How crowdfunding is breathing life into the afterlife with new memorial possibilities

Odds are, you’ve come across Kickstarter in recent years. A crowdfunding website that lets anyone raise money from anyone else for creative and entrepreneurial projects, Kickstarter has facilitated the production of tens of thousands of inventions, films, books, and more since 2009. If you browse the site for even a few minutes, you can find a little bit of everything — so  perhaps it's no surprise that Kickstarter is helping breathe new creative life into the memorialization industry.

From big, techy products to small objects of remembrance, new ideas about how to pay tribute to our loved ones who’ve died are finding their legs via crowdfunding.

Legacy talked recently with the creative minds behind three successful Kickstarter campaigns that have given rise to some new tools for honoring the lives of those we’ve lost. We learned where these entrepreneurs found their inspiration, why they turned to Kickstarter for funding, and how they've fared since their projects met their funding goals.

Upcycling the Life Cycle

In 2002, Gerard Moliné founded Bios Urn, which offers a biodegradable urn in which ashes can be placed along with tree seeds. In 2013, his brother, Roger Moliné joined the company, and they soon began developing a tech-savvy companion to Bios Urn: the Incube.

The Incube brings the tree indoors, pairing the biodegradable urn with a self-watering planter that monitors environmental conditions and relays those conditions to its owner via an app. It's a pairing of nature and technology that the Molinés loved, but they wanted to make sure there was a market for it before they began production. That's why they turned to Kickstarter.

"We are a small company," Roger told me, "and we need to think twice or even three times before we make such an investment in a product. We cannot afford expensive and big marketing studies in understanding what people want and don't want. [When using Kickstarter] you know first-hand from real customers what they wanted and what they didn't."

Wearing Your Emotions

Ben Dougal created a line of pins and patches that he calls “memento mori.” The phrase — which literally means "remember death" — has its roots in the middle ages but was a particularly important part of Victorian mourning culture, in which those who lost a loved one practiced a very public sort of mourning that included wearing special mourning jewelry.

Ben, a graphic designer, has updated the concept of mourning jewelry, creating stylish pieces under the brand name Ritual End that are designed to grab attention. In the modern world, he says, death and mourning are considered morbid, something to be brushed aside in favor of happier topics. But it's important for the bereaved to talk about their loss. "I wanted a visual that somebody could wear," he explained, "that somebody else might ask about and it could start this conversation of 'I'm in mourning.' I love mourning rituals from the Victorian era, these symbols that tell other people that they have recently lost somebody. I love the acceptance of that."

Ben found the Kickstarter community to be an invaluable part of securing funding for his project. Most of his own promotion for Memento Mori was done via his Instagram account, but in the end, a survey he conducted showed that no more than about 10 percent of his backers were his Instagram followers. The rest found it as they browsed Kickstarter and were intrigued enough to offer their support. "I think there's something special about Kickstarter where it's a community of people who want to be the first in something," Ben noted. "So, there are a lot of people who peruse and see what they like and what interests them."

Holding Family Close

Mikki Glass and Troy Haley also updated a classic tradition for their Kickstarter-backed business: They've created a line of lockets that can be customized with a perfectly sized and cut photo that you provide when you make your order. With You Lockets features a line of memorial jewelry, including a locket pin that can be placed on a bride's bouquet to carry a lost loved one down the aisle with her.

It's a concept that's deeply personal to Mikki, who envisioned it when her sister got married a few years after their father's death. "I decided to create an anklet for her that I put a locket on so that my father could walk her down the aisle," she told me. It turned out to be the perfect gift, and Mikki wore that same anklet as her "something borrowed" at her own wedding.

One of the best moments, Mikki found, was when she gave her sister the locket and she was able to open it and immediately feel the rush of emotion prompted by the photo of their father. "You hear it all the time," she says. "I love lockets. They're great. I have this locket someone bought for me and I've never put a photo in it.… If I had just given my sister an anklet with a locket and said, 'Here, why don't you put some photos in it, so daddy can walk you down the aisle,' the gift would have never gone the way it did. The reason it worked, and the reason it was so special, is because I was standing with her when she opened it and saw that our father was inside."

From Inspiration to Entrepreneurship

Mikki isn't alone in finding inspiration for her idea in painful loss. Ben created his Memento Mori project after he and his wife lost their baby when she was 39 weeks pregnant. Their grief was compounded by friends' reluctance to talk about it. He was angry and frustrated with "that experience of having been through something so life-changing and then having people just kind of brush it off or even expect that there would be a point that we would get over it, just forget about it." He wanted to talk about his loss, so he began imagining the visual cue that would prompt people to ask about it.

Roger and Gerard didn't envision Bios Urn and Incube out of the clear blue sky, either. Roger described a formative experience that inspired Gerard: "He was a kid and he was planting vegetables with our grandmother. And our grandmother found a dead bird laying on the ground and what she did, instinctively, was to take that dead bird, make a little hole in the ground and throw in the whole of the dead bird with some of the seeds that she had in her hand." The idea of nurturing life out of death stuck with Gerard and became the seedling of his later business idea.

Kickstarter campaigns don't always work. For every great idea that gets funded before its deadline, there's another one that didn't quite manage to meet its goal — or barely scratched the surface of the funds needed. Memorial products aren't exempt from that uncertainty. Among the failed Kickstarter campaigns in the memorial realm are an urn planter that's a lower-tech cousin to the Incube, a custom 3D-printed urn concept, and a walking stick with a special receptacle for ashes that allows you to scatter them while taking a memorial walk. They're not bad ideas; they just didn't capture the attention of the backers needed to get off the ground.

Troy credited friends and family for the Kickstarter success of With You Lockets, but before friends and family could help spread the word, Troy and Mikki had to provide a solid concept and put on their networking hats to inform everyone they knew about it. Once their campaign launched, they were lucky enough — and their product was special enough — to be singled out as a Kickstarter Staff Pick, which boosted their efforts. Gerard and Roger reached out to influencers when they launched their campaign, and their blog posts and word of mouth helped fully fund the Incube campaign within ten days. Ben had a small, attainable goal — just $675 — and a tiny price point, starting at $6 for tangible rewards. He ended up raising more than two and a half times his goal, thanks to having piqued the interest of the Kickstarter community.

All three followed through with their end of the deal: Once funded, they quickly went to production and got their products out to their backers. That created goodwill with their supporters, and it's a big part of the reason why all three remain successful. Even if you didn't get in on the Kickstarters, you can buy an Incube, a With You Locket, or a Ritual End pin. They stuck with it and succeeded — and that's not something all Kickstarter dreamers can say.


LInnea Crowther is Legacy's senior writer. Read more stories by Linnea:

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