My Boy Came Home in a Box

April 5,2020

          The title of this blog came from a line in a song by Country Joe and the Fish a band during the Vietnam War era.  I don’t know if they ever had another hit.  I don’t know if I ever heard another of their songs, but that line stuck with me. 

          When I had only been making pottery for a few years a woman came to me and asked if I would make an Ash Urn for her.  Actually, it was for her husband who was dying of cancer.  She wanted something different than what the funeral homes were selling, not something made overseas, but an urn made by someone that she knew, that she had a connection with.  I recoiled at the idea.  I was young and didn’t like the idea of thinking about death and I didn’t like thinking about cremation and how much was left after a body was cremated.  So I told her that I didn’t think that I wanted to make an ash urn for her husband.  She told me that she understood and I assume she found someone else to make the urn for her.

          It took me a long time to work through the idea of cremation and making ash urns, but slowly, over the years, I came to accept the idea of making them and started making a few.  Mostly I made them by special request.  A widow came and asked me to make an urn for her husband and daughter that died in an airplane accident.  She wanted to have urns that reflected each of their personalities.  Slowly, I started keeping them on hand in the pottery showroom.

          As I got older, making ash urns started to move closer to me.  I made one for my grandmother and for my father when they died.  Then it was for other more distant family members.  Then people that had been long time buyers of my pottery started to come asking for urns.  For them, it was a way to preplan and lower the cost of their funeral.  Cremation costs much less than a normal funeral.  I also became a pastor of a church in the city where I live and began to perform funeral services for the members of my congregations.  Through them, I became sensitive to how high the cost of a standard funeral was and how I didn’t like the idea of having an open casket.  To me, there is nothing appealing about a dead body no matter how you dress it or how much makeup you put on it.

          Then three and half years ago the idea of cremation and ash urns came home.  My middle son died.  He lived a hard life and was 38 when he died from a combination huffing compressed air and heart disease.  He was living in the Denver area at the time and it would have been complicated and expensive to ship the body home.  The only option that we really considered was cremation.  We went to the crematorium and saw his body before he was cremated and said our goodbyes.  The crematorium was mindful of our needs even though it was set in an industrial park in the Denver area.  Those family and friends in the area came to spend the time with us.  Then the crematorium mailed the ashes to us in a small plastic box.  There is not much left, but really, a plastic box!  Maybe there was something else offered, but I honestly don’t remember. There was never any doubt that I would put my share of the his ashes in a jar that I made, but it took me a while to get around to it.  Grief is a strange thing and it takes time, it works its way out slowly by fits and starts.  Sometimes it erupts like a volcano and sometimes it simmers away like water from in pan over a low flame. 

          It took me over a year to get the courage to move the ashes from the plastic box to the urn I made.  I am not sure how it happened, but one day I was just ready to move them.  My sons’ ashes came home in a plastic box, but now they are in a jar his father made.  I think that it is fitting.  He grew up playing in my studio first in his roundabout and then crawling. Sometimes we would catch him eating scrape clay out of slop buckets.  His first sentence was “That light hot” when he saw the glow of the pottery being fired in my gas kiln.  At meals, he ate off plates and out of bowls that I made so it is fitting that his ashes are where they are in an urn in my pottery shop.

          It has been 40 years since I was first asked to make an ash urn and cremation has become a more accepted practice in this country.  It has taken a long time for me to work through my thinking and feelings about cremation, but now I make all sorts of ash urns.  I make ash urns for babies that don’t make it to term and for beloved pets and, of course, for people that live long and wonderful lives.  I make them as my way of caring for people that are going through the loss of spouses, family and friends.  I make them for people that are planning ahead as a way of helping their family through the decisions that will need to be made when their life comes to an end.  Someday, my ashes will be in an urn that I made and now, after all these years, that seems like the best thing.

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