Burial of Otto Heino August 17, 2009

Otto Heino's ashes rest in a burial urn that he made, wood-fired with his famous yellow glaze.

Otto Heino's ashes rest in a burial urn that he made, wood-fired with his famous yellow glaze.

Otto Heino was one of the most famous potters in the world, certainly in the United States. He died in July 2009 at the age of 95. Though he and his potter wife Vivika lived and worked in California, Mr. Heino grew up and wished to be buried in Weare. His funeral was held at Holy Cross Church. The following is the homily preached by the Vicar on that occasion.

 

Ecclesiastes 3:1-11                                                            

John 14:1-6                                                                         

When I was in seminary, one of the books we were assigned to read was entitled Money, Sex and Power. It was sort of fun to read this book in public places – on a plane or a bus; people looked at you kind of funny. The book was assigned for our ethics class, and it pointed out that all the things people fight and struggle over in life, the things we make laws and rules to regulate, can be reduced to those three basics: money, sex and power.

These days when we read about funerals for famous people – celebrations of their lives – it is usually their attainments in terms of money, sex or power that are being celebrated. Think about Michael Jackson, to pick just a recent example. We watch  celebrity funerals on television, or read about them in People magazine, with a kind of gloating curiosity. Part of this is envy: we wish we were as rich or as beautiful or as powerful as the celebrity. But part of it is our knowledge that the celebrity’s worldly success is never the whole story; there are always shadows, dark sides. Think again of Michael Jackson. And that makes us feel better about our own sins and failures.

If life were only about the pursuit of money, sex and power, it would be a hollow thing indeed. But it isn’t. There is another triumvirate that also calls to us as human beings: the pursuit of the good, the true and the beautiful. And our lives have value in the end to the extent that they embody these three things: goodness, truthfulness, and beauty – though in worldly terms we may be poor, homely and powerless.

Otto Heino was certainly a celebrity – obituaries in all the major papers. But it is for his accomplishments in the realm of beauty, truth and goodness that we are here today to celebrate his life and to give thanks for his entry into the eternal life in which goodness, truth and beauty find their final fulfillment.

From time to time when I have had leisure, I have done a little pottery myself. Nothing, I hasten to say, at all accomplished, but enough to know what it is like to work with clay – and enough to have been familiar with the work of Otto and his wife Vivika. Working with clay is something special. It is not for nothing that the Bible says we humans were formed of clay, “from the dust of the earth,” or that it uses the image of the potter molding the clay to convey the relationship of God to humankind. The potter starts out with an idea of what he or she is going to make, but as the work progresses it becomes a dialogue. Clay and glaze speak to potter as much as potter speaks to clay. Accident and incident intervene between the concept and the finished product.

Clay and glazes are – particularly in the work of Otto and Vivika – a sort of praise and intensification of the natural beauty of the earth. The Heinos never sought in their clay to mimic other mediums, like glass or metal. They didn’t go for high glosses or artificial colors. They sought rather to bring out the essential earthiness of their materials. They also kept the discipline of making objects that were recognizably pots or bowls, plates or cups – honoring the connection between the useful and the beautiful. Being around a Heino pot makes you appreciate all things useful and to see new beauty in all things around you. Somewhere in this is that quality we have spoken of as “truth.”

Nor were Otto and Vivika simply concerned with beauty apart from other aspects of human life. As success brought them fame and wealth, they were always generous: to other artists, particularly students; to museums and galleries; to members of their extended family. In this we celebrate the quality of “goodness” in their lives.

 

Otto Heino’s mortal remains – the dust to which, like all of us, he has returned – rest here before the Altar. They are contained in one his pots which he made for the purpose, glazed with the famous creamy yellow glaze that he and Vivika rediscovered, the reproduction of an ancient and lost Asian formula – the glaze that capped their artistic fame. Many of you know the story of this glaze, how Otto negotiated with the Chinese government, which wished to purchase his secret. The price reached astronomical heights when negotiations were broken off because of international diplomatic crises. Then when things cooled down and the Chinese approached Otto again, he decided not to sell, no matter how much money he might have got, because he did not want his beautiful glaze commercialized, used for mass production work. And you know, many of you, that Otto took his secret formula with him to the grave.

This is a wonderful story, and I think it puts a beautiful conclusion to what I have been trying to say about goodness, truth and beauty and their contrast with the mere pursuit of money, sex and power. For goodness, truth and beauty are never commodities. They must be created afresh by each person, in each life. Otto and Vivika inspired many lives; their work will inspire many more. Someone, maybe years hence, will discover yet again the secrets of that yellow glaze – not merely to make money, we hope, or to win fame, or achieve power – but to reassert the immortality of beauty, of goodness, of truth. And when that happens, Otto and Vivika will rejoice in heaven.

Now this one thought more – to point to the religious meaning of what we‘ve been talking about. What is it about us humans that we can rise above our struggles over money, sex and power and aspire to realize beauty, goodness and truth? What is it about us that, no matter how “unchurched,” nonreligious, we may think ourselves, still stirs us when we see an Otto Heino pot, a New Hampshire autumn hillside, a generous and unselfish act of charity, a simple, honest human being?

It is that mystery which redeems us, that mystery which has made people always and everywhere seek the mystery they call God. It is that which human beings have recognized through the ages in the person of Jesus Christ. And it is that mystery which we believe will live when our mortal remains, and even the beautiful vessels that contain them, have passed back into the dust, the clay, from which they came.

Thank you, Otto Heino, for what you have given us. May the holy angels welcome you now into the beauty of eternal rest.

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