Memorial monuments can mark and identify the resting place of our dead. They can bring an expression of the spirit of the deceased to a cemetery. They can also provide a focal point for survivors to continue their connection with their dead. From materials and artistic techniques to text and design, there are many ways to make these memorials meaningful. Among all the creative and beautiful memorials being created today, the work Greg Lundgren of Lundgren Monuments in Seattle stands out. He creates monuments out of cast glass. I'm pleased to be able to share a conversation with Mr. Lundgren here.
Patrick McNally: Personalization has been the buzzword in funeral service for many years, but often the difference between a personalized funeral or memorial and a standard one is minimal. We see markers and program folders with photos instead of markers and folders without. Often the difference seems akin to a blank t-shirt and a t-shirt with a motorcycle or beach scene on it. Do you think that your product is qualitatively different?
Greg Lundgren: I think what distinguishes Lundgren Monuments is both product and service based. As an architectural glass designer, what I brought forward into the industry, and what I fought for, was the introduction of cast glass into the cemetery landscape. It required a lot of convincing, educating the industry about the properties of cast glass, and placement of our memorials in different climates around the world, before cemeteries stopped viewing it with great suspicion, and more as an exciting, vibrant new medium. So from a product sense, Lundgren Monuments really pioneered, and delivered an expanded palate for designers to work with. From a services standpoint, we are a custom design house, and I work very closely with my clients to develop something original and one of a kind. I don't direct them to a catalog or a cookie cutter inventory, and no idea is out of reach. I think it is increasingly rare to work one-on-one with a designer that starts with a blank sheet of paper. And where 90% of memorial designers are working exclusively with stone, I design with bronze, stainless steel, granite and cast glass to push the sculptural dimension and texture of a project. Five years ago I would have said that it was large-scale cast glass, or maybe my modern aesthetic that made our company unique, but much more than that it is the service we provide, the close relationship between designer and client to craft something that really is collaborative and special.
Patrick McNally: Monument companies often rely upon a referral or a relationship with a funeral home or cemetery for much of their business. In turn, there are too many options for funeral directors or cemeterians to be able to share with their clients in a limited amount of time.
Have you experienced successes and setbacks in getting referrals? Is your product unique enough to draw in a lot of direct business?
Greg Lundgren: Almost all of our business comes from working directly with the family, and almost all of these families found us out of sheer diligence and frustration with their local memorial dealer or funeral home. Our clients share one common complaint, in that the choices they were offered in more conventional settings were simply uninspired and ill-suited for their loved one. We work with funeral homes and cemeteries all around the world, but not typically through their referral. I wish it were more the case, but most funeral homes and cemeteries have very exclusive contracts and relationships with established granite dealers. And I don't believe they offer enough options. If there were too many options, the cemetery landscape would look like a sculpture park instead of a row of dominos. And I believe that these long standing, very exclusive relationships between cemeteries, funeral homes and granite dealers are bad for the cemetery and bad for the client. I want to see the cemetery return to a position of cultural significance, to see it once again harbor sculpture and diversity, and that can only happen by diversifying the artists and mediums that are available to a family.
Patrick McNally: There is a great value to families in having a meaningful and beautiful place to visit their dead. It seems to me that the more the family connects to the memorial and site, the more they return, and the better able they are to continue their relationship with their loved one in a meaningful way. What has your experience been with families in the months after the monument has been installed?
Greg Lundgren: I agree completely. In order for cemeteries to retain their cultural significance and attendance, they need to be beautiful and serene landscapes. As an artist, I design all different types of things - from cathedral windows to modern furniture, to custom memorials, and across the board, working with a family on a memorial is the most satisfying process of them all. And I imagine you would hear this from many designers working in the funerary arts, but it is so rewarding to see the joy your work brings to the grieving. I think cast glass is especially responsible for this because it glows and holds a certain internal life force in it. So when families go to visit their loved ones and see their memorial literally glow, shine bright in the sunlight, it is pretty magical. And the light that activates our work does make you smile, and does make you think that the person it memorializes must have been very special. It is incredibly satisfying to hear from family and friends after a work is installed, to hear their excitement about a memorial that often reflects a great tragedy. And I suspect that is partly the power of art in our culture - to inspire, to give hope, to shine a little light into the darkness.
