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The Finer Portion

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The remains of a beautiful life go into beautiful art.

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Arriving at Irene's house on a beautiful spring day, I found her husband, Gábor Lukács, busy sifting her ashes, sorting the smaller dust particles from larger ones clearly recognizable as bone fragments and placing them in separate bowls. I had come for a gathering of friends and loved ones for a ceremony Irene had asked for before she died in January.

She was born Irene Koster. Being Dutch, she pronounced her first name ee-REH-neh. Some of her ashes had gone to Holland, Germany and Canada for her surviving siblings to scatter in meaningful places. The rest were to be scattered on this day, April 30, which would have been her 65th birthday, by those of us assembling under the tall, wide and lush magnolia tree in her front yard. It blossoms for about one week each year and was in full bloom.

That morning Gábor had gone to the Henion Bakery in the center of Amherst to pick up a chocolate cake with raspberry jam spread under a creamy hazelnut glaze, Irene's favorite, to share with the guests. He told David Henion, who in addition to being a gifted baker is a dedicated potter, about the occasion. Along with the cake, Henion gave Gábor an idea. Might he like to have some pottery with a glaze that incorporates his wife's ashes?

The answer turned out to be "Yes!" In June I accompanied Gábor to collect the order of several dozen pieces from Henion's home and studio in Leverett. The three of us sat around Henion's kitchen table and discussed life, death and pottery. Recalling the day in April when several dozen friends gathered for the ceremony under the magnolia, Gábor relayed to David Henion that he "told everyone there about the idea. Three people thought it was outrageous and the rest loved it." Actually they did more than express affinity for the idea; they placed orders.

Gábor said he sifted the ashes to filter out the finest dust particles because it was a windy day and he didn't want guests to inhale them as each in turn approached the tree to distribute a spoonful of Irene's remains. The finer dust portion was what Henion needed for the pottery glaze.

Irene died much too young. She suffered headaches due to nerve damage caused by a dental procedure decades earlier. Over the years her headaches kept getting more severe, more frequent and less responsive to treatment. Migraines, I learned, is a general term that includes a wide range symptoms, including some of hers.

As her neighbor and friend I knew she suffered what in the end became daily, debilitating pain. I also knew her as a warm, gentle and intelligent presence on our street. Irene, who had three grown children and four young grandchildren, fought for her quality of life and eventually for life itself.

Her arrival at death was slow and conscious. A registered nurse and a practicing psychotherapist, she believed in facing reality with clarity as well as cheer. She prepared for her own death in a way afforded only to those who can see and really look at its deliberate, unrelenting, and in her case premature, onset. According to her obituary in the Amherst Bulletin, Irene, who used the last name of the second of her three husbands, Abramms, "lost a long-term battle with various and debilitating illnesses, but was victorious in living a full and vibrant life, which was an inspiration to all around her."

According to Gábor, Irene had a deep personal understanding of the end stages of life stemming from the early 1980s, when she helped shepherd a dear friend through his tango with terminal cancer. She went on to teach a course on death and dying through continuing education at the University of Massachusetts and to help found the Amherst Hospice Group.

Once the inevitability of her own departure from the physical plane came clearly into view, said Gábor, she devoted a great deal of contemplative thought to what she knew would be a difficult and even harsh letting-go process for those around her. The inherent cruelty of the situation, she knew, could be tempered by ceremonies that both acknowledge grief and at the same time point to a way forward.

It would fall to Irene's friends and admirers to memorialize a woman much loved and much mourned, but she was determined to help them in saying goodbye. Adding her ashes to a glaze for functional bowls, mugs, and a cream and sugar service turned out to be one way of remembering her. Another is a collection of her writer's group pieces and journal entries compiled by her second and third husbands and made available to anyone who wants them as Irene's Birthday Book, through a print-on-demand publisher. It is accessible through a website (www.odt.org/irene) set up in her memory.

Before she died, Irene individually giftwrapped all her jewelry, designating each piece for a specific friend. She also willed her wardrobe to her women friends, who were to have a party to go through her clothes to take what they wanted to wear. I have done a couple of double takes in town since then, seeing a distinctive garment of hers pass by.

The idea of an ash glaze came to David Henion on the day Irene died last January when Gábor came to the bakery for a loaf of poppy seed cake, another of her favorites, for the grieving friends who gathered at their home to sit with her lifeless, serene-looking body, still in her bed for most of the day, before it was removed to the mortuary.

