Peter Saari immortalizes rock 'n' roll royalty

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The custom urn-maker designed this memorial for Devo's Bob Casale, mimicking the band's famous red conoid hats.

No one thought Lemmy Kilmister could die.

In his 70 years on this planet, the eminent Motörhead frontman shellacked his organs with Jack Daniel's and Coke. He fucked his heart to within a beat of embolism. He took so much speed that it turned his blood to grease. And he always rose to pull his boots back on.

So when death finally came for Lemmy on Monday, December 28, 2015, there was only one person who could memorialize the speed metal immortal — Maple Grove's Peter Saari.

Saari works out of an office somewhere in the beehive of industrial parks that is Eden Prairie. He coaches junior high basketball and makes very safe jokes about politics. He wears a smart wool pullover and a dadly pair of light-wash jeans, his hoary hair gelled into a business-casual quaff. He doesn't look like a rock star. Nor does he resemble an undertaker. In truth, he's a bit of both.

When Lemmy died, Saari designed a mantle-sized monument, modeled after the star's signature leather cavalry hat and emblazoned with the slogan "born to lose, live to win."

The Kilmister family loved the creation so much they invited Saari to attend Lemmy's funeral in Hollywood.

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"It was kind of crazy having to get through security and watching Gene Simmons, Ozzy Osbourne, and Dee Snider walk by," he says, still bewildered, "but the reason I wanted to go was to hand-deliver the piece to them."

The Minnesota-made cremation vessel will live forever in the famous Forest Lawn Cemetery with the ashes of the mutton-chopped hessian resting inside.

Lemmy's are the second rock-star cremains to be committed to one of Saari's products. The first belonged to Devo's Bob Casale, whose family received an urn in the shape of the band's iconic energy dome after Casale died in 2014. Now, just 10 days removed from committing his Lemmy memorial to the columbarium in Forest Lawn, Saari's company is at work crafting a megaphone-shaped capsule for late Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland.

"We're not out there saying, 'Hey, look, we're the rock-star urns,'" Saari says. "We make pieces for everybody. We're here to provide people with an opportunity to better represent the story of their lives."

The Ace of Hades

In 2013, Saari was a businessman with a lust for manufacturing and a subscription to Time.

He'd been consulting for a company called Nexxt Technologies that distributes 3D printing systems and materials. The idea of building an object by printing layer upon layer of material enamored Saari. After reading a Time special report claiming that a rise in cremation rates was "redefining death," he considered how 3D printing might redefine the urn.

No one on the market at the time was offering truly custom urns. Families who chose cremation over burial were picking between flower pots and glorified coffee cans. If you were lucky, you could get a personalized engraving. "The funeral industry still sees cremation and cremation families as kind of the low-value side of their business," Saari says. "They're not giving the same level of attention or personalization to cremation families as they are to burial families. They just don't see the money in it."

Saari did. He leased an office down the hall from Nexxt and purchased a 3D Systems ColorJet printer with the power to turn ceramic dust into one-of-a-kind, money-making mementos. He would turn an unsupplied demand into a business, following the footsteps of the entrepreneurs in Time magazine. He envisioned Etsy for your ashes. Extreme Makeover, Cremains Edition.

Foreverence was born. Saari brought on then-32-year-old marketing wunderkind Noah Miwa, founder of local ad agency 5IVE. Miwa's work began as it would with any client: He put together brochures. He mocked up logos and wordmarks. He struggled to build a website that properly communicated the weight and quality of their product. One day, he's developing a brand identity for artisanal gin; the next, he's convening with widows to design sentimental jugs for their husbands' powdered remains.

"There was definitely a creep factor," he says, now two years into his tenure at Foreverence. "If you told me five years ago that this is where I would be, that I'd be going to funeral trade shows looking at the newest hearses, I'd think it was crazy."

That changed in February 2014, when Devo co-founder Bob Casale died of sudden heart failure at the age of 61. It was months before Foreverence was ready to go public, but Saari saw an opportunity to honor one of his musical idols.

He reached out the manager of the New Wave icon and offered to create a vessel in the shape of the famous red conoid hats Casale and his bandmates wore in their video for "Whip It." To Saari it seemed like the most iconic representation of the band, and therefore the best way to honor Casale. The family agreed. They ordered two.

Saari says they gushed about the canisters they received, calling it "the first ray of light [they'd] seen in a very dark period of time." The response convinced Miwa that going from ad maven to urn dealer wasn't such a ghoulish career change.

Aside from Casale, Kilmister, and Weiland, Saari and Miwa's most notable client has been NASA engineer Felipe Herrera, whose involvement in the design of the space shuttle Columbia was memorialized in a 22-inch replica created to be his final resting place.

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"We all were just sick to our stomach when we looked at urns," says Herrera's daughter Yvette Wilson, who worked with Miwa to design the urn. "It seemed like that was death. For us, it was like, 'I can't put him in there.'"

