Some tens of thousands of years from now, archaeologists are digging in the ancient burial grounds in what was once the bustling industrial city of Akron.
They are puzzled by what they find here and there among the rows of mundane steel coffins.
They find casserole dishes with ashen remains inside. Yes, casserole dishes, made of aluminum. They are decorative. Some have the faces of the sun, sunflowers or other blossoms.
Years from now, no one may remember that this odd tradition all started with Don Drumm.
The Akron artist, known for his whimsical works in pewter and aluminum that can be as big as a house and as small as a mouse, never intended to get into the funeral business.
But it was born out of necessity a number of years back.
When his mother, Helen, died in 1987, she wanted to be cremated and her ashes buried above the casket of his father.
Drumm said in the haze of his grief, he simply was at a loss as to what container to use for her ashes.
Not satisfied by the receptacles offered by traditional manufacturers, he said, the undertaker chided him and reminded him that he’s an artist, so he should go off and create something.
So, out of desperation, Drumm said, he looked over the many decorative casserole dishes he offers for sale at his Akron gallery, and picked one that could hold the ashes. He drilled holes for two screws to hold the lid on.
And, with that, a quiet and somber Akron tradition was born.
As word spread of his casserole-turned-urn to honor his mother, Drumm said, he was surprised that others in the city and elsewhere wanted the dishes to hold the ashes of their loved ones.
“We have people come in [to the gallery] and buy the casseroles just for ashes,” he said.
The latest such purchase, he said, was for a family friend — a retired college president in West Virginia whose dying wish was to spend eternity in a Don Drumm casserole dish.
Across town and just over the border in Fairlawn at Billow Funeral Home, a new familiar face had arrived at the family-owned business that has a big presence in the city’s history.
The funeral home that dates back to 1875 is one of the oldest businesses still in operation in Summit County, and was the first to offer embalming services in the city. Its founder learned the then-new process during the Civil War.
Billow’s also holds the distinction of being among the first in the country to open a so-called funeral parlor to hold services outside of a deceased person’s home, and among the first in the area to offer cremation.
This rich history and a desire to remain ahead of the curve were rattling around in the head of Nathanael M. Billow when he decided to rejoin the family business a year or so ago. The former Detroit automotive executive returned to Akron after helping Ford Motor Co. put the financial pieces together for its major jump into the hybrid car business.
Billow said he was bothered by the cost and somewhat limited selection of urns available for families who have their loved ones cremated.
And the number of cremations keeps rising, accounting for about 55 percent of funeral arrangements now in Akron. That’s slightly higher than the national average; for the first time, cremations account for roughly half of the arrangements nationally, Billow said.
As the trend keeps rising, he said, the suppliers of urns and other keepsakes have not upgraded or revamped their products. He pointed to a small container for families who choose to divide ashes among loved ones. Each of these, he said, costs $95 and resembles a “salt-and-pepper shaker.”
“We complain to the manufacturers all the time,” he said. “The families deserve something better.”
When he would visit home during the holidays, Billow said, he would also pay a visit to Drumm’s studio and gallery near the University of Akron and “buy way too many” presents for family members.
Looking over the various works of art and, yes, those famed casserole dishes, he wondered why the family funeral home business could not form a partnership with Drumm to create unique urns that, in his view, are “way better than anything on the market.”
So one day, Billow walked into the gallery and hunted down Drumm to make his pitch.
Billow said he told Drumm that there are a lot of people who would love to have their ashes placed in his artwork.
“Don said, ‘That’s good news for you, but bad news for me because that means my customers are dying off,’ ” Billow said.
Drumm says now that he wasn’t looking to get into the urn business and had refused other partnership offers from Akron funeral home operators in the past. But after years of hearing of folks being buried in his casseroles, it was clear there was a demand for such artistic products, and the time was right to give it a try.
They then went to work in Drumm’s studio, hammering out designs.
Billow brought the expertise of the right size to fit in the niche of a mausoleum and the sturdiness to withstand the limitations of being buried or placed on a fireplace mantel.
Drumm was charged with coming up with designs to serve the spiritual needs of grieving families, ranging from simple sunflowers to a crucifix or cross.
The products were quietly rolled out late last year. And, Billow said, the response has been overwhelming.
Not only are families who choose to have their services at Billow picking the Drumm designs, but also Billow is now fielding requests from funeral homes throughout the country whose customers have heard about them.
“This appeals to the folks who identify with Akron or Northeast Ohio,” he said. “There are folks who just love Don Drumm and Akron.”
Buyers now have two Don Drumm solid pewter urns from which to choose. A typical nondescript bronze urn can cost as much as $1,200, while a pewter Drumm design costs $695.
Or they may pick one of 25 Drumm tiles that can be placed atop locally produced Amish boxes made of everything from cherry to oak to (the most costly) walnut. The tiles alone cost $150; with the wooden box, it’s $325 to $355.
Billow points out the Drumm collection is, in most instances, hundreds of dollars less expensive than urns offered by other manufacturers.
“This is all about how can we better serve families and celebrate Akron,” he said.
They are now working with Drumm to create jewelry that can hold a vial of ashes.
For his part, Drumm said, he’s humbled by those who want his work to be part of a loved one’s legacy.
But at age 82, he’s not quite ready to think too much about his own passing. However, he does have a strong opinion about his own eventual funeral.
He wants to keep things simple. A cremation will do.
And, no, he does not want to be put in a casserole dish for eternity.
“I don’t give a damn what you put me in,” he said. “I would like to have my ashes sprinkled at my home and studio. I don’t need a container.
“I just need a sock with a hole in it.”
Craig Webb, whose remains can be stashed in an old metal Chex Mix container, can be reached, for now, at email@example.com or 330-996-3547.
By Craig Webb