San Diego's grave stonecutters

Remember you must die, and someone has to carve your epitaph

“We’ll do everything from people’s cars to their dogs.”
  • “We’ll do everything from people’s cars to their dogs.”
  • Image by Robert Burroughs

Remember that the dead now outnumber the living. There are 18,000 deaths in San Diego County each year. A single San Diego funeral home handles 15 corpses a month. Five of those bodies — former military personnel, late Mexican nationals — are sent hack home. Ten are disposed of here. “Out of ten funerals,” calculates Frankie Clemens, “four are cremated, for sure. Two are shipped elsewhere, one is buried in an existing grave. That leaves three that might be Memento Mori. Remember you must die.

Carol: “We just did an elk for somebody."

Carol: “We just did an elk for somebody."

And with each death, or nearly, comes ritual: the hushed meeting to plan the service, graveside eulogy, distracted exchange of platitudes. “It helps them get on," Frankie Clemens, who makes memorial monuments, says. Funerary ritual can be relied upon, is something expected; unlike the most well received of deaths. It’s magic incanted against our own dying.

Conti & Son operates out of the same small grey building on Imperial Avenue where it began in 1935.

Conti & Son operates out of the same small grey building on Imperial Avenue where it began in 1935.

Memorial monuments, for this reason, tend to have about them an overdoneness; in mourning Beloved’s passing, they protest too much. But this quality serves an incidental, important purpose. The complicated iconography of gravestones, construction of our fear, betrays something of who we are and the values that guide our lives.



It is perhaps no surprise, then, that the memorial-making business has been in decline since the ’60s. Monument design has reached a level of unprecedented “schlock,” reads a tirade in a recent issue of Stone in America, an industry magazine. “Designs are absolutely hideous. People are adding more garbage to monuments than...ever....”

At Greenwood, only 2 of 27 available burial areas allow upright monuments.

At Greenwood, only 2 of 27 available burial areas allow upright monuments.

If you enter Mount Hope (Hope what? Hope you’re not really dead?) Cemetery’s main gate and follow the road across the trolley tracks, toward the Imperial Avenue fence, you’ll reach the slopes of Section I, Division 1. The oldest part, dating to the 1870s, it’s dominated by a craggy, full-sized granite cross and Alonzo Horton’s moss-tipped, American marble obelisk.

Greg Wheeler: “This is an exact replica of the Scipio Tomb in Rome.”

Greg Wheeler: “This is an exact replica of the Scipio Tomb in Rome.”

Sprouting from the tender ground are obelisks more demure than Horton’s recumbent lambs three-quarter-scale draperied pulpits with open Bibles inscribed with medallions of doves carrying olive branches in their beaks, winging through the open gates of heaven. Most are carved of grey granite, locally quarried. There are orange, red, and brown granite pieces, shaped like giant sausages, polished ship’s ballast that sailed around the Cape from the East Coast. Files of chiseled “logs" denote the resting places of Woodmen of the World. A couple of midget Greek temples dominate the slopes — family crypts. The effect is cartoonish, like a miniature golf course, a Disneyland of the dead.

Cemeteries are increasingly flat.

Cemeteries are increasingly flat.

As the death dates progress past the turn of the century, such oddities give way to plain, standing rectangles etched with praying hands, a rose, a cross. Among a patch of these, one monument captures something of death’s pathos, despite a surfeit of decoration: the memorial to Owen Foster (1876-1902) is a crumbling Greek temple, a fragment of ruined beauty—like a young man’s life cut short. A jagged-edged entablature balances precariously atop a fluted column and pedestal. On its cornice is chiseled a measure from Wagner's Wotan; on the frieze, Greek letters spell out “lethe” — “death."

Customers often rely on images they’ve just seen at the cemetery: praying hands, a cross, a border of roses.

Customers often rely on images they’ve just seen at the cemetery: praying hands, a cross, a border of roses.

Greenwood Memorial Park, adjoining Mount Hope’s eastern boundary, offers even more grandiose homages to San Diego’s illustrious dead. Prominent among them is the John Gay Memorial, a massive granite sarcophagus, five feet high and nine feet long, festooned with laurel leaves, scrollwork pilasters entwined with flowers, Latin inscriptions.

“There’s no regular Roman letters or Old English letters being used anymore. Palatina is used a lot."

“There’s no regular Roman letters or Old English letters being used anymore. Palatina is used a lot."

Greg Wheeler, of the Conti & Son Monument Company, gazes at the sarcophagus with a critical eye. “This is an exact replica,” he comments, “of the Scipio Tomb in Rome.” Cornelius Scipio, a famous general, died in B.C. 298. “There must be hundreds of these around the States.”

Mt. Hope

Mt. Hope

In fact, all of these most interesting San Diego memorials, with the exception of Foster’s, are facsimiles of designs from monument company catalogues. By the time San Diego was incorporated, inventive tomb-crafting had already been largely supplanted by mail-order catalogue uniformity. There was little impetus to be more creative. As a small town with a limited elite, the one-upmanship evident even in older Los Angeles cemeteries didn’t take place here.

Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris. In Paris and Milan, life-sized statues created by reputable sculptors of the day commemorate the sorrow of loss.

Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris. In Paris and Milan, life-sized statues created by reputable sculptors of the day commemorate the sorrow of loss.

Meanwhile, in Europe, funerary art reached an apex of kitsch. In the cemeteries of Paris and Milan, life-sized statues created by reputable sculptors of the day commemorate the sorrow of loss with unrelenting bombast: an anguished Edwardian gentleman rests a weary hand on the drooping shoulder of his equally despondent son; a petulant Art Nouveau angel, fluid folds of drapery spilling over lush breasts and tapered thighs, stares off above the viewer’s shoulder, implacable as death. Unfortunately for us, sophisticated European artists had no reason to seek a more prosperous life in San Diego.

