On May 30, 1999, Eurekan Henry Robertson stood next to Courtney Love and assisted as a Tibetan monk took the ashes of Love's late husband, Kurt Cobain, and placed them in the top section of a wooden urn along with ribbons of prayers and incense. The box-like bottom section of the urn, called a stupa, was filled with some of Cobain's favorite things -- a few CDs, a can of mandarin oranges, a guitar string, bags of tea. But when they tried to include a record album by the Sex Pistols, Never Mind the Bollocks, Here's the Sex Pistols, it was half an inch too large and had to be left out. Finally, the stupa was sealed, never to be opened again.
How did Robertson, a 50-year-old part-time teacher, artist, chef and businessman, come to play a role in the top secret ceremony laying to rest the remains of a man Rolling Stone called "Theartist of the decade" -- a ceremony so secret it has yet to appear in any national press, including Rolling Stone?
HENRY ROBERTSON WORKS AS A TEACHER FOR THE CHILDREN'S Art Academy and leads art classes at local schools. He is also part owner of a travel business. His wife, Carol, was among the long-time managers of Dalianes World Wide Travel who bought the company not long ago from the retiring owners.
For the last few years, up until its recent closure, Robertson worked weekends as a chef at the City Grill in Henderson Center. He is also a skilled woodworker who runs his own business, Custom Wood, crafting furniture and cabinets.
Robertson was born in Ohio. His father was in the Air Force and the family moved around the country a lot. After a stint in the Army including service in Vietnam, Robertson moved to Humboldt County.
"I came here to take advantage of the GI Bill, to attend school, to become a craftsman," he said. "I went to College of the Redwoods and studied fine arts and industrial arts a bit of woodworking, metalwork, jewelry, pottery, sculpture the basics."
After school he would often eat Italian food at Tomaso's in Eureka where he fell in love with one of the waitresses. They married and settled in Eureka. Carol went to work for the travel company and Henry set up a woodworking business.
He started out with a company called East Bay Woodworks, a partnership with Larry Dern (who now owns the Metro in Arcata with his wife, Michelle) where they built custom cabinets and furniture.
After two years they parted ways and Robertson established Custom Wood. On the side he made picture frames at the Art Center, then worked at Restoration Hardware as manager of the tool section.
In 1983 he took some time to build a number of finely crafted furniture pieces for himself, put together a show at the Art Center and a portfolio that landed him a job teaching woodworking at CR.
Early on Robertson was drawn to the Eastern religions. A close friend he met in Vietnam was studying Tibetan Buddhism and, after returning to the states, Robertson, too, became a practicing Buddhist.
Combining his interest in Buddhism with his skill at woodworking, Robertson began to establish a niche market for his art which led to some hefty commissions. In the early 1980s he invited his guru, Lama Lodro, from San Francisco, to visit Humboldt County. While staying at Robertson's house in Eureka, the monk saw the handmade furniture and asked if he might be interested in building a throne for Kalu Rimpoche, the senior Kagyu Lama who is Lama Lodro's guru.
"The throne is actually a teaching seat," Robertson explained. "It's a graduated box with stairs and a back. The High Lama sits on it to give teachings while those listening would be on floor level. The back and the front have intricate carvings and I drew imagery from Buddhist iconography to design images for the throne."
Building the piece led to other commissions. A wealthy Buddhist in New York had seen an exhibit on Tibetan art at the Metropolitan Museum of Modern Art and had Robertson build a replica of an 18th century ceremonial object he saw there, a representation of a wrathful deity, an ebony skull pierced by a flaming trident.
Seeing even more marketing possibilities, Robertson decided to advertise on a small scale.
"I was a businessman looking for Buddhist business," he said. "I made up postcards of the piece and sent them out to meditation centers around the United States, hoping to spark interest in my Buddhist work.
"I got one reply. It was from the Dali Lama's monastery in Ithaca, N.Y. They were interested in having a throne made for his holiness the Dali Lama, for his western seat, Namgyal Monastery in Ithaca."
Working from a photograph of the Dali Lama's favorite throne, Robertson spent 1994 building a modified replica, shipped the throne to Ithaca and flew out to assemble it in the shrine room.
In April of 1994, in Seattle, Wash., Kurt Cobain, lead singer of a band called Nirvana, put a shotgun to his head and killed himself.
Nirvana had come together in 1986 and helped create a new style of rock by merging punk anger, heavy metal thrash and pop hooks. The music press dubbed it "grunge." The album, Nevermind, yielded the major hit, "Smells Like Teen Spirit," and Cobain was crowned king of grunge. Like it or not, he became a rock star.
In 1992 he married Courtney Love, leader of her own band, Hole. When Cobain died, her band had just completed its most successful album, Live Through This. And that is exactly what Love had to do.
