For some, urns are a topic that borders on taboo. The mere term can conjure uncomfortably morbid thoughts that many prefer to push to the back of their mind. But Pete Saari is trying to change that. As the CEO and founder of Foreverence, a company that produces customized urns, he’s leading a revolution in how we view the end of our lives by allowing us to take a greater role in shaping our own legacy.
“This is no longer a death industry product,” Saari tells PEOPLE. “It’s your legacy brought to life. Our largest growing customer segment is individuals creating these pieces for themselves without a death event in site. In other words, well in advance of need. End of life directives, wills and estate plans are very much a part of our cultural fabric now and our product is a natural extension of those conversations.”
Foreverence has worked with the families of several music legends, including Lemmy Kilmister from Motorhead, Stone Temple Pilots frontman Scott Weiland, Devo founder Bob Casale — and most recently Prince. The miniature replica of the late “Purple Rain” icon’s Paisley Park estate is currently on display in the museum that celebrates his life.
PEOPLE spoke to Saari about Foreverence’s work celebrating lives spent in the spotlight — and those lived more quietly.
How did you first get involved in this business?
I had a technology and 3D Printing background and read an article in Time magazine about the fact that, in a very short window of time, the cremation rate had jumped from 10 or 15 percent of people choosing cremation versus burial, to crossing the 50 percent mark. Yet the funeral industry, to this day, propagates this old notion that individuals and families who choose cremation do so for financial reasons. I wholeheartedly disagreed. I think cremation families have the same desire for meaningful expressions of life and legacy as more traditional burial families, yet this was a need and a market segment that went ignored. The industry just keeps serving up the same old vases and boxes then complains about the fact that cremation families don’t want to spend money. If my customization choices were trying to decide between the blue vase, the green vase or the floral pattern vase, I wouldn’t spend any money either. That’s why I started this business. Cremation families want and deserve better.
How did you first attract the attention of notable figures?
Bob Casale, from the band Devo, was the first celebrity family we worked with. We were still in the concept stage of our business when I saw that Mr. Casale had passed. I was reflecting on the fact that; here is a guy who’s so associated with not only his art but also this very iconic object in the Energy Dome hat. I even thought, it’s the perfect geometry for an urn. So I decided to stop daydreaming and reached out to his management team, expressed my regrets and told them that I have a very unique suggestion about how to honor Bob, his life, his art and legacy.
The manager listened, liked the idea and told me he’d share with the family to get their thoughts. It was a spirited conversation but not one that I thought would lead to an immediate call back. Ten minutes later he phoned me back and said he shared the idea with the family and they loved it. They said it was perfect and it was “the first ray of light for them in a very dark period of time.” They said the only issue was that half of his family was in Los Angeles and half in Akron, Ohio and would it be possible to order two. They even sent me one of the original Energy Dome hats and invited us to be their guest at a San Francisco show.
The Devo story received a lot of press which made us very “findable” for other high profile families looking for something very special. Since then we’ve had the honor of helping the family of Lemmy Kilmister from Motörhead, the family of Scott Weiland from Stone Temple Pilots and, of course, Prince. The Devo piece is clearly a replica of the Energy Dome hat, but the real honor has come from being asked to design each of the other celebrity pieces we’ve made from the ground up.
How involved are the families in the process? What do you do to make them feel more a part of it?
It’s a very collaborative process with the family. We suggest themes and ideas, then we ask them to guide us with specific details they would like to incorporate. You end up feeling like you really knew this person. We really develop a closeness with the families we serve. We were even asked to attend Lemmy’s and Prince’s funerals, which was an unexpected honor..
The family will often send photographs or sketches or just describe ideas. We then synthesize those elements and start providing visual files back to the family. We’ll continue to refine and edit until the family agrees that the piece is perfect. We don’t make anything until it’s perfect.
What are some challenges you’ve encountered trying to execute the wishes of these families?
In many cases we are asked to provide a clear and identifiable object: A car, a boat, a lake-house, a piano, etc. But In some cases, it’s much more abstract. As an example, we have families who will call and say they would like a perfect memorial for someone who liked travel, reading, football and diet cola (these are just random examples). They will ask us to try and work all of those ideas and concepts into a piece and we’ll have to provide some guidance to make sure we meet the families wishes, but in a way that is artful and classic.
You’ve been quick to point out that you don’t just cater to rock star clientele—you’re here for people from all walks of life. What are some particularly moving stories that we might not have heard about?
When people think about an object that represents their legacy, they often think back to their youth and formative years. Judi Minges had no trouble coming up with a memorial piece that best defined her. Judi’s family spent nearly every summer of her youth and adult life at the family cottage on Lake Huron. The cabin had been in her family for 75 years. In 2007 the Minges family had to sell the place, and within weeks it had been torn down and replaced by a larger structure. Judy, now 74 and facing terminal cancer, said upon learning of Foreverence she knew instantly what legacy piece best defined her.
We also made a piece for a family whose patriarch was a design engineer for NASA and worked on the design of the original space shuttle. Beyond the fact that it was an amazing piece, what made this interaction so rewarding was that his family had decided that the space shuttle was a meaningful and appropriate legacy piece for their father, but he was still alive at 94 years old. As much as they agreed that it’s appropriate and meaningful, the only way to find out for sure was to ask him. They said they would only do the project if he agreed. Well, he agreed and they shared amazing video of the big reveal. He talks about how he’s so excited to share his urn with his friends at the senior living community.
What is some of the best feedback you’ve received from family members?
We really form a close bond with families. Words that come to mind are “comfort,” “relief” and “joy.” Those are not words you would typically associate with this product category. We help people tell the stories of their lives in an uncompromised way. The question is no longer, “Do you like the green vase or the blue vase better?” — it’s “How do you want to be remembered?”