Tracing design. Wheeler once carved a bed of gladiolas from a design he found in a child’s coloring book.

Tracing design. Wheeler once carved a bed of gladiolas from a design he found in a child’s coloring book.

By the turn of the century here, the hazard of towering obelisks toppling in earthquakes, and resultant lawsuits, further suppressed the creativity of local monument makers.

“We’re all new out here on the West Coast,” Greg Wheeler notes. San Diego, so strongly connected with the military, is essentially a city of transients. “People have left family behind.” Among the nonmilitary population, young adults with moderate disposable incomes don’t buy family plots anymore. Most don’t know where they’ll be living in 10 years, much less where they’ll be dying in 50.

Ray from the Clemens Granite Company began working as a child in the granite quarry.

Ray from the Clemens Granite Company began working as a child in the granite quarry.

Conti & Son, along with Clemens Granite Works in Santee, have dominated local gravestone carving since the early 1930s. Clemens Granite is still owned and operated by Clemenses. Conti & Son was bought out in 1975 by Ugo Ojetti, who had worked for the Contis since 1946; Greg Wheeler, his grandson, joined the firm full-time in 1982.

Conti & Son operates out of the same small grey building on Imperial Avenue where it began in 1935. Five monument businesses used to line this street. Only Conti & Son, and Seaman Poe next door, remain.

The building has been expanded slightly — Ugo sits behind a desk in an added reception area near the entry — but the stenciling shed out back and the block glass window behind Greg Wheeler’s longhaired head (in Titleist golfball cap) have changed little since before World War II.

Flanking Wheeler’s desk are a blank-eyed granite jesus and two marble copies of Our Lady of Guadalupe. The Jesus was hand carved in Korea and will probably end up on a stone ordered for a Mexican Catholic.

An order form on the beaten-up wooden desk where Wheeler rests his forearms reads, “Our Beloved Bdlezora Houtina June 3, 1893 - March 4, 1993.” Wheeler’s elbow sometimes hits a decrepit adding machine also on the desk.

On a wall is a brown-and-white photo of Mr. Conti and son in 1935. They’re a dapper-looking pair. The younger sports white patent leather shoes, the older a thin moustache. “I was born into this business,” Greg Wheeler says. “You have to be raised to it. It’s a family business, a cottage operation.”

Mr. Ojetti leans in the doorway. “My father was a stone cutter,” he says. “It goes back to the time he was in Italy.” He nods toward Greg. “He’s the fifth generation. Talk to him."

“I’m into this,” Greg confirms. “This is my life. Since I was seven years old. The first time I came out here, I was walking around out there in the lot. There was two Blue Pearl granite stones all covered with dust. Markers are stacked polish-to-polish (polished surfaces facing each other, to protect them from scratches). You could slide the polished surfaces apart to see what they look like. When I saw this beautiful stone, it was like I’d discovered gold. I was in my own little world, imagining all the uses for it. It was something old and new and neat. I thought, ‘Everybody needs this.’ ”

A high, hissing noise erupts from somewhere outside — the sound of a sandblaster, and the only evidence anyone else is on the premises. There are six full-time employees in the shop; local men, latinos. As for the office, “What you see here...” Greg gestures to the room, empty except for us. Mr. Ojetti snorts from the other room.

Wheeler estimates Conti & Son produces more than 3000 gravestones a year. They take in an average of 70 orders a week. Almost all originate within the county. But desert communities as far away as las Vegas also avail themselves of San Diego monument makers.

Greg Wheeler would rather be out golfing — Mount Hope’s smooth, green expanse just across the street brings the sport to mind. (A groundskeeper at one local cemetery, Greg mentions, makes use of a 100-yard drop to practice his pitch shot.) Cemeteries are increasingly flat, after all. The corporate explanation for this is philanthropic.

They wish to create a “parklike atmosphere” where families will be able to wander at ease.

But families no longer make weekly pilgrimages to honor their dead, nor pass through grave-filled churchyards on their way to and from Sunday services. Guilt-relieving “endowment care” packages have led to increasingly strict cemetery regulation. Upright stones must be trimmed around by hand. Small, flat, uniformly sized stones that a lawnmower can pass right over, keep labor costs at a minimum and so have become the industry standard. At corporation-owned Greenwood, for example, only 2 of 27 available burial areas allow uprights.

Corporate-owned cemeteries also favor thematic burial areas, which catch potential customers’ attention. In these, plots are arranged around some sentimental focal point, perhaps a massive marble cross surrounded by rose beds or a lily-choked pond. Uniformity in grave markers is strictly enforced so as not to interrupt the harmony of the planned design.

Most orders to monument companies are for conventional flat markers. Cremation calls for a stone 9 by 18 inches. For single-grave markers, the Veteran’s Administration supplies 24-by- 12-inch rectangular markers; that size has consequently become a standard of sorts along the West Coast, since cemeteries must accommodate veterans. In San Diego, however, 28-by-16-inch stones became, for some reason no one remembers, the norm.

Upright monuments aren’t obsolete, however. People with family plots in older parts of Mount Hope and Greenwood, for example, still order them to complement existing stones. “I think as time goes on,” Greg Wheeler prophesies, “you’ll see more cemeteries develop at least small sections dedicated to uprights.” He attributes this in part to influxes of immigrants who, for at least the first generation alter arrival, tenaciously objprve the customs and rituals they brought with them. “Ethnic groups are the future of the memorialization industry.”

But more importantly, Wheeler has noticed a return to personalization oyer the last decade. “The glory years of monument-making here were the '40s and ’50s. The technology was there, but handwork was still taken for granted. Since the ’60s, stones had become so plain,” Wheeler shakes his head in disgust. “It was ‘Greg Wheeler, 1957 to 1993.’ That was it.

