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Sunday, January 4, 2004 - Page updated at 12:00 AM

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Self-contained humor: Family chooses cartoon-character cremation urns

The Baltimore Sun

When the Tasmanian Devil arrived, the first thing Laraine Harford did was carry him to the kitchen. She gingerly removed the cartoon-character cookie jar from its box, pulled off his head and began carefully pouring tap water inside, one measuring cup at a time. At 20 cups, she stopped.

Big enough, she thought. She smiled with satisfaction. Her two-year quest was over.

Harford poured the water out, let Taz air dry and put him back in his carton. She swathed that with bubble wrap, placed the bundle in a clear plastic bin filled with chunks of shipping foam and snapped the top firmly in place, sliding the bin under the table that holds her African violets. There, she hopes it will stay, unused, for a good long time.

For Taz — the relentless "Looney Tunes" character that consumed everything in his path — is no simple souvenir to Harford, no collectible to be sold at a profit later, no kitschy container in which to keep her cookies.

Taz is her final resting place.

Beneath her polite and proper exterior, Harford has always had a little bit of the Tasmanian Devil inside her, she says. So it is fitting, in her view, that she spend eternity inside him.

"He's basically unstoppable," said Harford, who lives in Columbia, Md. "He goes through rocks, through trees, shrubs and mountains. He's very determined, and fierce. He doesn't let anybody get in his way. ... He's a little bit on the nutsy-cuckoo side, but what is normal anyway?"

Upon her death — not expected any time soon, Harford, 49, is quick to say — she plans to be cremated, have her ashes sealed in the ceramic Tasmanian Devil and have it placed on the top shelf of the entertainment center at her mother's home in Calvert County, Md.

There, it will rest alongside the Bugs Bunny cookie jar that has been there since 1999.

It contains her mother.

Betty June Harford, known for her sense of humor and her love of cartoons, died at age 68 of heart failure.

In keeping with her request, she was cremated. But she left no directions about what to do with her ashes.

After visiting the funeral home and seeing cremation urns that sold for as much as $1,200, her three children decided they could do better, for much less money.

"My mother wouldn't like it if we spent money like that," Harford said. "She didn't agree with spending a lot of money on caskets and embalming."

In the days after her death, Bill Harford, Laraine's brother, visited a Warner Bros. store and returned to the family home with a cookie jar he thought might be an appropriate receptacle — Bugs Bunny, dressed in harem attire and holding a magic lamp.

"We took one look and just loved it," Harford recalled. "It was perfect. If he'd gotten something tacky we would have said so, but it was perfect — I think it's what she would have picked for herself."

Betty Harford had cardiomyopathy. She died unexpectedly, Harford said. "She had just finished watching 'Frazier' when all of a sudden her heart stopped."

A memorial service was held the next week. "We had her cookie jar there, but I'm willing to bet very few people realized that it contained the guest of honor," Harford said.

Since her death, the Bugs Bunny jar has sat on the uppermost shelf of the entertainment unit — along with a few of her favorite things in life: a bottle of Coors Light, a Betty Boop watch, a deck of playing cards, her bowling awards.

After getting over the shock of her mother's death, or at least starting to — "It's like all the sunshine has gone out of things" — Harford set about finding her own cookie jar.

"I thought, you know, that's really not a bad idea," she said. "I'm hoping that one day, when I'm up there in my cookie jar, the kids will look up and remember me and think fondly of me."

Her search was complicated by the fact that, about the time she started looking for a Tasmanian Devil cookie jar, Warner Bros. studio stores, as a result of a merger, went out of business.

She enlisted her sister's help, searching eBay and other Internet sites, but when she did find a Taz cookie jar it was either too expensive or inappropriate, like Taz in a football helmet.

Eventually, she came across an acceptable cookie jar — Taz biting into a chocolate chip cookie — and ordered it online from a California company. It cost $30.95, including shipping and handling.

Uncertain whether it was large enough, she tested it as soon as she got it home. She figured 20 cups of water would be equivalent, volume-wise, to the six pounds of ashes she had read remained after cremation.

"I had to be sure my cookie jar would hold all of me," she said.

Harford said she plans to arrange for the funeral home to seal the cookie jar once her ashes are inside.

Funeral directors say the use of offbeat receptacles to hold cremated remains is not unusual. "I've seen people use everything from old Cremora jars to old jewelry boxes," said Steve Williams, managing mortician at Cremation and Funeral Alternatives in Baltimore. "It's difficult to say what's normal."

"I tell people they can use whatever they want to as long as all the ashes fit into it — usually about four to seven pounds," said Beverly Heckrotte, owner of Going Home Cremations in Howard County, Md.

Heckrotte said that, while her company offers more than 1,000 different cremation urns, many clients opt to supply their own containers. One customer, upset that his father, a smoker, died of lung cancer, wanted to take his ashes to an auto junkyard and put them in car ashtrays.

Heckrotte said a cookie jar can work just as well as an urn to hold cremated remains. "To tell you the truth, they're not much different from cookie jars."

"I don't see anything at all crazy about using a cookie jar," she said. "And if they were into 'Looney Tunes,' I don't see anything wrong with that. It's supposed to be a celebration of a person's life, so I think it's great."

Copyright © 2004 The Seattle Times Company

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