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wooden urns

The urns glued up.

When you know how to build furniture, you sometimes find yourself commissioned to make a piece that’s a little out of the ordinary. That’s where I am now. Among my current jobs is a pair of urns to hold the ashes of my client’s partner.

This kind of job is extra-meaningful for me. I ask myself why. Why should building a pair of elegant wooden boxes to hold the remains of someone who’s no longer even here feel more significant, considering that I take every commission seriously? After all, it’s a privilege to be asked to design and build something my regular clients will use every day; there’s a level of trust in the arrangement that’s sadly missing from so many of our everyday interactions. Does it get any better than having people pay you to do what you love, whether it’s building a sideboard or a kitchen?

For me, what’s different about this kind of work is that it comes in response to loss. The vessel built to hold a loved one’s ashes has to be among the most truly liminal artifacts we can make: simultaneously a memorial – an object designed to give the loved one an ongoing physical presence – and a cornerstone on which the grieving partner (or child, parent, friend) begins building a new life. Such things strike me as occupying an extra dimension, compared to how most of us (if I may be so bold) experience everyday life: As with other liminal phenomena, they’re not just one thing, but two at the same time. Think of glazed French doors separating a pair of rooms, allowing you to experience the space as two separate rooms, or a single room with two personalities. Or think of the color purple, which, depending on context, can read as blue-red, red-blue, or a blend of both. Such things remind me of the importance of perspective. Loss can be crushing, for sure. And it can also be an opening to a new, different life.

This is my third such commission. The first entailed turning a lid in curly walnut for a cherished copper vase the deceased had bought on a trip to Mexico. The second was a tall, slender box with a sliding top; the design and dimensions were based on a commercial model available through the funeral home, but my client wanted the urn to be made by someone who had known his wife. This time I’m building a pair of simple mitered boxes – one in cherry; the other, curly maple. They’ll have walnut splines and burly silver maple tops fastened with a twig. In each case, the client has emphasized how much it means to him or her to have this vessel made by someone with whom they have a personal connection – someone they can come to, in person, and talk about their loss.

I get it. And I’m honored to be part of this moment in these people’s lives.

Next week: The step-by-step process.

– Nancy Hiller

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