“Someone will come in here and say, ‘I want to do something for my mother. What’s the cheapest?’ Even if there’s a difference of only $20, they’ll choose the lowest price." Rifling through the stack of orders on his desk, Wheeler huffs in exasperation. “I’m looking down here at ‘Our beloved husband, father and grandfather’ at the top, his name and dates and ‘Forever in our hearts’ at the bottom.” He flips to another paper. “In Loving Memory,’ blah blah blah blah blah, ‘We’ll miss you always.’ Those are classics. Name, dates, ‘suitable flowers.’ ”

Even sentimental poems are rare now. At Mount Hope one can see stones from as late as the ’50s with verse. “She sleeps beneath / the soft green sod / Dreamless at last / in the rest that lies / Out on the hills of God,” reads one. Morbid aphorisms, an early American staple, have entirely disappeared. The grim 19th-century cliche, “As you are now so once was I; As I am now so you will be,” has metamorphosed. “Those are lyrics to heavy metal music these days,” Wheeler says. “All that stuff that parents are worried about.”

From the comer of his desk, Greg Wheeler reaches for a book, a friend’s gift, on Celtic tombstones. He pages through it. “This is my favorite.” He puts on a pompous accent. “‘Sacred to the remains of Johnathan Thompson, a pious Christian and affectionate husband. His disconsolate widow continues to carry on his grocery business at the old stand on Main Street. Cheapest and best prices in town.’ ”

Today such creative advertising seems callous and vulgar. A 19th-century widow, though, might have faced starvation after her husband’s death. Survival, of course, is not of daily concern to us. No longer struggling to stay one step ahead of our mortality, we can afford to be complacent, even sentimental, about death.

It’s written on our tombstones. Angels and cherubs have become ever more curvaceous and whimsical. Oddly, the winged death heads those angels and cherubs had replaced in the 18th Century have been resurrected. Hells Angels use them. Bikers have a strong attachment to the glory of death, Wheeler suggests. “Go over to Mount Hope right now, you’ll see a fresh rose on every biker grave. They’re good to their people. They care for their dead.” One biker order he’s in the middle of, Wheeler adds nervously, is on hold for the moment. The biker who ordered it is in jail for beating someone to death with a flashlight.

“It’s hard to remember any unusual epitaphs we’ve done recently.” Wheeler squints, considers. “There was a client in Las Vegas who put, ‘I told you I was sick.’ ”

He opens a desk drawer, fishes around, pulls out a small photograph. It’s of a double stone of light-colored granite. Across the top the words “Joy and Harmony” float on a ribbon. Above a man’s name and dates, a folk guitar dances at a rakish angle; a fiddle and bow rest above a woman’s name.

“Here’s your dream customer. A six-foot-long monument for one person.” Wheeler passes another photograph across the desk top. The low rectangle is made of Salisbury Pink granite, from South Carolina. A rainbow, painted on with a product called Lithichrome, runs the stone’s length. A fleur-de-lis cross is suspended on the rainbow’s bands. Jesus wearing a crown of thorns peers sympathetically from a frosted oval. An oak tree is rooted near the

bottom. The deceased was a young man. "AIdo. gracias por el amor, ” reads the tribute, then, also in Spanish, “Your memory will live always in our hearts.”

Most memorial companies in San Diego are strictly retail mom-and-pop operations. Conti & Son wholesales to cemeteries as well. A grey 24-by-12-inch flat marker, with any letters you choose and any designs the firm has on hand, runs S250 at Conti & Son. These days the most extravagant clients might order a custom-designed flat marker for around $1500. Hand-chiseling — the addition of a beveled edge, for example — can triple the price.

The scarcity of cemetery space is driving plot prices upward. More than 50 percent of the population now chooses cremation, and this popularity has added to the demand for small, flat monuments for setting over a niche, between the roots of a tree, in a bench. Some choose to bury “cremains,” as they’re called in the business, in the same plot as previous decedents and merely add the new name to an existing stone. The monument industry survives because people want a “sacred space” where they can remember their dead, even when the dead are reduced to bone fragments and ash. By law one mast declare the “disposition of remains” but no one checks whether ashes were actually scattered at sea or over a mountain. You can keep your grandfather in a coffee tin on a shelf in your garage if you choose to.

Customers plan out a stone’s design with the monument company’s staff. Having put little thought into the matter previously, they often rely on images they’ve just seen at the cemetery: praying hands, a cross, a border of roses. Such common elements are stored on the computer Conti & .Son purchased last year. Computer-aided design is a hot industry trend. It uses essentially the same software sign makers use. Here, the computer occupies a desk behind a partition in Greg Wheeler’s office. The options are endless. Typeface can be made a 64th of an inch larger than standard, if a client wants it. “If you give me orders wholesale, I could lay out markers faster by hand. But with this machine, I can make it perfect!" Wheeler’s voice quickens with zeal. “In the old days, I had three-quarter-inch letters, inch letters, inch-and-a-quarter letters, and inch-and-a-half letters. With the computer, if a name looks a little too small, I’ve got every parameter adjustable, as far as distortion, sizing, spacing, anything."

Wheeler estimates he has between 10- and 20,000 design elements on hand. From beneath the old desk he drags a box of design catalogues sent to Conti & Son over the years by stone companies across the U.S. They contain photographs of stones, crypts, and sarcophagi, and drawings of design elements. In the catalogues, one can see that willows and urns, which became popular in the 18th Century, lasted into this century. A book dated 1924 is divided into chapters on various design styles popular at the time, including Roman and Egyptian, rendered in the spare linear manner of Art Deco. The more recent the book, the smaller stones, the more predictable the designs. “There’s some interesting modern design going on,” Wheeler concedes, showing a magazine picture of a trapezoidal black granite marker set on one corner, “but it’s lost all its meaning.”