Patrick McNally: There seems to be a universal need for survivors to memorialize their dead, and to have a permanent place to visit them. Green cemeteries in the UK have found that covenants forbidding individual markers may have appealed to the deceased, but anger survivors. Families who have scatted ashes often place a cenotaph in a place where they can visit to feel connected to their dead.
Personalization often means that we must share a sacred place with people whose aesthetic we do not share. Whether it is artificial flowers, gang insignia, whirligigs, or gaudy markers, how do we reconcile our need to interact with a grave, and our need to visit our dead in a place that we find aesthetically pleasing?
Greg Lundgren: I think life in general requires great tolerance and compassion. Humanity is eclectic and diverse and I think we should really celebrate the individuality of a person. And while I believe that cemeteries should rightfully have unique rules and regulations, I am a huge proponent of sculptural diversity. Not just to allow glass, not just to push my own personal aesthetics, but as recognition that we all hold different beliefs, styles and expressions of our individuality. A cemetery memorial should reflect the quirkiness of the person it marks. How absolutely boring it would be if all the memorials looked the same, used the same granite color, the same font, and made no allowance for humor or ego or self-expression. The fastest way to make a cemetery irrelevant is to standardize the one last monument of the individual. My absolute favorite cemeteries harbor this kind of sculptural diversity, and I think that it is more of a selling point to a cemetery than a detriment.
Patrick McNally: How long have you been working with glass, and what led you to get into cemetery monuments?
Greg Lundgren: I have been working as a professional glass designer for 16 years. I started designing stained glass windows, and began doing more ambitious, larger scale projects. Before too long I was casting glass, but mainly for architectural elements in windows, doors, floors and furniture. My cast glass projects kept getting heavier and thicker, and further away from our collective ideas about glass. We live in a world surrounded by glass, but in fractions of an inch - like light bulbs, window panes and wine glasses. But in thicknesses of an inch or more, glass behaves a lot more like granite, and in many instances surpasses granite as an exterior sculptural medium (it is non-corrosive, non-stainable, non-porous, etc.) I was designing leaded glass windows for a new cemetery chapel, and was driving through the cemetery grounds. And in front of me were thousands of upright slabs of granite. As an architectural designer, granite and cast glass had become interchangeable. So it didn't take much to imagine big, glowing, colorful slabs of glass dotting that landscape. I guess you could say my entry into cemetery monuments was very accidental, but I love discovering dysfunctional systems and trying to improve them. And I find death care in general to be a very important, very dysfunctional system.
Patrick McNally: How has your experience working with families to create a memorial been different from working with other clients?
Greg Lundgren: I've been a designer my entire adult life, and have worked with a great variety of people, in a great variety of fields. In some ways, designing memorials is no different than designing a theatre set or a dining room table. You gather information, ask a lot of questions, define a budget, propose a design, refine, and eventually go into fabrication. What makes designing memorials so unique is the task of trying to marry the spirit of a person to a sculptural form. And how special the relationship is between designer and client. Memorials aren't something people buy and re-sell, or collect like art or antiques. It is as permanent as it gets and requires a great sense of trust. But the great majority of my clients are so respectful and appreciative that it is much more satisfying than designing furniture or other functional art. One memorial might not do much to change the world, but it can play an incredible role in healing, honoring the ones we love and changing the way we view and employ contemporary art.
1011 Boren Avenue
Seattle, WA 98104
To read an interview with Sigrid Herr, another outstanding monument artist, visit http://www.dailyundertaker.com/2010/07/art-of-remembering-conversation-with.html