Both women bought “DNA jewelry” in the shape of teardrops–one to honor a life departed, the other to commemorate the lives she nourished.
My mother Carla chose a silver necklace for herself and her younger sister to house the ashes of their beloved mother, my late grandmother. Jenna, my best friend from college, sent off a small plastic bag of breast milk, double-bagged, to be mixed with resin by an artisan she found on Facebook. Jenna’s milk would then be shaped into the ring’s “milkstone,” to symbolize the love and commitment that went into breastfeeding her two young sons, Jack and Gus.
The 21st-century trend toward such personal jewelry may seem odd or morbid to some, yet the growing contemporary practice and market for creating keepsakes out of human elements is not new.
“It probably does weird some people out,” Jenna admits by phone from Cape Elizabeth, Maine, “but if people ask me [what the ring is made of] I tell them. I think breastfeeding is something that should be normalized though. It’s a monument to a lot time and effort.”
In fact, crafting jewelry out of remembrances of birth and death is a return to the Renaissance and Victorian eras of memento mori, whereby the Latin phrase—“remember you must die”—influenced how men and women thought about mortality, in addition to what they wore around their necks or fingers, especially after loved ones died.
The ethos of memento mori during the 15th through 18th centuries also reminded people, especially pious and wealthy Christians, that life on Earth is short and not to focus on trivial matters. Back in the day it was not uncommon to fashion jewelry out of a loved one’s hair, own several skull-centric accessories long before tattoo artist Ed Hardy put skulls and roses on everything, or to wear brooches with phrases that announced, “the spirit hath fled” or “not lost, but gone before.”
Death, of course, always kindly stops for us, no exceptions. Memento mori emphasizes that death is the great equalizer. Though perhaps these days we are quicker to ignore our impermanence when so many cemeteries are tucked away from city centers or hidden away from plain view. There is still a keen obsession, especially in the United States, with youth, youth culture, and looking young, even when one is not.
Whatever the case, the jewelry more people, especially women, wear these days seems keenly aware of our humanity. That, and what do you do with your baby’s umbilical stump or that last pouch of frozen breastmilk or your father’s remains? Do they join the other strange biological artifacts mothers especially seem to cling too—baby teeth and locks of hair?
When I asked my mother Carla what she thought her mother Mary Ann, a former jeweler and newspaper publisher, would think of her daughters wearing her ashes as keepsakes, my mom was confident their decision would have been viewed as an act of love and remembrance.
“I think she would be very touched that we wanted to have her with us,” my mother said by phone from Kingsville, a sleepy, blink-and-you-miss-it town situated between Lee’s Summit and Warrensburg on the western side of Missouri. “Not that we are not living, breathing parts of her, we are, but there is a physical remembrance of her, which lends a different spirit, if you will.”
Of course, the breast milk jewelry my friend Jenna had commissioned comes not from a place of loss, but rather a celebration of the life-giving substance she made for her two sons over the span of four years.
“Breastfeeding was not nearly as easy as I thought it would be,” Jenna said. “Once I got going it was much more natural. Breastfeeding takes a lot of time, energy, and it is certainly not free when you think about all the hours of your life that you spend with this little machine, this baby. I just wanted something that symbolizes the experience, especially as I got farther from it. I wanted something to look at and to think, “Hey, I did that!” I fed these beautiful little people.”
DNA jewelry, in many ways, is tangible proof that our love and lives existed, no matter how short our time here.
“This whole motherhood thing is learn-as-you-go for me as I don’t really have a lot of memories of my own mother [who died when Jenna was 6], let alone to be able to call her or ask for advice,” Jenna said. “I don’t know if my mother nursed me. My grandmother did not nurse my mother. In a way it’s a connection with my mom and motherhood in general and, wow, I did this really hard thing that previous generations of women chose not to. It’s this thing that unites us all, and feeding your child in general is hard.”
When I asked Jenna if she would bequeath her teardrop ring to her sons upon death, she laughed and said, “Bury me in that shit, unless it’s diamonds.”