The cross is the most common element put on stones. Without hesitating, Wheeler says the Masonic angle-and-sextant symbol takes second place. (It appears no less often on stones carved 200 years ago.) Corner clusters or borders of flowers mixed with what Wheeler calls “swirly things” are frequent requests. For centuries a metaphor for spring, and so regeneration, the flowers most often carved are a sort of generic species, vaguely roselike. Sometimes a specific type of flower treasured by the deceased is requested; Wheeler once carved a bed of gladiolas from a design he found in a child’s coloring book.

Lurching from his seat, Wheeler heads out a side door into flat sunlight. A vast paved lot next to the office is stacked with decades of rejected stones, the “gravestone graveyard.” Most commonly, a stone ends up here because a date has been incorrectly inscribed. Stones can be recycled for other uses, but the name must be obliterated; this is an ethical standard of the industry. One local resident is breaking up stones and setting them in a patio; another uses segments for stepping stones in a Japanese garden. “He loves the idea that the stones once had a meaning,” Wheeler says.

But gravestones can’t be recycled as gravestones. Monument companies used to surface and polish stones themselves, but now this task is performed by the quarries from which stones are ordered. The cost of resurfacing and polishing the stones is so great that it’s cheaper to buy a blank piece and start all over again. “Cutting and polishing is done by computer-controlled machinery these days. Big saws cutting whole slabs that are lying down, polishing segments while everybody’s at home sleeping. They come in in the morning and there’s this beautiful, perfect, polished finish.”

Interspersed with the chipped and broken markers are aisles of blank stones, waiting to be used. Markers are made only of granite or marble. Their polished surfaces shine like water. Striding between them, Wheeler points to a glossy slab of pink stone swirled with orange and black. “That’s granite. Bellingham granite. Don’t usually carry it. Comes from a quarry in Minnesota.” He continues on rapidly. “Most American quarrying is in the northern Midwest, the Dakotas, Minnesota, Wisconsin, right around there, up into Canada. South in Georgia and the Carolinas. Then up in the Northeast — Vermont. New Hampshire’s (called| ‘the Granite State,’ but that’s mostly building stone.” Conti & Son deals with a half dozen stone suppliers.

Granite is igneous rock, meaning that it is formed by solidifying magma and is very hard. It’s mostly composed of quartz, and you can see the tiny crystals on a polished piece’s surface. Depending on what other minerals are mixed in, the surface will be more or less porous. In local cemeteries, grey is the prevalent shade; it’s cheap, plentiful, and quarried locally. But granite comes in almost every color, again depending on slight variations in its mineral composition. Blue Pearl, from Norway, is the most expensive granite; 95 percent of it must be discarded because of cracks and veins. Ruby Red, once quarried in the U.S., now arrives from India, which undercut American suppliers with “virtual slave labor,” Wheeler explains, outraged. There is Rainbow and there is Melrose. A light-grey granite comes from Georgia, and dark-grey granite is mined in San Diego (bounty. Granite forms multicolored swirls in pink, orange, and black, resembling cirrus clouds, or in narrow stripes like stratus clouds. The polished surface may be pocked with deep holes between chunks of crystal or finely pored. When a piece is cut across the crystal, it appears to be composed of seed-sized, interlocking hexagons. Wheeler sweeps a hand over a stack of smooth planes colored a rich caramel. “The brown stuff s all Dakota Mahogany.” He waves at a thick square of a darker shade. “That’s Brown Velveta, an exclusive west-of-the-Rockies thing that I ran into.” Brown shades of granite are the most popular. “Ten people come on the lot, six to eight pick that stone.” Farther along the path, a dark, reclining monolith shines coldly. Up close its surface dissolves into tiny black and grey cells. “Belfast granite from South Africa.”

“The white stuff with the veins is Carrara marble, Michelangelo’s stone of choice.” Marble is limestone that has more or less crystallized. Its texture can be grainy or powder-smooth, and the marble of Carrara, Italy, is unrivaled in its purity of color.

Because it can be highly polished, marble has been popular in sculpture and architecture for centuries. Before marble was used for tombs, limestone was employed. Limestone sarcophagi date back thousands of years; “sarcophagus” means “flesh-eating stone.” In a corner, against the chain-link fence that separates the yard from a weedy alley, leans a large, pale, elaborately inscribed stone. The word Mescaleros appears above the endearment “Our Bro Tony" and the name of a young, dead man. “Uh, that’s a...club he belonged to,” Wheeler explains.

At the far end of the fence, beside the office, is a barn-like corrugated metal structure, where two men are busy over stones. Leaning against the barn, tucked behind some plywood, is a long, smooth plinth of slate. Its pigeon-grey surface is so uniform in color it appears to be painted. Wheeler runs a hand over it covetously.

Above the noise of the sandblasting machine in the barn, Wheeler shouts, “It’s a beautiful piece. I’m trying to figure out what I’m going to do with it.” Slate, the early standard for headstones in Europe and the United States, is the dense, fine-grained product of the compression of sediments like clay or shale. “Feel that surface!

It’s naturally split. You can feel the little striations. Slate is the medium of choice for handcutting letters. There’s a natural contrast. The inside is much lighter than the outside.” The stone’s planed edge, which is paler grey, jumps out from the darker surface. “The reason it was the standard in Jolly Old England and Rusty Europe was that it was plentiful. There was marble, and there was slate. Marble decomposes fairly quickly, especially with acid rain. What you have to worry about here are sprinkler heads, lawn mower nicks, water mineralization, alkali, grass fertilizers.”

