Artist Sabra Field's gravestone, which she designed, sits in her garage in East Barnard.
Looking back, U.S. Navy veteran Carl Hooker says he did the right thing some 10 years ago. His actions, he says, were "responsible and important. But it was kind of creepy."
Hooker, then 36, reserved a plot in the Vermont Veterans Memorial Cemetery in Randolph in a section set aside for married couples, right in front of his father-in-law's plot. He also purchased a granite upright memorial to go with it.
On its front is his family name in capital letters: HOOKER.
As a personal touch he had the manufacturer add a rendering of the Washington, D.C., Mormon Temple, an outline of Vermont for himself and an outline of Australia for his wife. On the back is his wife's name and birth date and his name and birth date.
Centered beneath are the words "For Time and Eternity."
And therein rests the irony.
Now divorced, Hooker has since joined the Episcopal Church and lives in the Midwest. In short, Hooker's memorial is obsolete. So much for eternity. But how could he have known?
Purchasing a gravestone in advance of death is nothing new. People's reasons are as varied as the colors, materials and designs available. Sometimes a stone comes as part of a package deal: funeral, burial, flowers, memorial. Some people want to spare family members the added grief that could come with purchasing a memorial; still others want to ensure that their legacy is recorded accurately and artistically.
In the meantime, life goes on and change can happen. But some people are a bit more prepared, you might say, for the end.
Stonecutter Karin Sprague, 42, is of the old school.
In her shop in North Scituate, R.I., she hand-cuts each of her slate stones in the tradition and style of the memorial carvers of the 1700s, creating the type of gravestones found in Colonial-era cemeteries. Sprague's clientele will spend between $7,500 and $30,000 for a personalized memorial.
Sprague is wrapping up a job for a couple who plan to display their finished piece in the parlor of their home.
"They are inviting the reality of mortality into their lives and home, looking death in the face and allowing themselves to celebrate being alive," Sprague says.
Another of her clients, Vermont artist Sabra Field, has also invited the reality of mortality into her life, but only as far as her garage.
Field has taken the idea of personalization to a different level. Her own memorial features her favorite print, "Pasture Grasses." Though the stone now rests in her garage, its ultimate destination is the old church cemetery in her town, which is memorialized in her print "Cemetery, East Barnard."
"It has a large image that I designed and can be rubbed after the stone is installed so people can get a free work of art," Field says. "I started doing rubbings in Connecticut a long time ago, and I've always been interested in gravestone rubbings, so I wanted mine to be possible to rub."
Field said she designed her stone as a gift to her husband and four children so they wouldn't have to worry about it, or pay for it.
The idea of having her own headstone waiting in her garage doesn't seem to faze the 71-year-old artist. "I don't feel squeamish about death. It's just as much a part of life as being born."
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We don't all have the eye of an artist, of course, but that doesn't stop people from designing their own headstones. In fact, the trend has exploded in the last decade, particularly as the baby boom generation matures and begins dying off, says John Castaldo. He is executive director of the 118-year-old Barre Granite Association, a trade association of memorial manufacturers in Vermont's capital of the granite industry.
Advances in manufacturing techniques make it possible to cut unwieldy stones – granite, marble, slate – into virtually any shape and decorate the surface with a dazzling array of artwork.
Today there are memorials adorned with pop-culture icons such as Elvis and the full range of Disney characters (whose unauthorized use is a gray area), and clip-art renderings of bowling pins, knitting needles, race cars, poodles and pool cues.
The 57-year-old Castaldo already has a few ideas for his own: "I would probably opt for a traditional memorial, with just sort of a hint of something (personal). I'm a big 'Star Trek' fan, but I'm not going to get a memorial shaped like the Enterprise." (Trekkies, take note: It is possible for a manufacturer to saw a piece of granite into the shape of the Enterprise and then etch its image, picture-perfect, either by hand or with a laser etcher. Finding a cemetery that would allow this memorial is another thing altogether.)
Traditionalists might shudder, but Field offers another perspective on the trend of pop icons appearing on memorials. The artist points to the cherubs and angels of early 17th-century stones: "Frightening and not all that well executed, they were homely pop art. We all can't have the Italian aesthetic."
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Joe Calcagni has it, however.
Calcagni, 73, designed a two-family memorial that is soon to be erected in Barre's Hope Cemetery, where the talents of generations of stonecarvers are on display.
"One of the reasons we commemorate the lives of people is that we don't want them forgotten," says the third-generation memorialist. "A monument tells stories to the people of the future — who (the deceased) were."
Indeed Calcagni is making certain the members of his family, and his brother's family, are documented on the memorial. Hope Cemetery, he says, is filled with Calcagni memorials, possibly more than any other name. He wants to ensure that he and his descendants are identified and documented.
The memorial is also special to Calcagni. He was especially close to his brother, who died three years ago.
"When we were kids, he was right next to me, and we were around all the time. We did everything together." As altar boys, they had to memorize prayers in Latin. "As I grew older I realized the rough meaning of one, roughly translated: 'I go to the altar of God, the God, the joy of my youth.' That would be an appropriate inscription on my monument, and so that's going to be on there."
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Not all memorialists look at it the same way.
Take sculptor George Kurjanowicz, who has made a living carving memorial art – pietas, angels, assorted saints – in his studio in the hamlet of Websterville, in Barre Town.
He says he views a memorial as part of the grieving process for those that are left behind and who choose to depict their dead relatives in a very particular way.
As for purchasing a gravestone before death, he says there are three reasons a person would do this: poor health; a desire to spare family members; and, in a few instances, the person's ego, that need "to depict today the person they want posterity to see them as."
As for himself, the 54-year-old has not created his own memorial and has no intention of doing so.
"I don't even own a plot. My mortality is not quite a piece of my lifescape just yet. I have left enough of an imprint on those I've met along the way that they will be my monument."MORE IN Movies
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