Q: What do you do at work?
A: I proofread the text that is going on a tombstone before it gets made in the shop. I process bronze orders, for plaques or to put on top of a stone (often for veterans and their spouses). I also draw a lot of things that will either get engraved into the monument or etched onto it. Oh, and I just started doing sales too.
Q: What kind of things do people want you to draw for them?
A: Random things. A B-17 plane for a bench. Bowling pins. I drew a stencil of a poodle just the other day; that was fun. I can’t wait to see how it turns out on the stone.
I create emblems too, when we don’t have one in one of the example books. Recently I did one for someone who really enjoyed cooking, where I put together a pot and pan and cooking gloves…
Q: So where do you work again?
A: It’s a monument company. The way I got the job was actually kind of backwards. It’s a long story, but let’s just say they sort of created a job for me out of thin air. I did have experience in the industry, though, it wasn’t totally out of the blue that I’d approached them. In college I’d worked for my uncle etching portraits into monuments. They do that here too, but I’m not too involved with it. Still, it’s so much better than working in a cubicle. I have an office! And everyone’s really nice.
Q: What’s your day-to-day like?
A: Some days can be quite dull, just doing paperwork all day. Other days are really busy. My favorite days are the ones I get to draw stuff.
There are also strange days. Like yesterday I sent a proof back that made so little sense, I was like, “Are you sure this is right?” It was for an old woman who had died, and it said, “He paid it all.”
Q: Maybe it was a situation where the husband paid for everything?
A: That’s the only thing I could think of. Sometimes people just have to get the last word…
I had another one last week that said, “Here lies a woman who could never make up her mind.”
Q: Have you thought about what would go on your own gravestone?
A: I always tell everyone to just cremate me. It’s expensive! It can cost up to $50-60,000 for a monument. Even more.
Q: Wow, that’s a lot of money. What determines the cost?
A: It depends mostly on the size and what kind of granite you’re using. Gray is cheapest, and there are a variety of pinks that are less costly, but the prices go up and up with other colors. Also portrait etchings can add to the cost, and if you want a sculpture included. A bronze sculpture can be anywhere from $5,000 to $20,000. A bronze Jesus on the cross is usually going to cost you 10-15 grand. We get a lot of those.
A mausoleum—a small building housing a tomb or many tombs—can cost up to 100 grand. And even the plain markers that lie flat in the ground start around $1,000.
Babies have smaller markers, so they’re cheaper.
Q: That’s depressing.
A: Babies happen a lot more than I would imagine. I know I have a skewed perspective or something, but I feel like a lot of babies are dying.
Another strange thing is that people will sometimes wait to order the monument for years after the person has died. I had one recently where the person had died in 1987. Another baby, actually. There are also plenty older than that. I never know if they are replacing the monument or if they just remembered to do it.
Q: I wonder why people spend so much money on gravestones.
A: I think people just want to make sure that their family is well-represented. It’s a sign of respect. It’s also a long-lived custom. Also, like my boss once told me, it’s often the only piece of art a family will ever buy. They want to do it all the way, you know? And some of them are very cool. I spend a lot of time now in cemeteries, and you start noticing that.
Did you know that you can bury people together in a coffin? You can even bury someone in the same coffin 20 years later. They’ll dig them up so they can put the other person in there.
Q: Again, I wonder why people do that.
A: I’m not sure why. To save money, probably? In some parts of Europe you only rent a grave for twenty to thirty years, then they replace it. There’s some place, I think it was Havana, where you can only have a grave for two years. They only have one cemetery.
You can stack the caskets too—like do one on top of another.
Q: This job has a lot of variety. Anything else you have to do?
A: Sometimes I have to do a “lot check,” when someone wants to do a duplicate, like if someone wants the same headstone as their dead spouse. I always say that I have to go look for bodies—because that is actually what I’m doing.
It can sometimes be really hard to find markers. The cemeteries have really old maps; you can barely read them. Every section is divided into more and more sections, and the numbers are inscribed into rocks in the grass, but they’re so old you can hardly read those either.
Once you find the stone, you take a photo, and then get out this giant blue transfer paper and you use a rock or ball and go over the stone to get the exact design. It will make the paper white when you go over it. They call it a rubbing, but I hate that word—it sounds so dirty to me.
Q: This seems like a really interesting job.
A: It really is! As a writer, it’s almost too much material. I’ll never be able to use it all.