In the shade of the metal barn, Wheeler pauses over a completed stone, balanced atop two wooden sawhorses. It’s one of the “classic” designs Wheeler dislikes: name, dates, clusters of unidentifiable, broad-petalled flowers in the corners. “We call those monument flowers,” Wheeler laughs. “I’m not a firm believer that they have any other meaning. They are usually referred to as wild roses.” On another stone we see trailing grapevines. Centuries-old Christian iconography gives them the double meaning of sacrifice (toiling in the vineyards) and the enduring richness of the Afterlife. “You take a place on Earth where nothing will grow,” Wheeler says, “plant grapes. They will grow.”

He leads the way through to a deserted shed connected to the barn. Dusty light shafts through big windows onto old wooden drafting tables. Attached like a bridge above the width of each table is an air-powered stencil press. Before Conti & Son began using computers, all layout, stenciling and cutting was done in this room. “Now,” Wheeler says, “maybe two percent is.” Wooden trays of letters in Roman and Hebrew alphabets, in sizes graduated by the quarter inch, sit on shelves and benches. “There’s no regular Roman letters or Old English letters being used anymore. Palatina is used a lot, because it has straight lines and short, stubby serifs like those old-fashioned Roman letters you see on old monuments. A lot of alphabets don’t work with sandblasting, because it’s easy to lose those pointy, wispy serifs.”

Metal forms once used for shaping the tops of stones (into the S-curves of an open Bible, for example) hang from one wall, obsolete now that stones are ordered precut and polished. Hanging from a nail, a pinup calendar (blonde in surprisingly modest shorts and halter top), compliments of a granite supply company, sways in a sudden breeze.

Covering half of one wall, a rack of wooden cubbyholes holds ceramic ovals on which are the photographic images of dead people. Manufactured by a firm in Chicago, the ovals are a popular embellishment to headstones, particularly among Mexican Catholics. The photos, being conventional snapshots provided by relatives, capture the dead at off-guard and not always flattering moments. One, of an aged and very overweight woman, has been reproduced keyed to yellow, so that the sagging folds of her flesh (revealed in a sleeveless flowered frock) appear jaundiced. Her mouth is slack and slightly open. One eye is closed, the other squints. She appears, in short, to be dead.

Plastic stencils Greg calls “cookie cutters” of praying hands, roses, Jesuses baring Sacred Hearts are runged near the drafting tables. A cabinet of empty flat file drawers, once used for storing stencils, spans one wall. The stencils were cut into thick, sandblast-resistant matting onto which the stone’s design had been laid out by hand. “You’d take a blank piece [of matting], mark your centers, then figure your border....”

“As you would in any graphic layout?”

“Yes. Except that in this business you don’t know the word ‘graphic.’ Or ‘proportion,’ or ‘taste.’ Then you set up your cookie cutters, your Letters, punch ’em on.”

Now, designs are cut into the pale green, rubberlike matting by a $20,000 piece of machinery, sort of a cross between a computer printer and a vinyl cutter. Greg threads his way through corridors back to the office to show it off. The machine is stationed next to the computer. A fragile-bladed, computer-guided armature attached to a frame cuts the design into the matting as it passes through, traveling up from a ten-yard roll suspended underneath.

Returning to the barn, we find it quiet. The workers have left for the day. Greg demonstrates how the stenciled matting, which has a Mylar backing, is affixed to the stone. Exposed edges of stone are masked off to prevent sand from getting underneath.

The stone is then braced upright and wheeled into a thick-walled box resembling a meat locker, the sandblasting booth. Pale, plastic-smelling sand is piled in drifts around the brace. From behind a half-wall and a protective curtain, a metal gun attached to a hose is aimed and fired. The noise is a deafening shrill. Those parts of the stone exposed through the matting are gutted by the air-propelled granules to a depth of up to an inch. Despite the brute force of the process, it’s a delicate business. If the gun dwells too long on one section, for example, a corner of matting may lift and a finer detail may be lost.

Granite doesn’t have the contrasting quality of slate, so after sandblasting, letters are highlighted with a product called Lithichrome. Shallow letters are painted in white; deeper letters are painted in black.

Lithichrome is sometimes used to color details as well; Wheeler shows me an infant’s tombstone on which an airbrushed Lithichrome rainbow ends behind a pair of sandblasted baby shoes.

Another, increasingly popular method for putting portraits onto stones involves a photosensitive stencil and sandblasting. The work is done by a Fallbrook company, Borst Brothers. (May ’93 was their biggest month ever. They sent out 600 portraits, boats, cars, dogs, and cats, 80 percent of them to Hispanics.) Greg Wheeler kneels next to a rank of half-finished markers, tips out a dark grey granite slab to show how it looks. No border was used around the portraits on this stone, so the negative values of the photos blend right into the granite, while the lightest parts, blurry edged, seem to float above the stone like wisps of smoke. The effect is so ghostlike it’s hard to imagine anyone wanting to do this, the modem tendency being to evoke the living individual, not the corpse.

This tendency represents a prominent change in memorialization over the past 300 years. Early New England stones offer brief accounts of grueling Puritan lives, emphasizing that even the most virtuous Christians suffer horribly and die. (“Memento Mori,” reads a 1787 stone. “In Memory of Henry Adams...His untimely death was in consequence of incurable ulcerous sores, under which he painfully lingered in great agony confined to his bed for 132 days.”)

And, as Greg Wheeler points out, gravestones have lost much of their symbolic meaning. The very shape of Puritan-era stones held significance. The traditional upright rectangle had an arched middle — the tympanum — and two smaller arched side columns — pilasters — which derived partly from tools available to early carvers, but the curves at top were meant to suggest immortality and spiritual resurrection.

