I've hesitated writing about this, but I think if I can keep the people involved anonymous, this story might help other potters.
A few months ago, a friend of mine who runs a nearby cafe asked if I could incorporate human ashes into a pot. I'd heard the question before, but usually it was joking speculation by someone who knows I use a wood ash glaze, someone who recently lost a parent and perhaps had ashes on their mind. Or in their closet. What to do with Dad? Or Mom? Or Uncle Bill?
But this was a more serious question. The first anniversary of the motorcycle death of a young man was coming up and my friend wanted to give the dead boy's mother - her close friend - a gift that would mean something to her. Could I use his ashes, she asked.
Sure, I said. Of course ... as if I got this question every day. How many times have I seen that question on the Clayart listserv? How do you do it? What's a good glaze recipe? Can you wedge the ashes into clay?
I told my friend to bring me the ashes and that I would think of something to do that would be appropriate. Soon, I had a small green notecard-size envelope pinned to the wall above my glaze table, a plastic sandwich bag inside containing perhaps four tablespoons of black and gray ash, on the outside written in the mother's hand "My beautiful ...... " (The dots replace the boy's first name in this blog post.) And there it hung for a couple of weeks, while I made other pots and my mind worked quietly in the background, trying to come up with something appropriate.
A big bowl, my friend had suggested, something the mother can keep candles in, or cards, or pictures of her son.
Finally, I made a couple of wide, plate-like bowls and a small candleholder, with the boy's three initials stamped into them. But I didn't feel the bowls were big enough, so I made one more, roughly dinner plate size, and fired it just before Thanksgiving. I glazed all of them with the ash celadon that I use as a liner glaze and sometimes as an overall glaze.
But this time I sifted some of the boy's remains into the ash glaze. Hard, black and coarse bits of burned bone were left behind in the sieve and went back into the envelope. I blended the new ash with the mixed glaze, then sieved it wet. This time, more coarse ash was left behind in the sieve, the same thing that happens with wood ash.
I couldn't just toss the remains of the sieving out into the driveway, which is where much of it normally goes. So this gritty mud was scraped off into one of Dee's flower gardens outside the studio door. And that's where all the waste glaze went, contributing to next summer's day lilies.
The pots were fired, as I said, just before Thanksgiving and I brought them to my friend at the cafe. The next day, it turned out, was the first anniversary of the boy's death. My friend loved the big, wide bowl, which was white stoneware, glazed with the boy's ashes and Phil Rogers' Standard Ash glaze to produce a pale green celadon. On the back I stamped the same loving phrase of identification that his mother had written on the paper envelope.
The mother, my friend told me, also loved the bowl.
As it turns out, she told me herself on the Saturday of our kiln-opening and open house. A slender, attractive woman stood in front of me at a quiet point in the day and said hello. Then she told me her name and started to say "Thank you." When I realized who it was, I hugged her and she held on tight.
All I had done was make a small, shallow bowl and glazed it. And then I was paid cash for it. It was a job, but it was more than a job. It's difficult to explain without making it sound like I'm blowing my own horn. I'm not. Any other competent potter could have made that bowl and figured out how to use the ashes in a glaze. It happened that I was the one asked.
But the things that grieving mother said made me glad that I had said "yes" to the job.