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Sunday, Aug. 19, 2007

WEEK 3

POTS FOR POSTERITY

Mere death needn't be a barrier to enjoying a nice cup of tea with the deceased


Staff writer

'Tick, tock, tick, tock," goes the clock of human life. Living with regrets is one of the hardest things to do. What if your dad died and you hadn't had that last cup of tea with him? Not much you can do about that — or so you might think.

News photo
Potter Neil Richardson shows off one of his Raku-style creations. RAJU THAKRAR PHOTO
News photo
Click for a pop-up window slideshow showing more of Neil Richardson's ceramic creations

Indeed, one man decided he wasn't going to accept that mortal imperative — and he decided to have his dad made into a teapot so they could have that last cuppa together again and again. He turned to 43-year-old potter Neil Richardson to carry out his wish.

Recently, while Richardson was here on a visit, I was assigned the task of interviewing this man who has devised a unique way of preserving people for posterity. I can't say I was keen to meet him, but I hadn't been talking long to Richardson before I realized he wasn't some ghoulish Michelangelo-cum- Mengele who spoke like an irate Darth Vader. In fact, the soft voice and friendly manner of this resident of Carmarthen in beautiful west Wales put me quite at ease.

Richardson explained that he came up with the idea to incorporate people's ashes into his works when his own father passed away in 2003. "I've never understood why people would just want to keep their loved ones' ashes in an urn. It's such a morbid reminder of a person's death," says Richardson. "That's when I decided to use my dad to create a tasteful and respectful piece of art."

The "commemorative artwork" he creates is done in the Raku ("freedom") style of pottery, which dates from 16th-century Japan and is the traditional way of creating tea-ceremony bowls.

In Richardson's case, due to the delicate nature of the undertaking, he is especially careful to keep his working area clean and not spill any ashes. He uses about 15 to 20 grams of ashes mixed with the glaze he brushes onto a vessel to be fired in the kiln. The ashes increase the randomness of colors and patterns. Each of the pottery forms he creates from a catalog of 12 shapes — from vases to cylinders, inverted cones and bowls — has swirls and patterns as unique as the people therein.

"My dad liked fishing, so it's funny that the pattern on his urn looks a bit like a fish," says Richardson. "But perhaps that is my imagination."

Renowned love of animals

Then, when Here in Spirit, a company Richardson set up with his business partner Peter Coates, was featured last year on BBC TV in Britain, viewers reacted favorably. In fact, he received a call that night from a woman in her 30s who had recently lost her husband. "She called me to say that she would like to commission a piece for his remains," Richardson says. "Then one day she sent me an e-mail to say that her bowl had arrived on her late husband's birthday, and that it was as if he had come back home. She was so grateful."

To date, Richardson has made 30 cremation creations in pottery. Prices range from $700 for a 25- to 28-cm-high piece, to around $1,300 for a bigger one. For his own dad, Richardson says he decided to make tall cylinders — "because he was a tall, upright man."

Meanwhile, considering British people's renowned love of animals, it is perhaps not so surprising that Richardson reported some have had their pets "immortalized."

One woman came to him, he says, to have her late pooch's ashes pottered into a brandy glass-shaped piece that was pinched in at the top so that from above it looked like a teardrop.

But though Here in Spirit has been well received on the whole, Richardson says there has been some disapproval of human remains being used in this way.

Nonetheless, attitudes are changing. The Cremation Society of Great Britain's 2005 figures show that 73 percent of people in England and Wales were cremated when they died — a roughly 25-percent increase from 40 years before.

"Cremations are much cheaper than burials, and they take up less space," says Richardson. "Most people have their ashes scattered in a ceremonial garden behind the crematorium. On the other hand, I create minimalist pieces of art that are a celebration of a life once lived."

In case you were wondering — as wonder you might — the purpose of Richardson's trip to Japan was to research how to break into the market here.

"Many people have responded positively, partly because my works take up less space than the Buddhist altars they have in their homes," he says.

But worry not if you don't fancy having a loved one spend their eternity looking shapely on a shelf. For a mere $30,000, one company will compress ashes to make a "diamond" for a ring or pendant. Another option is to have some of the ashes put into a decorative paperweight — while Richardson says he has "heard of a guy who left instructions for his remains to be put in a rocket and blasted into the sky from the beach where he often went with his family. He didn't want anyone to feel sad, and told them to have a party there as he headed for the heavens."

It sure beats being snorted by your Rolling Stone son, if you know what I mean.



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