When Michele Palenik's husband, a funeral director, first suggested she make jewelry for the cremated remains of some of his clients, she said no way.
But after more prodding from others in the industry looking for an alternative to traditional urns, she finally relented.
Now, it has become her calling.
"By far it's the most fulfilling work I have ever done," said Palenik, 48, of Land O'Lakes, who has been making jewelry for 20 years and has sold her work to 18 galleries across the United States.
For the past six years she has been making unique glass and metal pendants, sun catchers and other items from the cremated remains of people, and now pets as well. The funeral home directors are her clients, so she typically doesn't meet the families directly. But she feels the significance and sacredness of her vocation nonetheless.
"It's this dignity thing," she said. "Every family you handle you always do your best."
While she put a lot into her work before, she said, "It's really different when you're handing someone's family member. … There's an element of compassion that comes with it."
Palenik's husband, Marty, has been working in the funeral industry most of his life, beginning at age 16 with his father's business. Now he travels around to funeral homes in Pasco, Pinellas and Hillsborough counties working as an embalmer.
Palenik works out of her Purple Cloud Studio at home so she can be there for her two teenagers, who attend Sunlake High School. There's a certain level of acceptance, and oddity, that comes from having both parents in the business of death. Typical family dinner conversations include autopsies, embalming and other talks of the trade.
The pieces of cremation art she creates for families include a purple box and a certificate of authenticity, but there's no way to contact her.
Occasionally family members do some research to find her and send thank-you notes.
"People have gone to great lengths to find me and have written some of the most beautiful two-hanky thank-you notes to thank me for what I do," she said.
Stacy Adams with Adams & Jennings Funeral Home in Tampa said more people are choosing alternatives to traditional burials and cremations, and Palenik's jewelry has become popular with her clients.
"Those who choose it, there aren't enough words to say what it means to them," Adams said. "My families absolutely love it. She's a very talented woman and puts her heart and soul in everything she does."
Palenik is Jewish and her husband is Catholic, but they don't go to synagogue or church. She considers herself a spiritual person and believes in a greater power.
"You're not writing that script," she said of the way life can turn out. "When you fight it, it just makes trouble. Just go with the flow."
While this isn't necessarily what she planned for her career, she's thankful to be where she is. Palenik dreamed of swimming with the dolphins and received a degree in marine biology. Her love of sea life can be seen in the shades of blues and greens in her work. The HGTV show That's Clever did a segment on her mixed media wall collage.
Palenik projects warmth and a sense of balance: She loves her family, she's happy in her work and she's comfortable with who she is. She said getting unconditional love from parents is essential for creating well-balanced children and adults.
"I actually call up my parents and say, 'Thank you for loving me. Thank you for being wonderful parents,' " she said.
Her life hasn't always been easy. Through a failed marriage she learned some difficult lessons that have helped her. "It's like wow, thank you. … Through adversity, beautiful things bloom."
Last year she lost her poodle, Baxter, and that heartache helped her relate to what her customers are feeling when they want something to remember their pets. "It's the worst thing," she said. "I understood that phrase, 'You lost your best friend.' It's really, really terrible."
Now she has a rescued greyhound named Lola she shares studio space with.
The pet jewelry started out with her friends and spread out from there.
Lia Gallegos of New Port Richey adopted her cat Winston from a shelter 11 years ago. "We were soul mates for 11 years so it was really hard when he left," she said.
A couple of years ago she worked with Palenik on a prototype for pet jewelry. The unique Egyptian-style cat figurine bracelet pendant is silver, though most of Palenik's pieces are glass.
"When she gave that back to me it was like, oh, he's here with me again," Gallegos said. "It was a bittersweet moment."
Palenik hopes her work can help people move on with life after a loved one's death.
"It's a healing thing," Palenik said. "There's some closure and I think it's comforting in some way.