Those crumbling slate tablets are embellished with winged skulls, skeletons, coffins, scythes, hourglasses — symbology to which a largely illiterate populace could relate and had done since medieval times. Grim Latin aphorisms, most famously Memento Mori, exhorted the faithful to conduct themselves with scriptural piety.

Intermingled with the morbid imagery were reminders of the Christian promise of eternal life. Peacocks with feathers transmuting into flower petals, radiant suns, roses, pomegranates, and voluptuous grapevines climb the pilasters. On the tympanum, winged hearts and flying birds alluded to the ascension of the soul.

Beginning at the time of the Enlightenment, mortality was downplayed in favor of the Afterlife. Stern calls to morality were replaced by sentimental verses about grief and resurrection. Winged skulls gave way to cherubs, angels, and depictions of the deceased. These elements are in turn giving way to symbols of more recent preoccupations.

Clemens Granite Company is headquartered off a two-lane road in Santee. The office, a beige concrete house, lies beyond a dirt yard strewn with sample monuments. A barking dog peeks between the slats of a wooden fence bordering the yard. Inside the shady office, Frankie Clemens rises from a cracked leather armchair and extends a plump hand. Her voice is soothing, well modulated, a “lady’s” voice. Frankie handles Clemens’s sales and customer relations. She started at the company in 1957, when she was 15, typing letters and watching the office for her future father-in-law.

On the other side of a doorway, a slender, dark-haired woman in T-shirt and jeans bends over a drafting table. “That’s Carol, our daughter,” Frankie says. Carol turns and smiles a hello. “She handles design and stencils. Kay is around here somewhere. That’s my husband. His father founded the business in 1933. He does all the sandblasting, cutting, chiseling, and mounting.” Frankie seats herself carefully, wipes a wrinkle from her blue cotton slacks, her smile identical to the molded-marble Our Lady of Guadalupes on the big table behind her.

Ray began working for his father as a child in the granite quarry that was once a part of the Clemenses’ operation. The quarry was sold when the work of quarrying, sawing, cutting, and polishing stone became less efficient than buying preworked stones from supply companies. “Ray’s still the kid in this business,” Frankie says. “Ugo at Conti & Son is 75, I guess, the man at Seaman-Poe is 65, and Ray’s 64. You don’t retire in this business. You die.”

Clemens is a smaller, simpler operation than Conti & Son and puts out an average of five markers a day — half Conti’s volume. They’re almost all retail, and a lot of their business comes from East County residents. “Almost all of our orders are in the county,” says Frankie. “Right now there’s a little child one layin’ out there that’s gonna go to Victorville. The child lived in Victorville with her mother, and her father lives down here. They were divorced. The little girl was five and she was born with cerebral palsy and she just couldn’t take any more. Her little body just couldn’t take any more.

“Oh, hi, Ray!" Frankie’s face lights up as her husband, a slender man in short sleeves, roams in, says hello, and roams out again.

About a third of Clemens’s clients are surviving spouses, another third are adult children buying for parents, and the balance are parents buying for children, by Frankie’s reckoning. In recent years, Clemens has made stones ordered by spouses of AIDS victims too. Frankie admits this by a silent nodding of the head and wrinkles her nose. Then she says, “What’s interesting now is the variety of people. In our shop right now, there’s Japanese, Chinese, Russian, Hebrew, Mexican. Arabic. Chaldean. Right now Carol’s working on a Jewish one and a Catholic one.”

Inscriptions in foreign alphabets must be provided by the customer. Frankie leans over and grabs a poster-sized roll of paper, unfurls it to reveal a long inscription in Japanese. Because

the thousands of tiny strokes must be rendered with absolute precision to be intelligible, Clemens has contracted with Borst Brothers to inscribe it with their photographic sandblasting process. “This was a young man that was riding a bicycle around the world. He was Japanese. He went into Mexico. He got to Ensenada, and somewhere... He was staying with this very well-to-do Japanese family. The woman’s name is Alicia Mikakawa Enrique.” Frankie grins and chuckles. “She’s part Mexican. And she’s beautiful. It’s just the most beautiful mix.” The family is erecting a monument along the Ensenada Road.

“Clients come to us. They need to see the stone. They assist in every stage of the process. If you go to some cemeteries, anybody can be a stone salesman. You have six colors of granite and eight designs. Here, families participate in every letter on there. What to capitalize, what style of letter. That’s a great help to people. It involves them.

“I can sit and talk to them. To use the word counseling is very pompous, but I can say, 'You’re not alone. You’re not the only one that can’t get out of bed in the morning. Or can’t buy new clothes.’ Everybody’s the Clemens Granite Company stone same. From George who doesn’t wake up one morning to Homer taking three years to die, they’re both dead.” She claps her hands together softly. The most emotionally difficult orders, of course, are for stones for children. “The other day 5555I was going to become a plumber,” Frankie says ruefully. “It was an eight -year-old boy, died of a strep infection. The human body’s just amazing. You can die of an impacted tooth, depending on your body’s condition.”

The office door bursts open and a little boy rushes in, panting for breath. He’s come with his mother to pick up a memorial plaque Clemens has engraved for a local elementary school. While the woman and Frankie conclude their business, the boy investigates an “Eternal Light” candle leaning against a file cabinet. A candle that burns for eight days is mounted inside a colored sleeve on a long metal pole, like a tiki torch. A screw on top holds the religious symbol of your choice.

Frankie later mentions most “Eternal Light” consumers are Mexican Catholics. The boy tries to lift the heavy granite square, but Frankie puts a stop to his effort with "Well, now, see here, buster! If you think you can lift that!” and a hearty laugh. “Don’tdon’tdon’t! It’s gonna drop and it’s gonna come down on your fingers! Okay! Right there! Back off! Hands off!” Her tone softens. “Now sit right over here...” The chastened boy retreats to the doorstep.