Henion remembered an article Southampton potter Jeff Zamek published in Ceramics Monthly several years ago about using his beloved dog's ashes in a glaze. Bone ash is well known as one of a number of flux agents potters use to modify glaze formulas so that they function as desired. "A glaze is a glass, or silica, and it melts at over 3,000 degrees by itself," explains Henion. "That is hotter than kilns can get, so ceramic artists through the ages have added different elements so the silica melts at whatever temperature kilns tend to fire at."

It wasn't a big leap for him to imagine using human ashes in a way that honors the deceased while giving the living something tangible to keep. He held onto the idea, though, not knowing when an appropriate time to broach it would come along.

"I had a certain amount of trepidation," said Henion. "I could sense Gábor's loss and I thought this could be another way Gábor could hold on to the memory of his departed, his lost love." Eventually Henion overcame his fear that the suggestion would be received as "tacky and not a good thing to do." Gábor, he figured, would "either accept my idea or not, but I felt it would be another way to preserve her memory."

As I sat at Henion's kitchen table, it was apparent to me that the two men shared many perspectives on death and what constitutes appropriate disposition of the body. Gábor, 40, a Hungarian who tends to New Age philosophies, and David Henion, a Connecticut native who traces some of his family roots to Huguenots who emigrated from Holland to New Amsterdam, where the Hudson River empties into the Atlantic Ocean, share an antithesis to the kinds of burials most widely performed in the United States.

"Putting bodies in a casket and then putting the casket into a concrete vault really negates the concept of ashes to ashes and dust to dust," said Henion. "You are not touching the earth anymore, you are isolated." Put more starkly, he views this kind of burial "as a waste of money and as a negation of the cycle of life."

His feelings for Irene, though based primarily on a professional relationship, contributed to an impulse to use her remains in an artistic endeavor. She and Gábor were among the first customers when he and his wife Barbara Kline opened Henion's Bakery 14 years ago. They were reliable patrons and their European sensibilities were evident.

"Through the years it was as predictable as clockwork that they would come in at 11:30ish on a Saturday," said Henion. "They would bring their own plates and mugs and they would save their bags. It was very thoughtful, sensitive."

Irene and Gábor happened to be at the bakery on a winter's day laden with a fresh snowfall when Amherst photographer Michael Zide was out capturing images for a commission to illustrate life in the town. The couple's fluffy little bichon dog Shanti was waiting outside and Gábor reached out with a tidbit for the pooch. The ensuing photograph has had a long run, most recently on www.henionbakery.com and as a greeting card which Henion sells from his counter at Christmas time. With that Irene and Gábor were no longer just customers, said Henion, but had become "part of the bakery's iconography."

Transforming a part of Irene into something durable, functional and beautiful seemed as natural to Henion as the underlying impulses of the potter's craft. "The ceramic process uses clay, which is like mud, and takes it to a place where it is going back to the center of the earth," he said. "Heat is acting on it in a way that re-forms it into stone."

One need go no further than any of the world's great museums to appreciate the durability of an ancient art. "When archeologists look at a lost civilization, one of the things that remain are ceramic pieces," said Henion, even if they are only shards. The pieces he glazed with a formula using Irene's ashes, which became part of a lustrous yet earthy brown hue, "serve a purpose. You can pick them up and hold them in your hands and use them in your everyday life," Henion mused. "They could last to the end of time, or you could drop and break them. They have a serendipity nature to them."

The craft extends to artistry, explains Henion. A potter gives a part of him or herself to the person who handles the wares. The hope is that the user "can see that there is love in what you make and that it is expressed through the creation of something that is pleasing and which adheres to the human scale."

When I started writing this article, I wandered down to my kitchen and saw one of the Irene mugs in my sink. I didn't realize that my wife had ordered one, something I probably would not have done. Seeing it there felt unsettling at first. As I grew accustomed to having it around and integrated into our food routines, it started to feel natural and even good. When it first appeared I asked my wife if she was planning to use the mug, or put it aside for safe keeping.

"Use it," was her reply, in a tone giving away her wonder that I would even ask. If perchance it someday falls and breaks, at least we know what to do with it: collect the shards and add them to the earth under the magnolia tree next door.

All articles © Eric Goldscheider

(413) 835-1248 - eric.goldscheider@gmail.com