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A Day In The Life Of... Noel & Jill Brennan from Casting Ashes Cremation Sculpture Studio

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As soon as we met Noel and Jill, we just knew that we wanted to feature them and their beautiful Cremation Ash Sculptures on our blog. Their story is such an inspiring one of following your passions that we couldn't wait to share it with you as part of our new 'a day in the life of...' feature. For anyone who has ever dreamed of swapping the rat race for a more creatively fulfilling life, read on and be inspired...

A Day In The Life Of Casting Ashes Cremation Sculpture Studio

Before we begin, can you share a little bit about what you do and how you got started?

Noel: We create cremation sculpture using our original designs and moulds in our studio in Cornwall. A small amount of cremation ash is added to the mould as the concrete is poured so it is completely incorporated into the solid piece, as opposed to a conventional urn which has a hollow cavity to hold the ashes. 

Jill:  Because we use concrete the process is irreversible.  It’s a durable medium – that’s why we say it’s a lasting tribute to a loved one. The sculptures are of various shapes and sizes, and can be for indoor or outdoor use.  Some are figurative and traditional - as with the heart and angel wing - and others are more abstract.  For people who prefer something functional we also have a range of planters and candlesticks, tea-light holders, and even a copper lamp which we have cast ashes into!  These household items are often chosen by those who want a discrete alternative to an urn.  No-one needs know the item contains ashes unless they choose to tell people. 

Noel: My background is in commercial scenic art and prop-making mainly within the film and TV industry. I always wanted to do more freelance work where I could concentrate on sculpture and my own creative designs. 

Jill:  I was a teacher for twenty years and before that an ordained Minister of Religion.  Casting Ashes combines both of our skills, enables us to work together and also to work more directly with clients.

Casting Ashes Alternative to a Cremation Urn

Set of Three Hanging Stars & Set of Three Tealight Holders

Rise and shine… what’s you morning routine?

Jill:  We just have our 12 year old son living with us at the moment as our daughter is now at University, so I get up early to make sure he’s eaten and is out of the door on time to catch the school bus.

Noel:  I usually take the dog down to the woods at the bottom of the hill.  We moved to Cornwall for a change of lifestyle and the easy start to the day is a definite benefit. We have a leisurely breakfast before walking to work, which takes about three minutes tops!  When I worked in Manchester, I could spend three hours a day sitting in traffic on the M62.

Jill:  St Columb Major is a small historic market town close to Newquay and about five miles from the nearest beach.  Officially a town, with its own Mayor and Town Hall, it’s more the size of a village, meaning everything is within walking distance.

Looking around, can you describe your workplace to us?

Jill:  Our shop-come-studio is a listed building with a Georgian shopfront located within the conservation area of the town.  We like the period features, the large window that lets in lots of light, and the tinkling sound of the vintage doorbell.  Generally you will find me upstairs in the shop behind the desk updating the website and our other media platforms.  Noel is downstairs in the workshop getting hands on with the cement and clay.  All our designs are created by Noel, usually in clay to begin with, then moulded in silicone for reproduction.

Noel:  I collect the raw aggregate for the cement from a local quarry so each sculpture contains a little bit of Cornish heritage. It’s crushed granite which works well in our pieces as it achieves a distinctive white finish. In the shop space we display samples of the designs available on our website. 

Casting Ashes Shop St Columnb Major

Who are your customers and how do you serve them?

Jill:  There is a central podium in the shop that we previously used for display, but now it’s more of a workbench where we do the castings. This way we can be more visible – bringing what we do out into the open.  People in the street walking past can see us working. We have two large candlesticks in the window, and we light the candles each time we do a casting as a sign of respect. We always make appointments because it’s important to signify the occasion. Once local people saw what we were doing, they became more interested and would tell us about ashes they still had at home and didn’t know what to do with, asking 'can you do this or that?'. It’s definitely evolved as a result of listening to clients' needs and preferences, which makes it really interesting and enjoyable because we never know where it’s going next!

Noel:  Then Jill started inviting people to come along to watch us do the casting.  At first I wasn’t sure how I felt about this, as it put me under pressure to perform so to speak, but when I saw how much it meant to people, that changed it all.  It’s now one of the most enjoyable parts of the work – doing a casting with people present.

Jill:  In fact it was Noel who took it more in the direction of being hands on for the client.  We place a small amount of ashes into a shallow bowl and tap them into the mould at intervals as the cement mix is added.  In the beginning I would do this, but Noel once asked a client if she’d like to do it, and now we do that all the time.  We’ve never had anyone refuse. In fact sometimes the whole family comes and children take part in adding the ashes. People tell us it’s something they will never forget and an important part of the grieving process for them.

Adding Ashes to the Mould 

What do you like best about what you do?

Noel:  The fact that people put their trust in you to create something that they can appreciate and will treasure for a long time as a mark of respect to their loved one. That for me is the ultimate accolade as an artist.

Tea break…. what’s your guilty pleasure?

Noel:  It has to be plain chocolate digestives straight from the fridge.  We even have a mini fridge in the workshop especially for this purpose!  

