
Crowe estimates there are 20 million boxes of ashes sitting in closets around the U.S. “There is a user experience problem with ashes,” he said. “No one knows what to do with them.”
Parting Stone has received a grant, through NMSBA, for $100,000 to study the environmental impact of scattering stones vs. ashes, and another $100,000 to help publish a white paper on the topic, believed to be the first of its kind, that will be submitted for publication to a scientific journal.
In the first two months of business, Parting Stone has received 100 orders for its service, which yields about 25 stones from what was once a 100-pound body. The process, which occurs in a Santa Fe lab, takes three weeks from start to finish.
Right now, Parting Stone is hiring for the wholesale side of its business and has applied for a utility patent on its process, which uses machinery from both the pharmaceutical and ceramics industries. Crowe declined to have the equipment photographed because of concerns about intellectual property theft.
The company is also branching into accessories, including boxes for the stones and jewelry.
In addition to human remains, Parting Stone also services pets. The company has handled cats, dogs, birds and part of a horse, he said. The services for dogs cost $295 while cats cost $245.
One of the most poignant stories Crowe told during his talk was about a woman who asked to visit him at home instead of in his office. She told him she didn’t have much time to live and asked him to explain what would happen to her body if she used his service. “The stones were sent to her memorial. It was so beautiful to see her take control of the end of her life,” Crowe said.