The bond pet owners share with their pets is no less than a parent-child relationship; they even want to be called pet parents. Toys, clothes, shoes, chocolates, even customised rooms, no expense is out of bounds to express the love. It’s a relationship in which the vow ‘till death do us part’ is perhaps more apt. Humans mostly outlive their pets—and often it is a photo frame or a video on the phone that lives on as a remembrance .
Fiftyyear-old Naseem Khan certainly understands this bond. The Moradabad-based businessman is the founder and president of LoveUrns, a U.S.-registered company that makes intricately designed urns not just for human ashes but also for pets.
Khan’s understanding of the special bond between humans and their pets is the reason why he devotes so much attention to the products his company makes. “When you interact with the families of the deceased, and they thank you for helping them memorialise their loved one, you get a deep sense of satisfaction,” says Khan.
LoveUrns has been in business since 2011, and business has been good—if good is an appropriate word to use in the context. Khan pegs the company’s average annual sales in the U.S., his primary market, at around $5 million (Rs 31 crore). Pet urns account for close to 30% of that figure.
Khan’s pet urns aren’t a sombre reminder of the departed, they are a celebration of the life they have had. Thus, design and aesthetics are of great importance. LoveUrns’ collection ranges from an elegant brass urn shaped as a cat with a jewelled collar to a more classic receptacle, but with paw imprints. Prices range from $40 to $180. As Khan sees it, these urns serve as a beautiful reminder that wouldn’t be out of place in a living room.
The business of pet urns is unusual—even in the U.S. there aren’t many companies doing it. But storing the ashes of a pet is a gesture pet owners are increasingly adopting, says Coleen A. Ellis, co-founder of The Pet Loss Center, which runs a chain of pet funeral homes in Texas and Florida. Ellis, who also co-chairs The Pet Loss Professionals Alliance, says of the few pet urn makers, Minnesota-based Terrybear is perhaps the biggest. Barbara Kemmis, executive director, Cremation Association of North America, says brands such as MacKenzie Vault and SinoSource International too have a significant presence in the market .
Khan’s urns are special. They are fashioned out of brass, a highly corrosion-resistant alloy, which makes them a good choice for something that should last for eternity. And Khan understands the brass industry—the ancient city of Moradabad in Uttar Pradesh is home to hundreds of craftsmen who make, among other things, brass idols that adorn pooja rooms of many families.
Khan, like many others in the city, comes from a family that has been making and exporting brass works for generations. So his career path was cast in, well brass, very early. At 21, his father let him have his own factory to make intricate furniture and other home decor items, some made of brass. After years of trading with big U.S. and European retailers, he decided to focus on the cremation market and started producing cremation urns for export around 2008 .
But his choice of product—designer urns— wasn’t always appreciated, or even understood. As Khan recalls, many believe that urns do not have to be beautiful. “When I started cremation urns, everybody said it’s a very conservative market; bright colours will not sell,” he says. “My theory was that a person who goes out to buy a piece of furniture (for his home) is the same person who goes out to buy an urn. The taste remains the same.”
The success he had as an exporter convinced him to set up LoveUrns. But breaking into the U.S. market wasn’t easy. It was tough to convince U.S. distributors to stock his cremation urns when he first launched his brand in 2011. “The whole industry relies on business coming from funeral homes who reach out to distributors and distributors buy from companies like us. So, when we went to the market first, no distributor was willing to talk to us,” he says.
Khan’s passion for photography came to his rescue. He produced catalogues with images of his urns in digital and print formats and sent them to 22,000 funeral homes. The positive response from funeral homes then convinced distributors to buy his products. In many ways, LoveUrns’ sales figure is a vindication of Khan’s business acumen, as he made use of the traditional artisanal strength of Moradabad to make a product whose design aesthetic was more Western in contrast to the elaborate idols the city is generally known for.
Khan has now taken LoveUrns beyond the U.S. market. He says he has established a distribution network in the rest of the Americas, Britain, Singapore, Malaysia, the Philippines, Japan, South Africa, and even Australia and New Zealand. Though he sells his urns only through distributors, who in turn supply them to funeral homes, some of his urns are available on shopping websites like Amazon.
For now, the urns for all of these markets are made at Khan’s factory in Moradabad, which employs around 200 artisans and ships some 12,000 cremation urns a month. Khan says he spends close to Rs 50 lakh a month procuring 10,000 kg of brass ingots to make the urns.
The expansion of markets has meant Khan is looking beyond his hometown for artisans and raw materials. “The artisan base in India is depleting,” says Khan. He says he has invested in a factory in Thailand.
Khan has also expanded the product catalogue of LoveUrns, to include cremation jewellery like pendants, or miniature urns that people can wear. He is sourcing the raw materials for these from Sri Lanka and China.
But it is not the product catalogue expansion or wider global presence that is likely to challenge him and his company. Instead, it could be his plans to enter the Indian pet industry which, according to a 2017 report by market researcher Euromonitor International, is growing due to the “evolving mindset among pet owners”. To be clear, the report looks at pet products such as food, accessories, and ancillary services such as pet salons.
Khan says unlike human urns, pet urns may gain acceptance in India. The challenges in India, however, aren’t just the early hiccups of an emerging industry, but more cultural as few here keep ashes at home. So if they are not used to the custom, would they consider pet urns as a touching tribute? Add to this the lack of adequate pet cremation facilities in India and the size of the potential market shrinks further.
But there are a few positive signs. Last December, South Delhi Municipal Corporation announced its plan to set up a cremation and burial spot for pets. Nipun Biyani, owner of ’mLoyal Pet Management, a pet service provider that offers mobile pet cremation, says pet burial grounds are not practical in today’s India. Cremation, he says, “is going to be a compulsion considering how our cities are expanding”, leading to scarcity of land.
The nascent stage that India’s pet cremation industry is at could give LoveUrns a firstmover advantage. For one, unlike in the U.S. in the early years, LoveUrns does not have to rely on funeral homes to sell its products but can market to customers directly.
Here LoveUrns’ designs, range of options, and the fact that it has made its mark in the U.S. would work in its favour. The rest depends on Khan’s marketing chops.
( The article was originally published in the February 2018 issue of the magazine. )