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Arts and Crafts V: Two Funeral Urns

About twenty years ago my parents died. First my father, after being treated for prostate cancer. Then, my mother, from a stroke. Through a strange set of circumstances, their cremated remains were on top of our piano until this year.

The story of why they remained there is a long one but has no place in this post. My parents were both veterans. During World War II, Dad was a retired Naval aviator and Mom was a WAC code clerk in the Pentagon. Mom had said she always wanted to be buried at Arlington National Cemetery but then, as I grew up, she quit saying that. I don’t know why but I suspect it was because Arlington filled up and no longer accepted the bodies of veterans except for special occasions. That’s how it rested until about four years ago.

At that time, I checked and found out that though bodies were no longer being accepted, cremated remains were and I had two on top of my piano. I passed the idea past my sister and after about a year of discussion, we decided to go ahead with it. Three years later—it took that long to get the documents together, apply, and be scheduled for an interment—we got a date. March 21, 2024.

Mom’s urn was within the size limits but Dad’s was not. They were not very nice urns, anyway. I talked to the family and asked if I could build the urns for them. They said yes and I started.

The specifications were fairly simple: it had to fit inside of a 9-inch cube and hold the ashes of my parents. I had been through a similar situation with wood turning an urn with a friend and we’d already run into the situation where the result had been too small and we had to start over. I was not going to make that mistake.

Just to make sure, I purchased two urns as a plan B.

The following is how I built them. They came out well but this is sort of like showing the ins and outs of a magic trick. So, if you like their picture up there and want to preserve the mystery, read no further.

I decided on a simple ceramic 9-inch cube for each of them, figuring it would shrink below the size limits. I settled on blue-green over black as the base. It seemed somber without being morose. I would use ½ inch slabs of clay “glued” together with slip. Finally, I would have small ¼ inch feet.

To this end, I first built a protourn, using the ½ inch slabs sans feet at a four-inch scale size. I liked the result but it seemed too dark. Also, the glaze ran a little bit. I resolved on the final product to use more blue-green on the outside. The protourn could be dipped in the glaze but the larger urns could not be. I would have to pour the glaze over the urns and then scrape off any excess glaze.

First, I had to layout and cut the slabs: six per urn. Five for the sides and one for the top. The bottom and top slabs were cut straight but the side slabs were cut with a bevel. This would prove a bit problematic later.

 

 

To keep the slabs straight as they dried to the point that I could assemble them, I dried them between sheets of dry wall loaned to me by my teacher, Cheska. Thank you, Cheska. Thank you for so many things. Drying took a bit less than a week.

Once they were dry enough, I assembled them. I did this by cross-hatching where the edges were to connect and then applied slip and pressed them together. There were some issues here. Fingerprints and indentations were left in the clay. I cleared much of them up but Cheska suggested I leave the remainder: they were my fingerprints in the urn of my parents. At this point, I trimmed as much as I could to make the surfaces flat and added the feet.

 

 

 

 

The process for making things in our studio goes something like this:

  1. Make the raw clay product (greenware)
  2. Let it dry to the right point.
  3. Assemble and trim
  4. Let it get bone dry
  5. Bisque fire the clay (bisqueware)
  6. Do any repair or sanding of the bisqueware
  7. Apply glaze
  8. Glaze fire
  9. Any post glaze work

There was some warpage in the bisqueware. Unfortunately, I did not capture any images of the bisque product. I poured glaze, black first, then blue-green, on the sides and then the bottom. After that had dried, I tried to do the same for the interior. That just didn’t work. I ended up with far too much pour material on the outside which I had to scrape off. I did it differently on the second urn: I just painted the interior with black glaze.

At this point, the class went on break. I had scraped a great deal but it was too wet to do much. Cheska was in the studio during break and was kind enough to scrape off some more.

Then, the urns had to dry completely. If there had been any moisture from the glaze into the clay (bisque absorbs water) it might have exploded in the kiln. I did have a plan B for a reason.

The result was… problematic. One of the panels had sprung away from the other and made a large crack.