In a video posted to the Huffington Post, Wilson and her family present the spaceship memorial to the still-living, 95-year-old Herrera. "It's so beautiful," he says over and over again in disbelief. When the cameras went off, he wept graciously. He couldn't wait to share it with the other folks in his retirement community.

"At Easter time, we took the urn and showed it to all his friends at the community," Wilson continues. "He was so proud to say, 'This is where I'll be,' and he explained where his ashes would go. It was very cool."

Herrera died just weeks before Kilmister. He now sits in the cylindrical tank of his spaceship replica in his wife's house, where Wilson sees him daily.

"I look at it, and I just smile," she says. "I lost my nephew in September before we lost my dad. He's currently in an urn, and I can tell you how different it feels to look at him and how different it is to see my dad. I don't see the sadness looking at my dad's urn."

Ode on a printed Urn

Historically, urns have been celebrated, their designs carefully crafted. The Greeks and Romans labored over these expressions of legacy. Romantic poets like John Keats penned odes to them. But the advent of mass productions depersonalized the urn. Now you can pay $300 for what amounts to an ornamental spitoon.

"There are simply not enough high-value options for families that choose cremation," Saari says. "The industry hasn't come along on that."

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Saari's urns are not cheap. (He doesn't even like to call them "urns," preferring "memorial" or "tribute.") They average $2,500 to $3,000 per piece, about the cost of a low-end casket.

Over the last 50 years, the cost of burial has increased tenfold, whereas the average cremation/memorial service sits around $3,250, less than half of the burial price tag. The financially conscious are taking note.

In the 1960s, when English activist Jessica Mitford published The American Way of Death, her scathing exposé of the funeral industry, the number of people who chose cremation was about 3 percent. Back then, the average American spent $708 — about 12 percent of their annual income — on a single funeral. Now, as Saari is keen to point out in Foreverence's press kit, 50 percent of people choose to be cremated.

That number is trending up. As of 2013, 55 percent of Minnesotans eschewed burial for cremation, an increase of 18 percent over the previous decade.

An array of practical factors — including secularization, increased transience, and environmental concerns — has also driven people away from traditional funeral services. Saari's business is to offer a higher level of care to the pragmatically sentimental.

Cheryl Pletcher and Sandra Moran dated for 10 years before they could be legally married in their home state of Kansas. It took fewer than six months for the cancer in Moran's bones to metastasize to her liver. Pletcher has all the dates memorized. Married on May 25, 2015. Diagnosed on October 13. Gone on November 7.

"I'm only now just getting deep into the grieving process," Pletcher says. "At this phase, I find myself angry that the world is moving and she's not seeing it. I feel like she's becoming more distant as the days move on."

Pletcher looked to Google to find something worthy of Moran's legacy. She doesn't remember exactly who she ended up contacting, but In the Light is the first name that pops up on a search. They let you store your loved one's ashes in replica beer cans. Another competitor offers options like a football or a TARDIS. Saari keeps a sculpture of a White Castle hamburger that his team designed on his desk to remind himself that an urn can be anything.

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Peter Saari

Moran was a long-distance runner. An anthropologist. A beloved professor at Johnson County Community College. Pletcher couldn't suffer the idea of her ending up in something rote or tacky.

She and Saari settled on a memorial in the shape of her novels — the three she published and the one she never finished, stacked together with photoreal spines and covers. The final product sits on Pletcher's mantel, where Moran's presence is so constant that Pletcher can't bring herself to speak about her in the past tense.

"I'm looking at her right now," Pletcher says. "She's surrounded by her talent. I'm so proud of her for all the things she's accomplished. I'm glad to be able to have her where she wants to be."

Saari is party to the funeral-service industry, but he's as much an adversary as an ally. Though his products are sold mainly through funeral-home directors, he plans to do more direct-to-consumer business as life insurance policies begin to be written to account for custom death vessels. They already offer a pet service where you can have Charlie's sock-chewing snout compressed into a ceramic statuette without talking to a funeral professional at all.

They've also become something of tech darlings, demoing at the Consumer Electronics Show and being featured in hipster gizmo mag The Verge. Pletcher remarks that Foreverence doesn't even "feel associated with the funeral business."

"My only beef with [the funeral industry] would be that they're very, very slow to adopt," Saari says. "When I think of the future of our company, I don't want to put myself in the position where I'm dependent on their ability to take on new ideas."

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A Salesman of Death

Saari's machines turn powder into statues like a reverse Ozymandias.

After Miwa designs the specs for a piece, he feeds the info into a 3D printer, which lays ceramic powder on a design envelope in the pattern of the final product. Layer by layer, the printer builds the object from the top down. The whole process takes 9 to 15 hours and requires significant post-production touch-ups, but urns go from concept to completion in about a week.

