Why I am making special urns to help people celebrate life

A Cork artist has begun making urns, prompted by the death of her brother. COLETTE SHERIDAN talks to Martha Cashman about receiving funding from the Irish Hospice Foundation
Why I am making special urns to help people celebrate life

Martha Cashman Pictures: Arcade Film

A CORK-based artist has created a symbolic urn in memory of her brother who died from cancer last Christmas.

Martha Cashman, originally from Youghal, says that while her brother, Pat, who was in his mid-fifties, wanted to be cremated, he had a traditional burial in deference to their 92-year-old mother.

Martha’s sculpture is part of her new collection, Marthaz Urns, one of 11 projects nationwide to receive funding from the Irish Hospice Foundation’s seed grant scheme in partnership with the Creative Ireland Programme. The aim of the scheme is to support artists and communities in exploring the themes of dying, death and bereavement in creative ways during the pandemic.

Martha Cashman with her urn in memory of her brother Pat Cashman, who died this year. Pictures: Arcade Film
Martha Cashman with her urn in memory of her brother Pat Cashman, who died this year. Pictures: Arcade Film

Pat Cashman, who had returned from living in the U.S a few years ago, was just finding his feet with work as a builder and carpenter and was getting grounded, but he got sick last year, his sister explained.

“He was all aches and pains and then it was full on. He had lung cancer and it went to his bones and everything. It was terrible.

“During Christmas week, he got pneumonia. He didn’t want to go to the hospice. He didn’t want us to tell people.

“He was very private and sensitive and couldn’t deal with people whom, he felt, would have been just going through the motions (sympathising with him.) He found it hard to trust.”

Pat, who has a son in America from whom he was estranged, was buried in Youghal in a plot with his mother’s only sibling.

It was artist Elaine Garde, a friend of Martha’s, who told her about the Irish Hospice Foundation project.

“I had been talking about doing urns forever. Elaine told me to apply for the grant.”

She knew nothing of the story of Martha’s brother, but she could see that the hospice foundation project was an ideal opportunity for the ceramicist.

Pat's urn, which Martha made.
Pat's urn, which Martha made.

Martha is all too aware of the shortcomings of Covid funerals.

“My hope is that my new collection of urns will help heal and create a sense of celebration of one’s life.”

With people planning their own funerals, a bespoke urn is an attractive idea.

“My urns are all unique, one-off, hand-built artworks and the piece will also sit as a sculptural work in the home. 

"The option to commission a special piece is also possible. I’ll meet with individuals or families to discuss options such as the use of fabric from a wedding dress, jewellery or a shirt cuff or tie pin, which can be used to create a surface texture on the clay to reference a loved one.”

This embossing work is intricate and a thoughtful way of remembering a loved one.

Martha making the urn, using the ancient Japanese technique of firing, known as Raku.  Pictures: Arcade Film
Martha making the urn, using the ancient Japanese technique of firing, known as Raku.  Pictures: Arcade Film

For her urn collection, Martha is using the ancient Japanese technique of firing, known as Raku.

“You open the kiln at 1,000 degrees, take out the piece and put it into a bucket with sawdust. It flames up because you’re trying to trap the oxygen in the metal bucket. You have all these flames coming up which reference the firing of a cremation.”

The Irish Hospice Foundation videoed the firing of Pat’s urn, which is coloured blue because of his love of denim, and a rust earthy colour referencing the family farm.

Martha says that the hospice people “were quite in awe of the whole process of making the urn”.

She mentioned that not many women are involved in services around bereavement.

“It turned out that a woman who was also selected for this project is doing a keening project at Marymount Hospice. Another woman that received funding for the hospice project made a “beautiful book with illustrations, telling children about death. And there’s a woman who is collecting stories and writing a song around death.”

Martha working on the urn.
Martha working on the urn.

Martha adds that it should be possible to request a woman to lay out a body.

“I’ve always wanted to be a funeral planner. I hate all these Masses and prayers which often the person didn’t like. I think music that the person liked should be played. A friend of mine planned her funeral and that got me thinking years ago. Because the urns were dreadful — and still are. They’re just vases from China of very cheap quality.

“I thought, who’d want to be put in a flower vase? I should make nice urns. 

"You should ideally be able to plan your funeral instead of having last minute stuff not in keeping with the person. So the idea for the urns was always there. 

"My brother was the catalyst for getting them made. He wanted one, he didn’t get one for the funeral, But now he’s getting it.”

The urn will go to Martha’s mother. And Martha is making miniature ones based on the main one, for her six siblings.

Covid-19 has taken its toll on Martha, work-wise.

“I’ve had no teaching work since March of last year. I’m a decorator by trade but that work more or less stopped because I couldn’t go into houses. I had a few outdoors jobs though, but no full time work.”

But not one to let the grass grow under her feet, Martha is planning ahead. She is going to put a group of women together, “a sort of hub that you can go to when you’re bereaved, to plan a funeral”.

Martha said: “There will be a woman celebrant. It’s about taking religion out of funerals for people who want alternative funerals.”

For more about her work, contact Martha Cashman at 087 2606999.

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