Tuesday 17 September 2019

'A reminder for generations that the deceased was unique' - how one woman left the rat-race behind to create cremation artworks

Carol McGowan with one of her mosaic headstones
Carol McGowan with one of her mosaic headstones
One of the stunning cremation artworks
Carol cremation artworks are subtle enough to be hung in the home but are a unique way to remember a loved one
Kathy Armstrong

Kathy Armstrong

Carol McGowan's life was turned upside down in 2010. She tragically lost her parents, Gerry and Antoinette within weeks of each other.

Not only that, as she struggled to deal with her grief in the years that followed, Carol's long-term relationship broke down.

She found herself in a city where rapidly rising rents left her struggling to cope financilally.

She explains: "I had a busy life, and a great job working as a graphic designer. Then I sustained an injury, which meant I lost my job. The financial pressures were enormous as I could only work part time hours whilst recovering.

"All this coincided with the sudden death of my parents - weeks apart. It was devastating."

"Rental prices were nuts and rising. I could no longer afford to live in the City. When I heard that my landlord was raising my rent again, I realised that a move outside of Dublin would make sense," she says.

One of the stunning cremation artworks
One of the stunning cremation artworks

Carol was born and raised in Dublin but both of her parents had retired to Co Leitrim, during a visit to a small village called Kiltyclogher in 2016 - which has a population of less than 300 people - she saw an opportunity and decided to grab it with both hands.

"My parents retired to Co Leitrim, I visited there regularly from childhood and really loved it. When I saw that rent was much more reasonable there, I thought, what have I got to lose?

"I was offered a chance to rent a little house in Kiltyclogher and when I went to visit the village in October 2016 I thought it had so much potential.
"There’s an enormously kind and warm community here. When I scratched the surface, I realised that within 35 minutes is Sligo town centre, in the other direction is the busy town of Enniskillen, Co Fermanagh,

"Award-winning beaches of Donegal are within 12 minutes drive of Kilty, there are also digital hubs with hot desks for the self employed in Manorhamilton. The place is oozing with culture and it has staggeringly beautiful views on its doorstep.

"I thought this is my chance to re-start, and took the plunge," she recalls.

Carol had originally trained as a designer in NCAD and in a bid to deal with her grief, she had turned to creativity and began to paint and cut mosaic again.

It was when she was helping to plan her parents' funerals, she realised there was a lack of creativity and uniqueness in how we commemorate our loved ones.

She points out: "When my parents died, the finality was hard to swallow. I wanted to do something really special In their memory so I went about designing a memorial for them.

Carol cremation artworks are subtle enough to be hung in the home but are a unique way to remember a loved one
Carol cremation artworks are subtle enough to be hung in the home but are a unique way to remember a loved one

"I was disillusioned with the standard of headstones - they lacked individuality, my parents deserved more.

"So I went about researching materials, suppliers, installers and allied myself with world class mosaicists. It all became the foundations of my business - HEARTSTONE.

"It took a lot of hard work and several years piecing together how these memorials could become a reality. 

"While researching, it became evident cremation in Ireland is on the rise, for a number of reasons - burials cost significantly more than cremation and there is a shift in attitudes toward cremation over traditional burial.

"Again, I wanted to design something unique for those who were cremated. Something beautiful and precious - a real tribute to the person who had passed, something that had not been done before.

"So I created real gold cremation artworks, in bespoke designs, that contain a small portion of the cremated remains. These artworks could be displayed in the home, and although they contain cremated ashes of a loved one, they are subtle enough to stand alone as beautiful contemporary artwork.

"There is also an opportunity to finish the artwork with a copy of an inscription by the deceased. It could be a signature - or a touching excerpt from a diary, Written on the bottom of the artwork with robot technology.

"I wanted to create something truly personal and colourful – something to be really proud of – a final artwork that would last generations.

"I love the thought that in designing each piece, that I create a memorial that in hundreds of years time, would still remind people of the significance of the person that lay beneath – that they were loved and very special”.

She admits getting finance was first proved difficult but she persevered and bought what she could afford, bit-by-bit, she also stuck by her ethos of using 100 per cent Irish materials for the cremation artworks.

Carol says a game-changing moment for her company was when she one of just two entrepreneurs chosen for Enterprise Ireland's "New Frontiers" programme in Sligo Institute of Technology.

She is now based at the Leitrim Sculpture Centre in Manorhamilton and is developing a range of Celtic headstone and cremation artworks at the moment and next year will also launch a new glass feature. 

Funerals are increasingly more expensive and Carol says she is keen that people don't feel under added financial pressure when they're already grieving.

"The Headstones start at €2,750 (full graves can cost upwards of €6,000). 

"The cremation artworks are a world first, although headstones in general are expensive, I deliberately tried to keep the cost of the cremation artworks (€450 upwards) more accessible to people.

"If someone is in a difficult position financially - especially in the aftermath of a funeral and cremation - they should not be priced out of remembering their loved ones in a unique way," she reasons.

It's not just her career that's turned around, Carol also loves life in Leitrim and after meeting he partner there she got engaged last Christmas.

She says: "I’m gainfully employed in my own business, my work life balance is far healthier and traffic jams are a thing of the past.

"People may be feeling too much pressure financially, but a move is not the end of the world, for me leaving the city and the financial pressures was a Godsend.

"Little did I know when I moved to a tiny village in Leitrim that I would end up meeting someone new and getting engaged, I had completely turned my back on that side of things.

"It's amazing what happens when you make changes but you have to be a bit brave and make the most of things, I do worry about where I'd be if I was still in Dublin."

When asked what advice she has for others who may be considering the move, she says: "It’s certainly not for everyone. You need to be able to drive - and be prepared for wilder winters if heading to the west.

"You would be amazed what job opportunities are out there, do your research - meet the locals - ask questions. And don’t rule out starting your own business - I’m living proof it’s never too late."

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