CHICAGO (Reuters) - Last summer, Melody Jamali lost her 21-year-old son, Eric. Her pain was heightened by the impersonal service she received while selecting an urn to hold her son’s ashes.
“I was appalled, absolutely appalled,” said Jamali, who was overwhelmed by the stress of it and wound up settling for a vessel that had little meaning. “It was just a transaction. It was the height of insensitivity.”
From start to finish, nothing was right. At the funeral home, she and her husband Mike were rushed, faced with limited choices and bombarded with tacky details from the salesman. All the while, they were trying to hold things together for their two other children and convince family members, of Muslim and Christian faiths, that cremation was in keeping with Eric’s wishes.
“There were VISA and MasterCard placards everywhere,” said Jamali, 45. “Every time you picked an option it cost. He was literally adding it up on a little calculator in front of me.”
Determined to make things right for other families facing similar circumstances, Jamali opened Une Belle Vie (decorative-urns.com), an online startup offering a wide selection of handcrafted memorial urns and hands-on personal service to help ease the emotional burden of handling funerary details while grieving.
The initial idea came from her husband, who owns a packaging firm for high-end retailers and supplied an estimated $200,000 in seed funding to get the venture going.
Since February 25, which would have been her son’s 22nd birthday, the site has been selling products ranging from simple unadorned metal containers to elaborate works of art. Prices start at less than $100 and move upward to more than $2,000.
A large portion of Jamali’s startup costs went toward stockpiling her inventory of some 3,000 urns, which includes selections in ceramic, leather, glass, resin, stone and wood. The option also exists for people to create their own customized urn and to celebrate beloved pets - a growing category in the industry.
“My feeling is that you should appreciate the life, you should celebrate it, and if you can, find a vessel that celebrates the person,” said Jamali, who sources her products from India, China and elsewhere around the globe, as well as from trips to art galleries, home decorator shows and the like.
Une Belle Vie is tapping into a growing niche. Jamali said sales have steadily improved since the launch, relying primarily on social media to spread the word.
According to the Cremation Society of North America, a trade group, cremation has been increasing in recent years. In 2009, nearly 37 percent of all deaths were handled this way, a gain of about 25 percent over the last six years.
The trend is being spurred a by a host of factors, including environmental awareness, growing tolerance of cremation by religious faiths and an increasingly mobile society that wants to keep the remains of loved ones close at hand. Cremation is also significantly less expensive than traditional burial services.
“There are a number of companies like this in the market today,” said John Ross, CANA’s executive director. “However, the increase in cremation rates will probably sustain some new entrants into the market every year for the next 15 years.”
Those shopping for urns at Jamali’s site usually don’t have to wait more than a few days to receive their order, as she stocks her wares in a 1,500-square foot warehouse attached to the company’s Englewood, Colorado offices. Inquiries go directly to her cell phone; she has fielded calls in the middle of the night, at her younger daughter’s soccer games, even at dinner. She has also broken the speed limit to get an order to the FedEx terminal on time.
Jamali gets some odd requests. One woman, whose husband is alive and healthy, wants his bowling ball gutted and converted to an urn that it will eventually hold his remains. Another wanted a beer keg retrofitted to do the job.
Through it all, she doesn’t shy away from discussing Eric, whose death was the result of an accidental gunshot. His picture adorns both the offices and website. The company’s name, Une Belle Vie, is an homage to Robert Benigni’s film “Life is Beautiful”. Watching it with Eric is one of Jamali’s fondest memories.
Connecting to customers on a personal level is a far cry from her long-time career as a law firm administrator, said Jamali, a self-described detail person whose new business requires her to assume the unofficial role of bereavement counselor.
“There are times when you walk by my office and I’m sitting there bawling,” she said. “It’s incredibly sad. I know. I know how sad it is.”
This is part of a monthly series about "Accidental Entrepreneurs" running on Reuters.com that will profile entrepreneurs who never expected to start their own business and are now running successful companies. If you think your company qualifies, please email Deb Cohen at smallbusinessbigissues @ yahoo.com