13 Secrets of Pet Groomers

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iStock

Pet grooming is a multi-billion-dollar industry that’s growing each year. More and more pet owners have come to rely on groomers, who—in addition to top-notch trimming and clipping skills—must know animal anatomy, calming techniques, and the best way of avoiding potentially dangerous scratches and bites. We spoke to several to get the inside scoop.

1. PET GROOMING CAN BE RISKY BUSINESS.

Whether it’s an aggressive dog who bites or a nervous cat who scratches, groomers must be constantly aware of potential threats.

“Even the sweetest and most docile cat has the potential to scratch or bite,” says Jared Gorton, who owns Rhode Island Cat Grooming with his wife, Mandi. Most groomers are able to keep themselves and their animal clients safe by wearing gloves and using muzzles when necessary, but some groomers also protect themselves by turning away animals with a history of aggressive behavior.

2. THEY PREFER DOGS (USUALLY).

A black schnauzer dog near grooming tools

While some pet groomers focus exclusively on cats, most avoid them. There’s one big reason: In general, cats are more unpredictable, and many groomers don’t want to risk a scratch or bite.

According to Mandi Gorton, that’s why most groomers start out working with dogs only. “There are many feline-exclusive groomers who started as dog-exclusive groomers; I was one of them. I thought ‘cats groom themselves’ and didn’t want to be one of those groomers who had a career-ending bite by a cat,” she explains. “Some [groomers] will shave cats or offer to brush cats, but don’t understand the basics of cat behavior, breeds, or grooming. They see it more as a necessary evil than a field to thrive in.”

Mel Brink, the owner of Club Meow, a cat boarding and grooming facility in Iowa, explains that in his region, many grooming shops won’t take cats at all. “And the ones that do [groom cats] only take easy cats and are primarily dog-oriented,” she says. “There are a dozen Petsmart and Petco stores here, and only one takes cat clients!”

3. THE CONDITIONS ARE QUIETER THAN YOU MIGHT THINK.

A fluffy dog being blow-dried.

Barking dogs, running water, and blow dryers can make pet grooming shops noisy places to work. But keeping the volume as quiet as possible is integral to making sure the animals feel safe. “Animals feed off the energy of others and easily go into flight or fight mode,” Brink says. “I keep my shop very quiet and peaceful. I diffuse essential oils and keep my own energy low.” Some cat owners also prefer to patronize feline-exclusive groomers because the smells and sounds of dogs can stress out their cats.

4. CATS AND WATER AREN’T A BIG PROBLEM.

A black-and-white cat being bathed.

While most dogs jump eagerly into the water to swim, cats are more timid, and there’s a common belief that cats have a phobia of water. But the pet groomers we spoke to insist that’s just not true. “Most cats are not afraid of water like so many people believe,” Brink says. “They are actually afraid of loud noises, so if you keep your spray nozzle low, especially at first, most cats tolerate water with no issue.”

According to Mandi Gorton, cats are afraid of drowning, rather than water per se. “Cats drink water every day, lots of cats even play with water or follow people into the shower. Getting a cat to trust you enough to bathe in it is a cat groomer's super power,” she notes.

And there’s another pro trick when it comes to pets and water: Many dogs dislike when soap and water get in their eyes and ears, so good groomers are careful to wash an animal’s face last and rinse it first. This method ensures that soap and water have the least time to irritate an animal’s sensitive eyes.

5. THEY’RE EXPERTS AT GETTING ANIMALS TO TRUST THEM.

Pet groomers are often called dog and cat whisperers for good reason. Their ability to quickly connect emotionally with a new animal, establish control, and convince the animal to trust them takes a great deal of skill, knowledge, and experience. Like horses, cats and dogs read people and pick up on body language cues. A calm, confident groomer will encourage pets that they’re not in any danger. “The first step is to begin with that feeling that the cat can trust you not to harm him in any way. After that, you have to be compassionate and understanding,” Jared Gorton says. “Most cats are fairly compliant when treated with kindness, mutual respect, and a ‘matter of fact’ attitude,” Mandi Gorton adds.

6. LOVING ANIMALS IS KEY, BUT PEOPLE SKILLS ARE ALSO A MUST.

A woman on the phone next to a dog on the floor.