The level of detail they achieve is immaculate. A replica of a '71 Chevelle comes out of the bay with a case of 8-track tapes in the back seat, the spines of each cassette legible to the naked eye. An urn for a shaggy pup named Toby comes with a tactile recreation of the owner's parquet floor. Across from the printer, a freshly minted Ferrari-shaped canister receives an automotive-quality gloss that perfectly matches its real-life counterpart. Everyone — not just leather-clad hard-rock deities — receives this level of attention.

"Lemmy Kilmister led a big life, but I don't think it was any more individual than anybody else's," says Grant Dawson, Foreverence's director of customer relations. "I don't think our business model is to do only well-known musicians' cremation urns. I think it's a byproduct of people who live singular lives."

A self-described "buoyant personality," Dawson is the first voice a Foreverence client hears when they call to make a purchase. He's the kind of toothy-grinned marketer who could make eternity in Hades sound like a long weekend in Santorini.

"I'll go home at night and chat to my wife and say, 'I talked to this person who lost their son, and I talked to this person who lost their spouse, and then I talked to this person who lost their father,' and she'll be incredulous like, 'Who has the energy for all that?' But I guess that's what makes me well-suited for the job."

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Foreverence memorials, including custom death vessels for pets, average $2,500 to $3,000 per piece.

That's why Saari, who previously worked with Dawson at a digital reproduction company, brought him on board to do customer outreach. He seems like an ideal candidate to divorce sentimentality from business sense. But the more he talks about his job, the more the marketing archetypes disappear from him completely.

"We're never really cured of grief, we just get beyond it," he says, his voice dropping any sales-pitch intonation. "But I think we play a role in making a difference in a time that is really dark for a lot of people."

In Mitford's book, she unearths the widespread lack of empathy in the funeral industry, calling it a "huge, macabre, and expensive practical joke on the American public." In its time, her book charged families to forego expensive pageantry in favor of sober and sensible ceremonies that didn't involve payment plans. According to industry critic Bess Lovejoy, The American Way of Death helped American families "establish a sense of control over their spending on funerals." It was a major pivot in the American perception of funeral services.

"Before Mitford's book, people were more likely to buy whatever the mortician told them to," Lovejoy says. "Mitford was offended by what she saw as the exploitation of mourners by a crass capitalist system. You don't necessarily love grandma more because you buy her a higher-quality casket — but that conflation of love and material items is rampant in our society, not just in mourning."

Foreverence doesn't run on Mitford's Marxist ideals. In the spirit of the late-noughties startup boom, the company is altruistic and service-forward, but folks pay a premium for that care. Making a difference is not payment enough for the people who subsist by ferrying people to the other side. "In the end, I'm trying to help them with a purchasing decision," Dawson says, "but I'm trying to do so in a way that's as tactful and sympathetic as possible."

And you walk away with something more than a nicely dressed corpse. In the modern conception of life, death, and value assessment, they're the capitalist's answer to The American Way of Death.

You're going to spend the money, they figure. So spend it on something that's worth a damn.

The Elysian Fields of Eden Prairie

You'd think that, with the constant exposure to death and its unoriginality, employees of Foreverence would be either numb or crippled by anxiety. Neither is true. They've all thought about what kind of urn they'd design to hold their ashes, but death is curiously not the operant focus of their business.

"You do think about death, there's no question," says Dawson. "When you talk to families about this, you have to be in touch with their own mortality. We all have those moments here. All of us here are confronted with the reality of that on a daily basis, but I don't think it weighs on me in a personal way."

Foreverence's office is nothing like a sepulcher. There's a basketball hoop in the parking lot, and Miwa can often be seen shooting around the halls on a CyBoard like a tween with an active Vine account. They share small talk and joke about how much Donald Trump sucks, just like at any other office. Like Dawson, Miwa reports that, despite being constantly shrouded in the specter of death in his professional life, his work isn't inherently depressing. It just sort of makes sense.

"For a lot of our clients, they've been customizing things their whole life," Miwa rationalizes. "Their wardrobe, their home, their car, why stop there? Why stop at death?"

He adds that last sentence with an inarguable frankness. Why stop at death? "You live your life however you wanna live, right?" he adds. "I feel like when you die, you get to have a say in that, too."

Death still exists as one of the Great American Unspeakables. It's shushed in polite company and talked away in euphemisms.

"When I first decided to start this company, one of the reasons I almost didn't do it was because I didn't know if I wanted to be surrounded by that much sadness," he says. "From a business context, that's probably a barrier to entry for a lot of people."

Overcoming this hangup is what took Saari from a casual Time reader to the exec fronting a company that is projecting $750,000 in sales in 2016. Saari doesn't belabor his mortality as much as you might expect for a man in his position. He admits that he and his wife have discussions about cremation, burial, and memorialization, but not even a day-to-day career in putting spirits to rest has made him nervous about the end of his own life. When asked about his personal beliefs on death, he laughs in a way that takes a professional mandate to perfect.

"Well," he says flatly, "I think that it's just the end."



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