May 18—Ashes to ashes to urn to box that ends up in the garage or closet.
There must be a better way to memorialize cremated remains, pondered Justin Crowe upon the death of his grandfather in 2014. He talked about loss with other people who would tell him about keeping ashes in the closet or garage.
"I was realizing it was a poor experience for one of their most treasured possessions," Crowe said. "Did we have to be receiving remains in this form?"
How about turning ashes into rounded, polished, hand-sized rocks? Crowe calls it "solidified remains."
Crowe, 32, ran with the idea.
Since launching Parting Stone in October 2019 near Rufina Street and Siler Road, Crowe has solidified the ash remains of about 1,300 people, roughly the population of Pecos. About a quarter of the business is pets.
"It is one of those things you didn't know you needed until it showed up," Crowe said.
Pets were in the picture right from the start. "Part of it is, I had a pet. My parents kept the ashes of my dog in the basement. It's the same problem," he said.
Cee Moravec signed up with Parting Stone when Zane, her 12-year-old Great Dane, died in February. She had 1 1/2 cups of ashes converted into 16 stones.
"I carry three of the smaller [ones] in my pocket," said Moravec, who works at a local film studio. "To see someone I loved so much, that I can carry in my pocket, appealed to me. I have one [stone] next to my bed. I will sneak him on a set sometimes."
The cost for solidifying human ashes is $695. It's $345 for a dog, $295 for a cat and $3,995 for a horse. Other pets can be solidified, too, even fish.
So far, Parting Stone has recruited 280 funeral homes and crematories, attracted nearly $2 million in investments and received an assist from Los Alamos National Laboratory to test the ash-to-stone concept.
Crowe had annual revenue of $300,000 last year and expects $1 million this year. Parting Stone has not even scratched the surface, he said.
Cremations now make up just over half of what happens with remains — more than burials — and Parting Stone does business with only about 1.5 percent of the nation's funeral homes.
Parting Stone typically starts with an 8- to 10-pound shipment of ash in a plastic bag packed in an 8-by-6-by-5-inch plastic box sent by a funeral home or crematory.
The ash is refined and purified by removing remnants of staples, screws and implants to create a smooth powder. Water and a glass binder are added to create a clay material. Research determined how much water is needed per pound of ash, Crowe said.
Rounded rocks are shaped from the clay and then fired in a ceramic kiln. A rock polisher finishes the job.
Crowe took his idea on the road. Early on, he drummed up business by traveling to funeral association conferences and Cremation Association of North America events.
"At one point, he approached us and explained his new crazy idea he came up with," recalled Don Fritz, operations director at the Cremation Society of Illinois, which has 10 offices with three crematories across the Chicago metropolitan area. "With cremated remains, there is only one option: You get the ashes. You can only do so much with the ashes. Here is a totally radical idea that you can do something different with ash remains."
Cremation Society of Illinois became one of the first customers and is still one of the largest for Parting Stone, and has shipped 100 to 150 ash boxes to Santa Fe. Fritz himself became a customer when he had a leg amputated.
"I have a bag of stones for my leg," he said. "I have them in a glass jar in the living room. It's a conversation piece."
All sorts of things happen with the stones. They are displayed in homes, distributed to family members, buried, left at a park in London, tossed overboard from a cruise ship — just to name a few, Crowe and Fritz said.
Crowe's idea gained traction out of the gate. He landed a $30,000 New Mexico Small Business Assistance Program grant from Los Alamos National Laboratory and was paired with a LANL advanced ceramics scientist to determine if it was even possible to turn ash into stone.
"The answer was yes," Crowe said. "Then the question was, Does anybody want solidified remains? I started going to funeral home conferences."
Before he actually launched Parting Stone, he already had Cremation Society of Illinois on board and did solidifications with "off-the-shelf basic equipment to prove the concept."
He won over a group of angel investors, which put up $500,000 in seed funding in August 2019 to enable the October 2019 launch of Parting Stone.
"We had to essentially find sophisticated equipment for each step of the process," Crowe said. "We have a fancy rock polisher. We have a fancy mill for refining the ashes. We have a pretty sophisticated kiln for firing the remains."
In recent months, the New Mexico Angels and Arrowhead Innovation Fund, a subsidiary of the Arrowhead Innovation Center at New Mexico State University, each stepped up with $100,000 investments, as did a variety of other investors. Parting Stone has received combined investments of $1.9 million, Crowe said.
Investors look for startup entrepreneurs with a team in place rather than a solo entrepreneur. Parting Stone approached Arrowhead Innovation Fund with a team, sales and intellectual property, said Carlos Murguia, the fund's associate fund manager.
"We started with a very strong team," Murguia said. "It was a unique proposition. There was cooperation with the company and the national laboratory. It was just a no-brainer."
Parting Stone also has an $800,000 loan from Finance New Mexico LLC, a subsidiary of the New Mexico Finance Authority.
Crowe said these funds would be used to expand Parting Stone's retail partner network, purchase faster and more efficient equipment, and expand the company's marketing efforts.
Parting Stone in November was awarded up to $97,290 in Job Training Incentive Program grants from the New Mexico Economic Development Department to train 19 employees. A previous JTIP grant of $76,084 was issued in 2019 to train nine employees. Parting Stone ultimately claimed $20,000 to train three employees in the first round and plans to train seven employees this round, Crowe said.
In its 2,500-square-foot midtown space, Parting Space could complete 500 orders a month — the ashes of one body produce about 40 to 60 stones — but the future is square in Crowe's sights.
"We just signed a lease for 8,000 square feet on [the] south side near the Fashion Outlets of Santa Fe," he said. "We plan to move in October."
He expects to solidify "a few thousand" cremated remains per month at the new location. Parting Stone has 17 employees, with Crowe expecting to have 24 on board by the end of the year and add another 20 employees in 2022.
"We are hiring several full-time production technicians with experience in manufacturing, art or science; an order fulfillment specialist; and a personnel manager," Crowe said. "My big goal over the next few years or 10 years is make solidified remains the preferred option for all families with cremated remains."