Seton Hill College Students Celebrate Ancient Japanese Tradition
March 1, 2001
GREENSBURG, PA- A group of nearly 20 people gathered just after dusk on Monday, May 7th and headed down the hill beside Lynch. Some were wielding shovels and picks, others were heavily armed with cameras and film. A giant spotlight illuminated a patch of sod. Among the group were 16 students who took time out from studying for finals to gather and dig a grave- a clay grave. "The clay burial is something I tell my students about as background material," Stu Thompson, professor of art and education, said. "It was an ancient Japanese tradition among the pottery makers." The pottery business was a family one, passed on from father to son. When a man received the business, he unearthed clay his father had buried 25-30 years earlier to create a special celebratory vessel. In turn, the man would bury a new batch of clay for his son, the future owner of the business. The longer clay is allowed to sit in the moist earth the more plastic it becomes, making for "primo" clay to work with. Two students in Thompson’s clay class, juniors Jolena Bishop and Nora Keffer, approached Thompson and asked if they could reenact the ancient Japanese tradition by burying some clay on campus. The class would return after five years and create their own celebratory vessels for their reunion. Keffer volunteered to serve as the contact and keep an updated list of addresses and e-mails. Permission was granted to dig at the bottom of the hill behind the praying mantis sculpture beside Lynch. Thompson noted that the clay grave would be better at the bottom of the hill where the water will run down and keep the clay moist. After digging the hole and tromping on the clay with bare feet to compact it, the students covered the clay with a plastic bag to keep soil from permeating the clay and ruining it. They replaced the soil and returned the site to how it looked before. Keffer created a clay marker for the grave that will be placed on the grave once it is ready. Their sheer determination forced beds of solid rock to crumble as they worked for over two hours to create a hole about a yard in diameter and waist-deep. The group took turns relieving one another from digging duty. One student stood beside the light and quizzed her fellow students from notes for an Art History final the next day. Michele Chossat, an interested bystander, sought out refreshments for the hard working group. "This project was completely student initiated," Thompson said, noting that since his undergraduate days, he had never seen or heard of it being done before. "This has been a close bunch who have been very supportive of one another. I’m not surprised they came up with this, but I am delighted they did. As an educator, you know you’ve punched the right buttons because they have internalized the information and are thinking. There is real satisfaction in this. Giggling and sweating, the class members talked about what their lives held in store for them in the next five years. Who would be married, have children? Who would still be living on the beach? After the dirt was packed tight on the fresh grave, the participants hugged one another and headed back to their futures, knowing it won’t be long until they are unearthing the clay to celebrate their friendships again.