 

In addition, there was significant warpage between the lid and the chamber.

 

Finally, the glaze on one of the urns was too thick and dropped, making ugly pedestals. These, I would have to grind off.

 

Cheska suggested several possible repairs for the crack. One was apoxie, a sandable epoxy product that was more like clay than putty. At least, so it said on the box. For the lid/chamber mismatch, I decided to seal the two with black beeswax. It would hide the warpage and blend in with the rest of the urn.

I had solutions for 2 of the three problems and a possible solution for the third, the crack.

I tried the crack repair first, thinking if that failed, there was no point in going further. Fortunately, it worked. I could see the repair but when I showed it to people who knew about the crack but hadn’t seen it, they couldn’t find it. There was a problem with sanding in that while apoxie could be sanded, it left streaks in the material giving a visible gray look. I covered that over with Sharpie.

After I ground down the bottom, there remained these pox pits (my word for them) that I found truly ugly. The apoxie had worked so well on the crack, I figured it would work on the bottom.

 

It didn’t. This was a schlimmbesserung: an improvement that makes things worse. Wendy suggested that I cover the bottom in black felt. I thought this was a good idea. I had planned on copying the label from the original urns to these new urns. Framing them with black felt might work.

It did. It was so successful that I wished I had left the ground surface without the apoxie.

 

Meanwhile, Wendy had been tackling the problem of the labels. She started with water decals and tried several brands. They didn’t print well. The one that did, curled up when it dried. She ended up using transparent vinyl decals. This worked well enough that one of the funeral people admired the “engraving” of the tops. We gracefully accepted the compliment.

The round image on Opal’s is the WAC service medal. Earl has Naval aviator wings.

At this point, we had a family Zoom meeting. I felt I needed family approval for this. To make a long story short, they approved.

Now, I had to seal them. Back to the protourn for a test. This was successful. But the warpage in the actual urns was greater than the protourn. Also, the wax I used for the test was not the wax I used for the final urns. (Both were from candle kits. I had trouble finding black beeswax any other way.)

I layered strips of the wax on the urn, using a heat gun to make it soft enough to adhere. When I had enough, I heated it nearly to melting and put the lid on top. Beeswax isn’t putty. There are only about fifteen seconds of malleability. After putting down the heat gun so it didn’t start a fire, that’s about seven seconds. When I was done, the wax was bulgy. Wendy has steady hands and she was kind enough to trim back the wax to a more attractive state. Then, I took the heat gun and softened out the cut marks.

They were done. Now, I just had to get them to DC.

 

We packed them up and drove down.

 

I have to say, I sweated every inch of this. They were done but they weren’t done until they were out of my hands and interred. We got to ANC and I carried the box in, thinking I would carry Earl and Opal the last mile. Inside, I took them out of the box and put them on a couch in one of ANC’s family rooms. There, pictures were taken and they were approved by the funeral liaison—a lovely man named Bill.

Who then informed me they needed to go back to our car and wait for him.

My sister and I each carried one of the urns back to my car. There, we waited for Bill to meet us. Once he drove up, we had to put Earl and Opal in his car. (This last mile was getting pretty long.)

We followed Bill to the site of the ceremony. There, a representative of the Army and a representative of the Navy took the urns to the site and the ceremony was held. I’ll talk about that sometime but not today.

Then, we had to carry the urns to the actual gravesite. This one my sister and I delegated. My son carried Opal and my sister’s daughter carried Earl. They were just as nervous as we had been. In the back of my mind, I remembered that there in the back of the car was still my Plan B. Just in case.

The urns were put on the ground for the benediction. And we were done.

 

We did not stay to see the urns actually put into the ground. There was no ceremony for that and, frankly, if there was an accident, I didn’t want to see it. Instead, we went out for dinner.

Thanks to Wendy, Ben, Cheska, Hana, the whole Hopkinton Center for the Arts ceramics gang.  I couldn’t have done it without your help and support.

That was last week and even now, I can’t really believe they’re not in the front room holding down the piano.

Still, I think they approve.

 

 

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