She had Cobain's body cremated. Reports say some of the ashes were buried in the back yard of their Seattle home, some placed in an urn. She negotiated with two Seattle cemeteries for interment; one refused outright, the other demanded $100,000 a year for increased security.
Eventually Love put the ashes in a teddy-bear shaped knapsack along with her wedding dress and traveled to New York, according to a story in Esquire. She met with a Tibetan monk, head of the monastery in Ithaca, and wanted to know about the Tibetan rituals for the dead. Without coming to a decision on what to do, she left for Los Angeles, only to return to Seattle with the ashes in July 1995.
She spent two weeks at Namgyal chanting with the monks as they consecrated the ashes. According to canon, they were mixed with clay and formed into small cones called tsatsas. The next step was to build a shrine known as a stupa.
"When I arrived in Ithaca to set up the throne," said Robertson, "Courtney had been there the week before with Kurt's ashes. She had this stupa project in her mind, and with my background I was the logical choice to build it.
"A stupa is a reliquary, an enshrinement for relics, typically of departed holy men. When the Buddha died when he left to go into nirvana his disciples said, `What do we do now? Who do we worship?'
"He was kind of beyond all that, but he told them, `Okay, you build this thing and put part of me in it and this thing will be exactly the same as me, the same as my mind.'
"The stupa symbolizes the enlightened mind. In its highest sense, the stupa is the mind of the Buddha. It's what he left behind for people to have a physical thing to worship.
"There are stupas in all sizes. Some are huge, the size of city hall, then there are very small ones, an inch tall. It depends on where they are going to go. They usually contain the remains of some holy man, but somebody with money would do this for their deceased. The ceremony consecrates it so the stupa is like all the others, the enlightened mind of the Buddha.
"Courtney wanted something that is called a nirvana stupa. I worked with the monks and came up with the appropriate design. These things are done according to Buddhist canon, according to certain proportions. What I had to do was make it the proper size for the ashes of one person."
In his wood shop in Eureka, Robertson set about building the stupa using four types of wood paduke, satinwood, maple and mahogany.
"The very top crown parts were gold-leafed. The top is like an inverted bell, a lathe turned piece made from 80 pieces of wood. It's what you call brick-laid, with alternate layers of segments. There are rings, each one with eight pieces in it on 10 levels, all bonded together, then turned. The bell shape holds the ashes and prayers and goes on top of a box."
While the piece was completed three years ago, it took a long time for Love to get everything lined up for the last ritual. Twice she made arrangements for a monk to come from Ithaca and for Robertson to fly to Washington, then canceled at the last minute. Finally on Sunday, May 30, the day before Memorial Day, the ceremony took place.
"They serendipitously rescheduled it on the Buddha's birthday and Nirvana day," said Robertson. "The day he entered nirvana was the same as the day he was born. You can't ask for a higher day."
The private ceremony was attended by Cobain's immediate family, a monk from Ithaca, another representative from the monastery who had made the arrangements and Robertson, whose duties included assisting the monk in filling the stupa and its final assembly.
According to Robertson, "The tsatsas were placed in the bell along with rolled-up prayers on long ribbons of paper. There were probably 200 mantras, prayers to all of the deities in Tibetan Buddhism, arranged with the highest Tantric deity on top and the others all the way down, then the ashes are put in and everything is intermingled with powdered incense."
The top section was placed on top of a box, which is "like a treasure chest filled with offerings," Robertson said. "They could be anything people term precious, just good stuff, things that will last eternally if that can be conceived.
"In Kurt's they put in CDs of music he liked. There was a potpourri that had dried gardenia flowers in it, which are special in Buddhism, some canned food, some tea, some rice flour, a guitar string.
"We closed it up and sealed it and it will never be opened again. Kurt's ashes are in this stupa that has been consecrated to be a holy object and thus have become a representation of the Buddha.
"It's not just Kurt Cobain anymore, it's the mind of the Buddha."
1. Top under headline: Henry Robertson carves a portion of Dali Lama's throne. (photo courtesy of Henry Robertson)
2. Robertson reaches a class at HSU's Children's Art Academy. (photo courtesy of Henry Robertson)
3. The Dali Lama's throne in Ithaca, New York. At the time this photo was taken, Cobain's ashes were stored in the cabinet. (photo courtesy of Henry Robertson)
4. The Flaming Trident (photo courtesy of Henry Robertson)
5. Courtney Love, from CD "Hole/Ask for It," copyright Caroline Records, photo by Michael Lavine.
6. The cover of Rolling Stone May 13, 1999 (photo of Kurt Cobain by Mark Selinger)
7. Cobain's Nirnana stupa consecrated in a ceremony at an undisclosed location five weeks ago. "The stupa symbolizes the enlightened mind. In the highest sense, the stupa is the mind of the Buddha." (photo courtesy of Henry Robertson)
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