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Bringing urns into the 21st Century

Bereavement and the various ways in which people cope with a loss has never changed but thanks to technology, memorial products available to commemorate someone and help the bereaved cope have adapted as society’s reliance and use of technology has changed. Although urns are definitely not new to the funeral trade, marrying it with technological abilities is novel and that is what ModUrn has done.

Taking claim as the world’s first ‘smart urn’, the company has created urns and mementos which combine design and smart technology. The Australian company was established by founder Sonia Vachalec, after her father passed away when she was 23. “I was desperate to stay close to him by keeping meaningful things – the tie he wore on his wedding day, pictures, old super 8 video, jewellery,” she says. “I found that there wasn’t a solution to store all of these things in the one place that our whole family could access and cherish. That was when the seed was planted for ModUrn.”

Founder of ModUrn Sonia Vachalec

ModUrn is an urn with multimedia functionality and works through its life story app, which stores the information, media and documents that can be shared across the world with friends and family of the deceased person or pet. As a standalone concept, it is not too dissimilar from multimedia headstones or memorial gifts which have the ability to store and play audio files of the voices of the deceased. What makes this unique, however, is its proximity Bluetooth beacon which has a five metre radius. “This means that if you have a function, funeral or wake the life story can be easily accessed and shared.” This can be located using its in-app scanner and through this, content such as sounds, videos, images and a person’s health history can be retrieved and observed. It is also possible to link documents, historical details, health journeys and family trees and such a legacy can be pre-planned before a person has actually passed, meaning agreements can be reached regarding how the person wishes to be remembered. Additionally, those who are invited can add more media of the person or pet to the life story, further enriching the memories and history of the deceased while creating a sense of community and support system for the family and friends left behind. There are various access levels to a deceased person’s or pet’s profile to avoid the chances of data being tampered with; viewers who have general access and can simply see what’s been uploaded; contributors who are made up of invited friends and family and can submit content; and caretakers who have full editorial access to the profile. The hybrid mobile app is available to download free on the Google Play and Apple Stores; human products come with two-year free hosting and small ongoing annual hosting fee of $5.95 (£4.61) per year thereafter or option to download the content; pet products are free to host with no annual subscription.

ModUrn and all of its capabilities took over two years to develop and as well as Vachalec’s own personal loss, it was born out of a recognised demand for a contemporary version of the standard urn. “The urn industry at the time was dominated by traditional style urns which, for me, did not fit my dad’s personality and seemed sad. As I spoke to more people and heard their stories and I shared my idea, people would physically get emotional,” Vachalec says. “We completed the prototype and exhibited in the Australian Funeral Expo in Sept 2017 and we were overwhelmed by the industry and their feedback on the innovation and also the aesthetic design. This was quite a surprise as I had been warned that the industry at large was not open to change or newcomers which I felt was the polar opposite to what we experienced.”

Vachalec acknowledges the existing ornamental qualities of the traditional urn but realises that while aesthetically pleasing, they align with the “décor of the time” in which they were developed, and feels that in today’s society “our taste, style and even living modes have transformed with contemporary culture.” She adds: “I believe ModUrn is suited to today’s living and styles with the added twist of technology.”

The ModUrn resembles a mineral rock, and comes in various marble, stone and coloured finishes not only tapping into the recent resurgence of marble as a popular interior design trend, but offering a clean, sleek design that is likely to remain contemporaneous regardless of the current fashions. “Marble and wood are two of Earth’s traditional creative forms. I wanted to extend the urns aesthetic to include these beautiful and timeless finishes for families that are looking for something luxurious yet classic as a point of difference to our base colour range.” The brief designers of the product were given was to create a modern cremation urn that features creative lines, modern aesthetic with symmetrical elements that would be durable and stylish to hold cremated remains and house a wireless beacon. The ModUrn includes a secure inner blow moulded container to safely store cremated ash contents. “Along with my vision the ideation team designed an incredible and powerful aesthetic which includes six shape elements within the inner and outer casings being represented within the one product.” The urn can be placed on more than one of four bases, to create two overall aesthetics of being either a pentagon or a floating cube. Furthermore, it has been made to offer flexibility for presentation of the individual user as well as alternate colour, design and customisable features.

One common worry with any form of new technology, regardless of the user’s age or skill, is how easy is the product to function? Even the most tech savvy person may come across difficulties when faced with something new, but Vachalec assures that ModUrn’s developers and testers were instructed to “design the overall flow with intuitive on boarding and sequencing”. Through this process, prompters were added to the urns’ technology as well as suggested content areas to aid users through the steps when documenting and recording a life story. While the functionality of the ModUrn may take getting used to for users, it is hard to ignore its alignment with the social media age and current habits of documenting one’s life on a public, digital platform. However, Vachalec accurately points out that although these transparent, up-to-the-minute updates may be the way of many in society today, chronicling a person’s life is something people have been doing since the dawn of time. She says: “I think that humans have been memorialising their loved ones in books, monuments, paintings and with technology – digitally. I don’t think ModUrn has been created specifically in response to social media but it is just the latest technology we have adopted as far as communication and expression.”

While memorial products can be used in any way the user sees fit, many products are not dually and explicitly offered to those who have lost pets. A lot of the time, the pet and human funeral arms are seen as serving two very similar, but somewhat different purposes. With many people considering their pets as part of their families, Vachalec notes it is this close bond between humans and animals that encouraged her to simultaneously market this product to both kinds of mourners. “Pets are family and such an integral part of life in today’s society,” she says. “It was only natural that we should create a Pet Life App platform and colour range for our fur family and pet parents whom will also benefit from the support and ModUrn product to honour their pets.”

As with any new product to the funeral trade, beyond its intention of being the new kid on the block, those behind a concept will always make the grieving process a priority and ModUrn is no different. Claiming to have received a positive response from her clients in the short time its been on the market, Vachalec acknowledges how instrumental the smart urn can be helping people through their bereavement. As previously mentioned, allowing family and friends to collaborate with a deceased’s life story and legacy can give those who are mourning a support system with others going through similar emotions. She also says it gives a rounded sense of a person’s life depending on the content uploaded – their hobbies, passions, family life and the overall essence of the person can be captured through the multimedia. “From my own experience I was haunted by the final few days and hours of my dad’s life. Putting together the content for my dad’s ModUrn I was reminded of what a wonderful and full life he had, the sentiments from his beloved friends and the experiences shared by family and close friends focused my attention from the last moments to the life that was. It also clicked for me that during this time my dad would never want me to focus on that time but instead the wonderful years we shared.” The content can also be accessed at any time, helping users through their grief at more difficult times of the year such as Christmas, birthdays or mother’s day.

With customers describing the ModUrn as a “gift” and Vachalec blogging that it has made her able to share her life with her late dad everyday, the product which promises to “celebrate life” hopes to continue to help people feel “forever comforted and connected by the legacy” of their loved ones.

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