Symbolism changing on cemetery monuments

(WISH File Photo)

SOUTH BEND, Ind. (AP) — A lot has changed in the monument business during the past couple of decades, and it’s not just the technology that craftsmen use to etch words and images into stone.

Take a stroll through any cemetery, and you’ll notice newer headstones are decorated with far more than traditional flowers and religious symbols.

“In the last decade or two, people are looking for more personalization in memorials. They want to tell a story,” said Carl Kay, who owns Carl Kay Memorials with his wife, Micheline, on South Michigan Street.

Peter Anderson has seen the same change. He and Tony McDowell run South Bend Monument Works next to Highland Cemetery and Riverview Cemetery on the city’s northwest side.

“It’s getting to the point where almost every one is personalized,” Anderson told the South Bend Tribune, “and we learn people’s life stories in the process.”

Both Kay and Anderson have some perspective on the trend. Kay has been in the business for 39 years; Anderson has been doing it for 38 years.

They’ve engraved stones with images of pets, cars, motorcycles, houses, barns, nature scenes, lighthouses, whitetail deer, baseball diamonds and largemouth bass.

Portraits of the deceased are popular as well.

Anderson said one couple who owned a farm wanted an image of their favorite cow on their headstone. Another man wanted his concrete truck to be included.

“We’ll do just about anything, except we won’t put any naughty words on them — even though we’ve had requests for them,” Anderson said.

“It’s amazing what people want,” he added. “You name it — I’ve put chickens on a stone.”

Kay said one of his customers wanted the phrase “I told you I was sick” on his headstone. The man intended it as a message for his doctor, Kay said.

Anderson said one of his most memorable jobs came from a woman who wanted him to add an airplane to her husband’s headstone.

“I said, ‘Your husband was a pilot?’ She said, ‘No, that’s the plane he crashed in,'” Anderson recounted.

Kay said technology has made personalizing monuments much easier than it was decades ago, when everything was done by hand with diamond-tipped tools. Now machines can place intricate images known as laser etchings into the stones.

More stones are being imported from China and India as well, though U.S. stones are still available, too.

Workers at Kay Memorials and South Bend Monument still use stencils and a “sandblasting” process to carve letters into headstones, but they don’t actually use sand anymore. Kay uses aluminum-oxide BBs to carve lettering and garnet to knock polish off of a stone’s face. South Bend Monument uses a carbide grit to “sandblast” letters and steel shot to knock off the stone polish.

Anderson said South Bend Monument also uses laser etchings, but the company still works with two local artists who engrave portraits and scenes with old-fashioned, diamond-tipped tools for customers who want that hand-drawn look.

Cremation is becoming more common in the United States, but that hasn’t slowed the monument business. Kay and Anderson said people are continuing to buy memorials for family members.

Kay said Americans like to remember the past.

“That’s why there are monuments in Washington, D.C., and all over the country to remember events that occurred, both good and tragic,” he said.

Micheline Kay added, “A monument is for the living. It’s in memory of the person who passed away, but it’s definitely for the living to remember that person and give them comfort.” provides commenting to allow for constructive discussion on the stories we cover. In order to comment here, you acknowledge you have read and agreed to our Terms of Service. Commenters who violate these terms, including use of vulgar language or racial slurs, will be banned. Please be respectful of the opinions of others and keep the conversation on topic and civil. If you see an inappropriate comment, please flag it for our moderators to review.

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