Jill:  I like the Genoa Cake they sell at the Post Office, of all places. That’s quirky St Columb for you!

Who or what inspires you?

Noel:  Greta Thunberg. Her focus and dedication, and the fact that a deviant trait (her aspergers) has served her as a strength. She’s a champion for misfits.  Artistically I’ve always been inspired by Henry Moore and Rodin.   

Jill:  Carl Jung. Vivienne Westwood. And of course we are both inspired by Cornwall. We definitely appreciate our surroundings, and I’m not sure if our designs would look the same if we were trying to do this somewhere else.  If we need inspiration, we can just drop tools and within fifteen minutes we can be walking along the coastal path with the Atlantic salt spray whipping our faces. It has a way of waking you up!  Cornwall is also a very spiritual “thin place’.  It inspires us in more ways than one.

 

Have things changed in your line of work since you first started?                          

Noel:  Our work brings together a mix of old and new.  Old in the sense that our process is artisan, hand-crafted making moulds the old-fashioned way.  I don’t use machines. 

Jill:  Ha, I have video footage to prove this – Noel tilts and taps the moulds to get the air bubbles out, it’s quite comical at times. It’s ‘new’ in the sense that digital marketing has been key to reaching out of area and spreading the word about what we do. Instagram in particular has been great for this. More than another other platform it provides an arena for people to tell their stories and make authentic connections. The ‘KNOW, LIKE and TRUST’ aspect is essential in this line of work. I think it would be difficult to market out of area were it not for this.  What we do is not for everyone and there’s still a certain taboo around the death and aftercare discussion.   

What advice would you give to someone who is interested in doing what you do?

Jill:  Don’t expect too much too soon.  It takes time to build trust and gain acceptance. 

Noel:  The personal rewards definitely outweigh the financial.  We have learned to value quality above quantity with regard to orders. By this I mean keeping it small and artisan. We would lose this if our business model involved expansion, taking on more staff and becoming more automated.

Jill:  The same would happen if we were third-party referral based, supplying our goods to funeral directors with no access to the clients. It would lose something important if we didn’t work directly with clients. We won’t make loads of money this way, but we left that mindset behind when we downscaled to move to Cornwall. See it as a vocation and you’ll be immensely satisfied.  Nothing beats meeting with people at a point of real, raw, human emotion.  It makes you feel connected with what’s real, and what really matters. Rather than being morbid or depressing, this work is in fact exhilarating and incredibly life-affirming.

Companion Pebbles by Casting AshesCremation Ash Companion Pebbles in a Smooth Concrete Bowl

 

Name any books, films, blogs, podcasts or other resources that you would recommend?

Jill:  Gabriele Reyes Fuchs TEDx talk ‘What I discovered in the ashes of my father’ #deadsoonproject.  I’m also enjoying listening to ‘Speaking of Jung’ podcasts by Laura London at the moment. Just the right length for the lunchtime dog walk!  

Heading home… After work, what do you do to relax and unwind?

Jill:  Noel likes to get home in time for The Chase!

Noel:  It helps bring me down to earth!  I also like to get lost in a good Swedish crime novel. That’s how I relax.  Also preparing Sunday roast when I can play my Spotify playlist really loud.

Jill:  Things that make me laugh and cry at the same time. Gogglebox, First Dates, Fleabag. I also enjoy listening to ASMR to relax.  Together we do Game of Thrones and Line of Duty’s another big favourite at the moment.

What’s on your bucket list?

Noel:  I don’t have a bucket list.  Is that bad?

Jill:  Same here. I feel as though I’ve had three different incarnations in this lifetime.  There’s nothing burning that I want to do.  I’m where I want to be.

Have you thought about what you’d like for your own funeral?

Noel:  Funnily enough, it was a conversation between us following a funeral that led to the germ of our business idea.  It was Jill’s first time at a burial, and she asked me what I would want to happen to me.  I told her I wanted my ashes make into a sculpture.  She told me I’d need to leave instructions!  It got us thinking.

Jill:  I have a vision of a woodland copse with bluebells and a wicker coffin, but that’s because I’m a romantic. The bluebells aren’t obligatory lol.  I’d definitely like a natural outdoor setting if possible. And I quite like the idea of being buried in a pod containing seeds so I could become a tree.

What would you like your epitaph to be?

Noel: ‘I did it anyway’. Initially our business idea didn’t meet with approval from members of my family. We could have given up, toed the line and carried on doing our sensible, respectable jobs, but we decided to go ahead and do it anyway.  I’m actually quite proud of that.

Jill:  ‘She lived as though she had already died.’  To have no worries and not  care what others think.  How liberating would that be!  I’m not quite there yet, but I’m getting better at it.

At the end of the day… what’s the last thing you do before you go to sleep?

Kiss goodnight.

 

A big thank you to Noel and Jill  from Casting Ashes for sharing their story with us. To find out more visit www.castingashes.co.uk. You can follow Casting Ashes on Instagram here.


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