“I can tell you’ve had kids,” the woman says to Frankie.

“Two grandkids, but four kids. The rule in here is, if you don’t watch your kid, I set ’em on the step.” She points an imperious finger at the front door. “Because they cannot be climbing on these things.”

“How do we move this?” the woman asks.

“Well, we’re getting a big, strong, handsome — Ray!” “He’s out the other end,” Carol says from her table. “I’ll help.” She walks over, bends and grips one end of the stone. The woman grips the other. The boy precedes them out the door.

Like Conti & Son, Clemens makes a number of commemorative plaques for schools and public institutions. “The last one that we made that just went out of here a couple days ago was for a little boy that was killed. They dedicated a tree. Right now, some people are starting a rose garden at a mobile home park, and they’re gonna have the names all across it, we’re doing that.”

Clemens handles a number of orders for pet cemeteries, too — cats, dogs, horses, birds, hamsters. “You should see my daughter trying to make a guinea pig. It’s a potato with eyes!” Frankie chuckles and Carol turns around and laughs, too. “She got it from a kid’s coloring book.

The most dramatic change Frankie has seen in her 36 years at Clemens is the move to flat markers. “But people do want memorials, they do want the statues, they do want the crosses, all of this, and they have the money to buy it. The last family that was in, it will either be $1674 or $2028 depending on the size of portrait they choose. That includes a monument, an 18-inch-high white marble cross, and the portrait.” The Borst Brothers’ photo-process images on black granite are “very, very, very, very popular," Frankie says. Many of these are portraits, but “we’ll do everything from people’s cars to their dogs.”

Frankie opens a thick photo album, pivots it on the desk surface to face me, begins flipping pages. A late local car dealer’s stone features two cars, parked at rakish angles. Another stone,rectangular granite, is decorated with two wrenchlike implements. Frankie calls them high-precision gauges, and they’re etched in at angles to the dates. Big letters read, "Father Bill Emberton ‘The Big Fool’ Dad We’ll See You Up There. Save Us A Spot. Love The Boys.”

“He was a Snap-On Tool man,” Frankie explains.

The image of a pickax crossing a shovel commonly appears on the tympanums of 17th-century stones, usually in the company of a dancing skeleton and an open coffin. Emblems of death, the tools were used to dig graves. In Frankie’s book, they turn up on a stone completed not long ago for a man who was the “discoverer of Mesquite-Placer gold diggings in April 1876. Last of the gold bonanzas in the Southwest. Located in present-day Glamis.”

There is something primitive about these representations, devoid of symbolic meaning. The simple, forced-perspective outlines of cars and yachts float in space like the bison and spears on the cave walls of Lascaux. The new iconography of headstones is largely composed of material possessions, beloved objects the departed has left behind. Perhaps they are meant to accompany the dead to the next world, like the funerary furniture in pharoahs’ tombs.

“This is a cute one,” Frankie enthuses. A husband-and-wife stone for a deceased member of the La Mesa Police Department is topped by last name, with "Cpt. Gordon L. ’My Captain, My Captain,’ ’’ underneath, and to the right, “Violet R. ‘His Backup.’ ” Had the quotation from Walt Whitman been correct, it would be no less appropriately maudlin: “O Captain! My Captain! our fearful trip is done. The ship has weathered every rack, the prize we sought is won,...”

Another page: A marker bordered with music staff and notes, the legend “She’s Joined the Heavenly Choir.” A stone with a mailbox on it, for the woman who delivered the mail in lulian for years. A stone featuring a reclining figure gripping a fishing pole, its line disappearing in concentric ripples. “He’s Just Away. Gone Fishing.” A stone for “JOE” with an 18-wheel rig heading for the viewer, a cross on its grill, smoke from the diesel stack forming a heart, the edge of the plume forming a rosary. Joe’s ceramic portrait, just in from Chicago, lies next to the Rolidex on Frankie’s desk, ready for mounting.

The phone rings. Frankie talks quietly, affectionately, into the receiver. After a few minutes she says, “So you want ‘charity’ and ‘concern’ to come out?”

The next page: a stone that reads, beneath the prominent last name, "We Love You Dwayne. Mom. Bros, Friends.” Near this is etched a dumbbell, reading “Paramount Los Angeles Powerhouse,” the decedent’s gym. There’s a beer bottle, the number 21, a rendering of Dwayne in his football uniform, legs bent, gripping a football, and, surveying it all from the upper corners, two portraits: one of Dwayne in his football uniform, the other of Dwayne in his prom-night tuxedo. “To Our Dwayne You Reign In Our Thoughts And Our Hearts With All Our Love. God Bless You. Rest In Peace.”

“He committed suicide,” Frankie clucks sadly. “He was a cleaned-up druggie who couldn't take it.”

The workroom where Carol stands at the drafting table is well lighted with the sun streaming through a rollup door Outside’s a back yard piled with blank stones, old, broken and ruined markers. The sandblasting booth shares the room with her. There’s no computer here: a client might show up with ; complete design or plan one with Frankie’s guidance. Clemens employs the formula Wheeler deplored — “the name is always larger, then the dates, then the endearment smallest.” Carol might be called upon to create elements of the design. No matter which, every design is laid out by Carol’s hand on the same sandblast matting used at Conti & Son. Design elements like flowers she then cuts into the matting herself; lettering is laid in place in trays and punched into the matting with the air-powered stencil press that bridges Carol’s drafting table. The press descends with an abrupt sibilance, a dismissive, scornful sound.

File cabinets next to Carol’s table contain manila folders filled with design elements, labeled “animals,” “birds,” “books ” Carol rolls her eyes. “We have tons of designs.” She opens a folder and holds up thin pieces of paper, turns her head toward her father. “Some of these are from your dad, aren’t they? These designs?”

