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Death keeps art alive

On hearing the word memorial, does your mind’s eye envisage Nelson’s Column, The Cenotaph, or perhaps even the Diana Memorial Fountain? 

If it does, you’d be forgiven for thinking the memorial was a relic of remembrance from yesteryear, or a commemoration reserved only for dignitaries and national heroes. 

The truth is though, that Britain’s long tradition of memorial art is experiencing a rebirth with a contemporary twist, and among people from all walks of life. Indeed you could say death is keeping some art forms alive. 

Traditional craftsmen have almost become an endangered species, as modern technology offers up cheaper mass-produced machine-made alternatives to stone masonry, glass blowing, woodturning and calligraphy. But with a recent BBC survey proclaiming England’s cemeteries will be full within 20 years, and baby-boomers increasingly looking beyond traditional funerals and commemorations like headstones; craftsmen are beginning to flourish once again by creating personal memorial art.

Whether it’s inspiring words carved into a stone seat for the garden, a blown glass candle holder incorporating the ashes of a loved one, or a wood-turned urn beautifully inscribed with calligraphy, Britain’s growing movement of contemporary memorial artists can fashion it.

Somerset-based Elysium Memorials is a collective of artists who have been crafting bespoke memorials for the past 12 months.  

“A personal memorial which can be kept at home or in the garden can capture the spirit of a loved one and help with bereavement in a more meaningful way than a cemetery headstone or nondescript urn,” says Kate Semple, founder of

Kate has been a professional sculptor for 20 years. After attending the funerals of several friends and family members however, she noticed the way people were choosing to celebrate a life was changing.

“Instead of accepting what was traditionally on offer, lots of our friends and family were choosing alternative arrangements – such as humanist funerals,” she explains. “Natural burials in meadows or woodlands seemed to be particularly popular among people we lost, which explains why 270 natural burial grounds have been established in just 20 years.

“Because natural graves usually have to be left unmarked so the land can return to nature as quickly as possible, it struck me there was a need for personalised memorial art for the home or garden.”

The UK population is set to grow to 80 million by 2060 and 3.5 million baby-boomers are set to reach pension age in the next five years. With religious funerals also on the decline, Kate realised creating bespoke memorials could provide solace to a generation looking for more personal ways to be remembered. 

By collaborating with fellow artists from the world of glass, wood and calligraphy, she also saw a future with artistic integrity for struggling traditional British crafts.

“To capture the spirit of an individual in our art, we need to be very open when dealing with a bereaved client,” she says.  
“We believe talking about death should not be a taboo subject.
“We invite clients to talk freely and give them a supportive space in which to express themselves - listening and taking the time to gain a genuine understanding of the person whose life is to be commemorated.

“Creating and commissioning a unique piece of artwork in honour of a life well lived is a positive, life affirming thing to do.”

Photo above: Artist in glass Sonja Kingler at work

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