As Massachusetts pet groomers Kathy and Missi Salzberg explain, many people enter the profession because they prefer to spend time with animals rather than people. But although pet groomers have a rapport with animals, they must also be able to converse and connect with their owners. “People skills are a necessity,” the Salzbergs write. Besides having customer service capabilities, successful pet groomers must effectively communicate with pet owners about what type of hair cut they want and clearly instruct pet owners how to take care of their pet between grooming sessions.

7. COMBS ARE THEIR SECRET WEAPONS.

A pile of pet hair in between two grooming combs.

While groomers may reward good behavior with dog treats or distract insecure cats with catnip, their number one secret weapon is a simple comb. As animal groomer Margaret Campbell tells Angie’s List, most brushes only reach the top of an animal’s coat, but combs get further down to the skin, where tangles and mats can hide. Besides bathing an animal and applying a conditioner, groomers comb the animal’s hair from head to toe, gently working out any tangles. That’s crucial, because if fur gets too matted, the animal may have to be shaved or buzzed in order to safely remove the knots—a process that can be painful.

8. THEY CHUCKLE AT THEIR CUSTOMERS’ LIMITED PET VOCABULARY.

Much like hairdressers, pet groomers work to fulfill their client’s wishes and create a cut that is aesthetically pleasing. Grooming styles vary based on breed and range, from a puppy cut to a lion cut. But pet owners often don’t have the vocabulary to describe exactly what kind of style they want for their pets. “I laugh at times to myself when a client tries to describe what they want done,” Brink says. “I recently had a lady call and ask for a ‘backsplash.’ I was perplexed until I realized she meant a sanitary trim around the bum. We both had to giggle about that and I may just use her terminology!”

9. THE CERTIFICATION PROCESS CAN BE INTENSE.

A cute dog being dried with an orange towel.

Depending on the state and city in which they work, some pet groomers may need to be licensed and certified. Organizations such as the National Dog Groomers Association of America and the International Society of Canine Cosmetologists teach groomers about everything from clipping styles and cutting nails to anatomy and behavior. According to Certified Feline Master Groomer Lynn Paolillo, who works as an instructor and certifier for the National Cat Groomers Institute of America, cat groomers who want to become certified learn about feline temperaments, how to recognize breeds, correct color terminology, handling techniques, and common health concerns and symptoms. “This information combines to create a cat groomer who is knowledgeable, confident, and proficient with cats of varying temperaments and needs,” she says.

Groomers who certify with the National Cat Groomers Institute of America must also pass four written exams and five practical exams, proving that they have mastered clipper skills, bathing and drying, and safety. “I think most people would be surprised to know how creative cat groomers need to be. Working with cats is primarily about problem-solving, so the groomer must be able to think quickly on their feet in order to keep both cat and groomer safe and as low-stress as possible,” Paolillo says.

10. THEY PROBABLY SUFFER FROM VARICOSE VEINS.

Working as a pet groomer can be extremely physically demanding. “Groomers are prone to back problems from lifting heavy dogs and carpal tunnel syndrome from the repetitive motion of scissoring, brushing, and hand stripping,” the Salzbergs write. “A groomer’s legs can suffer from standing all day over a long period of time. Circulation problems, varicose veins, overstressed tendons and ligaments—these are common ailments in this profession.” To counteract the physical demands of their job, pet groomers may learn to groom while sitting on a stool and/or hire assistants to help with lifting heavier dogs. For many, staying physically fit is also a priority.

11. THEY MIGHT SAVE YOUR PET’S LIFE.

It’s essential to take your pet to the veterinarian for regular check-ups, but groomers also use their knowledge of animal anatomy to observe your pet’s health. Besides looking out for ticks, fleas, and ringworm, they can often spot infections and life-threatening lumps. One groomer who tried to empty a cocker spaniel’s anal sacs (small pockets used for scent communication) noticed that the dog was unusually distressed, so the groomer told the owner to take the dog to the vet. The dog was diagnosed with anal sac carcinoma, a malignant cancer that disproportionately affects cocker spaniels. Because the cancer was caught and removed early, the cocker spaniel survived her illness, all thanks to an observant and knowledgeable pet groomer.

12. THEY WISH PET OWNERS WOULD BETTER EDUCATE THEMSELVES.

A white cat on a black-and-white pillow.

