New York State Funeral Directors Association

Editor's Note: The idea for this article came from a addition to the NYSFDA Classifieds

Cremation urns are made with a variety of materials. They’re available in brass and pewter, cultured marble and some are made of biodegradable, “earth-friendly” materials.

For Steven Parsons, the craftsmanship involved in creating such an important container is as essential as the material it’s made from.

Parsons, owner of South Africa-based African Custom Sculptures, has begun accepting requests for hand-carved, wooden statues that don’t look like an urn – but instead feature the likeness of a loved one.

Carving ExampleFacing an economic slowdown, the 24-year building contractor changed directions and started focusing on creating jobs for local craftsmen skilled at the art of wood carving. View of Machining Process at South Africa-based African Custom Sculptures. Photo provided by Steve Parsons

“It is something very traditional and unique to Africa,” Parsons said in e-mail.

Parsons, 48, said he was displaying the creations during a convention in Johannesburg when people mentioned they would want one featuring the likeness of their loved one.

“This motivated us to promote our products to the funeral industry, where it came to light that there are very few personalized urns available, other than writing your name or printing your picture on an off-the-shelf product,” Parsons said.

After experimenting on several types of wood, the team settled on Malaysian Jelutong, a south-Asian, straight-grained wood known for its ease of workability and pleasant finish.

They started exploring with a variety of native woods, much of which is hardwood.

“Wood is a living, breathing material that is always trying to equalize the internal humidity with the external moisture content. There is a huge science to how wood reacts to climate,” he said.

Parsons begins the creation process by machining a block of wood down to a general shape, then it’s turned over to a carver who crafts the block into the likeness of the person of whom photographs are provided.

“The material is further machined and laminated in a specific sequence so as to ensure as much releasing of stress in the block of wood as possible,” Parson said.


Parsons studied business and started working for a human resource company early on, but he was brought up on a farm and the business office environment didn’t agree with him.

He said he started a personal contracting business providing a variety of work for homes – brick laying, carpentry, roofing and paving, dry wall and flooring.

A craftsman carves detail into a memorial sculpture at South Africa-based African Custom Sculptures. Photo provided by Steve ParsonsHe began developing ergonomic and cost effective business parks and managing their buildings before shutting down in 2017 due to the deteriorating economy.

Unemployment in South Africa rose to 27% by the autumn of 2018, and Parsons said every working person supports five dependents, on average, in South Africa.

He decided to put his business background to work for his community.

Realizing local artisans had a skill that’s sought-after, Parsons developed a project that could create jobs for them.

“We can really make a difference in a lot of people’s lives,” he said.

“We have premises that can accommodate thirty-plus carvers, that we are planning to fill … with God’s grace.”

As a “startup,” Parsons’ operation employs five people. Two are involved in graphics, two are carvers and Parsons works the machinery.

African Custom Sculptures has just begun marketing their products in the U.S. – it’s a challenge not only because of the distance but also because these hand-carved creations are best appreciated by holding them, Parsons said.

“Using my father and mother as models, I literally cried when I completed them and I held them. It is really the most personal and emotional portrait you can experience.”

EdsPhotoEdward Munger Jr.
Communications & Social Media Specialist
NYS Funeral Directors Association