Carol passes me a horse’s head, a horseshoe, a trout, a eat, a raccoon. “We just did an elk for somebody," she comments.

“Was he an Elk?"

“No. He just shot them.”

Turning to a trestle table behind her, Carol sorts through a pyramid of paper scrolls bearing more designs. “What’s that last one we had checked? A koala. A mother died. She was 39. She collected koalas. Anything koala. One of the daughters, in her high school art class drew the koala. I adapted it from that. Everything we do has to be adapted to black and white.”

“We had a guy bring over a surfboard,” Frankie offers. Carol fumbles among the scrolls. “Where is that koala?” “Is that it right there?” Frankie points.

“No. That’s the Angel Moroni.”

Frankie walks out into the sunny yard, pointing now to a pretty piece of stone (she loves being surrounded by beautiful stone, working with a natural product is very gratifying) orange with black and white speckles, called Illusion, from India, then to an epitaph she particularly enjoys: “Every woman needs a man who makes them feel as good as he did me.” She indicates the stones as if they were the people they represent. ‘ This was a little girl who was hit down here in El Cajon. She dashed out between cars and got hit.”

“This was a baby who just, he just...wasn’t able to make it.”

Birds chirp in the trees overhanging the yard. Ray saunters up in his easy gait, back from delivering a stone. Trained as a stonecutter, he can create flat sculpture for monuments — there’s a dark-pink, heart-shaped tablet here — or for amusement, like the stylized silhouette of a rust-colored granite coyote leaning against the wall, destined for an American Legion auction in lulian. “Carol’s address, at home,” Frankie says, “is a penguin.” Ray’s in the process of duplicating an old headstone, a large oval of dark-grey granite with a round polished face. We walk back to where he now stands, just inside the rollup door. Fie hands over a snapshot of the original. “This is in Evergreen in El Centro. The thing got all ugly over the years.” A beveled edge separating the polished face from the rough sides and back must be hand-tooled. Ray dons a plastic eye guard, takes up a carbide-tipped chisel. Frankie braces a metal carpenter’s square against the stone’s face to give Ray a straight line. Gently tapping the chisel with a mallet, Ray moves along the edge, chipping sharp edges off. Tiny pieces of granite spin through the air.

“There was one stone, still got a picture of it somewhere, it said, ‘Here lies a high liver — with onions.’ And you remember that one we sold?” Ray turns to his wife. “It was the grandkids or the aunt? Bought the marker with the, uh, marijuana on it?” “Yes, we put marijuana leaves on it.”

“Instead of roses it was a marijuana leaf.”

“You know, not every death is mourned,” Frankie sighs. “Gosh, I had this one that was just terrible. This woman looked at me, it was her son who had died, and she said, ‘The night he died was the first night of sleep I’d had in years.’ ”

The Clemenses haven’t planned their own monument. “It’ll probably be the smallest, plainest stones in the cemetery,” Frankie says, “just names and dates.”

“I always kind of liked this old-fashioned design you see in outlying cemeteries, where they use a boulder,” Ray ventures, “with, like, a scroll cut into that.”

Carol flips a radio on and a country-western tune wails. She walks over to a double-width upright stone lying on a rack outside the sandblast booth. She presses its greenish matting in place with her fingertips, then takes up a metal caster and rolls it across the mat. When completed, the stone will be light-grey granite with a sanded central panel and deep-sunk lettering. Frankie walks over. “Now this is a Jewish stone. He was a leader of the prayers, he was a Cohen, so he’s got the hands.” She points out the traditional emblem, two hands with palms forward, thumbs and index fingers touching, beneath the large letters of the last name. “It’ll have his name and his Hebrew name, and his date of death and his Hebrew date of death all in there.” Her fingers describe the layout across the matting.

“One of the things that’s important around here is to get the ornamentation right for the person. This man had to have those hands. That was who he was. Getting the ornamentation correct requires that you know quite a few religions. The Southeast Orientals have to have their stones set at a certain time. They bring you what amounts to a moon calendar book. They say, ‘No, you can’t set it Tuesday between 8:30 and noon. You can set it after 3:30 on Thursday.’ And that has to be. I mean, Papa will roast in hell if it isn’t set right. So we have to ask,” her voice hushes, “‘When’s your time?’

“I get to dabble in every religion. When someone walks through the door, I know what their customs are. I think probably the custom that I find the strangest, although I understand the reasoning, is the American Indians, who put all the person’s possessions — clothes, bedding, shoes, watch, comb — in the ground, then put the body in, burn everything, then put the dirt on that. Because they don’t want the spirit to come back and reclaim what was theirs.

“The Jewish have their unveiling at the anniversary. Their custom is to bury the body before sunset, for health reasons, because they don’t embalm. That’s standard for any Jew. They try to keep as close to that as they can, but it’s usually the next day now. Ideally, if they die early enough in the day, they should be buried by sunset.

“The Jewish retain more of their customs. Catholics are still strong with theirs, too. You get a good, strong Italian family and they’ve still got it. American Indians have unveiling rituals at the anniversary of their deaths. But the Orientals that are coming over are just steeped in tradition. They have to take things to the grave. When we’re setting the stone, they’re over there with their mats, they’ve got books and things that they’re doing.”

Among Southeast Asians, tradition requires that the deceased’s clothing be burned at the gravesite. A security officer at one local cemetery admitted knowing of such ceremonies being interrupted by park personnel. In once case, an Asian woman who was in the process of burning a pair of pants over a hibachi was chased off.

Frankie moves over to the table of scrolls, deftly pats the rolls to a neat shape. “I think,” she muses, “the Anglo-Saxons have lost a lot. Our traditions are pretty impoverished.”

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