Because pet groomers love animals, it can be particularly difficult to see cats and dogs in bad shape. Whether a cat is severely matted or a dog has sores on his skin, animals in distress are a troubling reality of the job. Paolillo laments that many cat owners hold common misconceptions about grooming, such as that cats hate water, they groom themselves, and they shouldn’t be bathed. “[Grooming] doesn’t have to be stressful, and cats definitely benefit from regular bath and grooming appointments. However, when a cat has never been groomed or bathed, and then it becomes severely matted at an elderly age, the groom becomes not only difficult but dangerous,” she says. “It can be frustrating to be working against many myths involving cat grooming.”

Jared Gorton echoes Paolillo's point, explaining that matting is entirely preventable. “Matting hurts, plain and simple. While we don’t have magic wands to just make the mats disappear, we have tools and skills to get rid of them,” he says. “After that, it's about educating the owner because matting is entirely preventable. Once that education has been given and received, there are no excuses for it to happen again.”

13. THEY FORM DEEP ATTACHMENTS TO THEIR CLIENTS.

Pet groomers love making a living by caring for animals, and receiving affection and gratitude from their animal clients gives them true joy. “The best thing about being a cat groomer is when the cats realize how much we are helping and how appreciative they are,” Paolillo says. “Getting head butts, purrs, and kisses from our kitty clients is the best part of the job!" Some pet groomers even form bonds with more difficult, less appreciative animals and mourn their passing. “I had a cat who was Satan to groom, just a hissing, spitting, biting, baiting devil. But when he passed away his mom called me and we both cried hysterically,” Mandi Gorton admits. “When cat owners share their furry treasures with you there is a bond that is deep and profound.”

All photos via iStock.

16 Secrets of School Portrait Photographers

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iStock.com/HKPNC

One by one, they form a little conveyor belt—throngs of students lining up to sit in a chair, look into a camera lens, and smile. For millions of kids, picture day is a way to memorialize their appearance in a given year, although later the out-of-fashion clothes or cosmetic growing pains may be a way to memorialize pure awkwardness. For the photographers tasked with the job, however, picture day means corralling hundreds of children and establishing a comfort level without any time to waste.

“We get about 30 seconds per kid,” Kristin Boyer, a photographer in Atlanta, Georgia, who has been taking school portrait photos for eight years, tells Mental Floss. “And it’s amazing how much impact you can have. You want to make them feel like a million bucks—beautiful, awesome, and smart.”

To get a better sense of what goes into the job, we asked Boyer and two other school photographers to divulge some of the more interesting aspects of wrangling kids for posterity. Read on for some insight into uncooperative subjects, why mornings make for the the best shots, and the importance of booger patrol.

1. SCHOOLS GET A CUT OF THEIR FEE.

While deals can vary by school, photographers typically get paid when parents order photos. The school then takes a percentage of that fee.

To select a professional, schools will often take bids. "I make a presentation," Boyer says. "I'll explain what I do. Sometimes schools are looking for certain things." Boyer takes more dynamic shots with ambitious outdoor backgrounds; some larger schools herding 1500 or more kids, she says, may want to opt for a simple portrait to expedite the process.

As for what schools do with their portion of the revenue, it depends on the school. But many usually sink it back into student programs.

2. PARENTS TAKE PICTURE DAY VERY SERIOUSLY.

A child poses for a school photo
iStock.com/HKPNC

“Parents are very passionate about their kids getting good school photos,” Courtney, a photographer based in Canada, tells Mental Floss. They might send along a note with their kid describing what they didn’t like about the previous year’s photo. “When I started, I didn’t expect the level of hostility with parents when a photo doesn’t go the way they want it to.”

Boyer has sometimes had parents ask to stand behind her while she shoots so they can take their own pictures. “I usually say no cell phone photos. If they take theirs, they won’t buy mine.”

3. THEY TRY TO TAKE PICTURES BEFORE LUNCHTIME.

For younger kids, mornings are better. After lunch, photographers are likely to need the help of photo-editing software. “One of my first-graders got spaghetti on them,” Boyer says. “You don’t want to let them start to get markers or food all over.” Boyer’s most unusual Photoshop request? “I edited out a cookie once. The kid would not sit down unless he had a cookie.”

4. KIDS ARE SOMETIMES TERRIFIED OF THEM.

A little girl in a yearbook portrait photo
iStock.com/HKPNC

Portrait photographers typically work across a spectrum of ages, from kindergarteners to high school seniors. If a child is very young, it’s possible the entire idea of sitting for a portrait will scare them silly. “You always get one or two that are just terrified,” Grant, a portrait photographer who works on pre-K to 12th grade, tells Mental Floss. “I’m a big, beefy dude, and sometimes a kid will get in there and see me and go, ‘Oh, I’m not doing this.’” To placate the pensive pupils, Grant makes a big show of leaving by stomping his feet, then lets one of his less-threatening assistants take the pictures.

5. YOUNGER KIDS TAKE EVERYTHING LITERALLY.

Photographers need to be careful when giving instructions to kindergarteners and first graders, who tend to process things with little nuance. “Sometimes I’ll ask a kid to high-five me and I'll act like it hurts,” Grant says. “I’ll ask for a Band-Aid. Sometimes they’ll look very serious and say, ‘I don’t have one.’” Another time, Grant asked a kid to point his knees toward a nearby computer. “He came over and touched his knee to the laptop.”

6. SOME KIDS INSIST ON HAVING PROPS.

A student poses for a school photo with an electronic keyboard
iStock.com/RyanJLane

A lot of photographers are switching up the conventional portrait by snapping pictures of kids outdoors, in "action" poses like jumping, or against more eclectic backgrounds. Kids are getting more creative, too. Like prop comedians, they will sometimes arrive for picture day armed with accessories. “I’ve seen everything from Halloween costumes to dogs and other pets,” Courtney, says. “Or they want to wear hats or sunglasses.” If it’s within reason and OK with the school, she’ll take one traditional photo and then let the subject pose with their prop for the second.

7. SELFIES HAVE MADE THEIR JOB HARDER.

Posing for a professional portrait can be a strange experience for a kid who has spent considerable time on a cell phone. “Kids have gotten much more comfortable in front of the camera, but it’s bad selfie behavior,” Boyer says. “Doing duck lips, thrusting their arms out to make their shoulders straight. You kind of have to re-train them.” Boyer lets them know it doesn't look good, but "I say it in a nice way."

8. “ORANGE CHIN” IS A PROBLEM.

A child poses for a school photo
iStock.com/imagedepotpro

Sometimes, fashion can betray kids. “Fluorescent green and orange tops seem popular now and light tends to bounce off of it and on the chin,” Grant says. “The bottom of the chin tends to turn orange.” Unless they happen to have an extra shirt or request a photo retouch, they’re stuck with it.

9. THERE'S A REASON THEY ASK KIDS TO TILT THEIR HEAD.

Aside from some unfortunate fashion choices, one staple of school photos is the head tilt, with kids cocking their faces off to one side. According to a school photographer on Reddit, there's a good reason for that. "These photos are going to be used for the yearbook (more than likely) and everyone should have somewhat of the same head pose," they explain. "The way we stage our lights does not flatter the subject when they're looking straight at the camera. If you tilt your head you're more likely to also move your chin in that same direction, which makes for a more interesting highlight/shadow play and also has the added benefit of making the face look smaller (if you're a little overweight)."

10. THEY USE A SYSTEM TO TRACK EACH KID.

A child poses for a school photo
iStock.com/HKPNC

With hundreds of students at a given school, photographers need a reliable system of identifying kids and making sure their names match up to their portfolio. While systems vary, one of the most common is to collect school data and then print a unique ticket with a student’s name, grade, homeroom, and a number. “Those have a barcode,” Grant says. “So they come up, we scan the ticket, and pull up their record. It’s like scanning soup at a grocery store.”

It’s also error-free, unless some senior decides to trade tickets with a friend so their names get mixed up on their school identification cards. “They don’t seem to think it out, though, because the homeroom teachers pass the cards out and will notice the picture isn’t of them.”

11. THEY HAVE SOME SILLY STRATEGIES FOR MAKING A KID SMILE.

Photographers have less than a minute to relax a kid enough so they deliver a broad, genuine smile. To facilitate that, Grant says he keeps a laundry list of groaners at his disposal to provoke a laugh. “It’s like a script tree that a telemarketer would use,” he says. “If a kid says they play soccer, I’ll say, ‘Oh, so you like kicking people?’”

Photographers also rely on another age-old technique: embarrassment. “In grades four to six, if you ask girls to say ‘boys’ and boys to say ‘girls,’ it’s so scandalous,” Grant says. “For a second shot, you ask them to say, ‘cute boys’ or ‘cute girls.’ That typically works.” Grant can also provoke smiles by asking about pet names. Elementary kids react to being asked to say, “trick or treat, smell my feet.” If they remain stubborn, Grant will pull out all the stops and request they say “stinky feet.”

12. SOMEONE NEEDS TO BE ON BOOGER PATROL.

A child picks his nose
iStock.com/RichVintage

While photo-editing software can address rogue snot, no one really wants to spend the extra minutes digitally erasing boogers from photos. Boyer typically enlists volunteer parents to make sure faces are wiped clean or has assistants armed with tissues, combs, and other grooming products to make for a stylish and snot-free image. “We usually try to catch things like that before they get in front of the camera,” she says.

13. SOMETIMES THEY REGRET ASKING QUESTIONS.

To build rapport, photographers are always looking to get kids to talk about themselves. Once, one of Grant’s assistants asked if a child had any pets. “Yes,” the kid responded. “Rabbits. But we ate them last night.”

14. KIDS LIKE TO MESS WITH THEM ...

The older kids get, the more they tend to commit acts of subversion. “One kid came in with his jacket on, took it off, sat down, and was ready to go,” Grant says. “I knew something was going on. I looked at his shirt and it said ‘Student of the Month.’ Except he put masking tape over the ‘ent’ so it read ‘Stud of the Month.’” (After consulting with the principal, the kid was allowed to keep it on for the photo.)

Courtney had a kid sit down with what looked like a nice shirt with birds on it. “It was actually middle fingers,” she says.

15. ... AND SOME KIDS ARE JUST A PAIN.

While most kids are cooperative, Grant will sometimes see subjects who want to make their life as difficult as possible. "Seniors tend to fool around more and be difficult on purpose," he says. "Some of them are just perpetually in a bad mood or feel self-conscious." Sports teammates might egg each other on to not crack a smile. One school photographer who works for Lifetouch writes on Reddit that there are one or two "problem kids" per class: "You just have to remember they're just doing it for attention because they aren't getting it somewhere else."

16. ACCORDING TO THEM, THERE’S NO SUCH THING AS A BAD SCHOOL PICTURE.

A student poses for a school photo
iStock.com/RyanJLane

The internet is overflowing with awkward and embarrassing school photos, from unfortunate backgrounds to unfortunate hairstyles. But according to Grant, “bad school photo” is a misnomer that gives photographers a bad rap. “There’s a common idea school pictures are bad,” he says. “No. School pictures are like shooting fish in a barrel. Is a kid going to smile? Is a kid going to lean into it? Or is it going to be bad no matter what I do? If you think the picture is bad, well, no, that’s you. The picture was fine. The bad haircut wasn’t.”

13 Secrets of Tombstone Engravers

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iStock/marako85

Creating a tombstone is more complex than just sandblasting letters onto a slab of granite. Designing memorials involves helping families of the deceased—or people looking to plan their own resting places—figure out the best way to represent a whole life in a single, permanent monument. Here are 13 secrets of memorial engravers that we gleaned from the experts:

1. THERE IS NO "NORMAL."

A mausoleum in a graveyard on a sunny day
Vince Dioguardi

Clients don’t necessarily know what they want right off the bat, and they may even feel overwhelmed by the sheer breadth of the possibilities. “A lot of families come in and they bring up the S word—standard,” explains Vince Dioguardi, the president of Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania-area Rome Monument, a company founded by his great-grandfather in 1932. “There is nothing standard.”

Even the preferred size of a memorial can vary vastly from client to client. What seems tiny to one person might seem huge to another, and vice versa. And so a monument designer will sit down with clients and discuss the person the memorial is for, including their hobbies and interests, their family, and other aspects of their lives—then come up with ways that life could be symbolized in stone (or another material). The end result is always unique.

2. THE PROCESS CAN TAKE YEARS ...

Everyone deals with death differently. Some people want to decide on a memorial immediately after a loved one dies, while others might take years. Even just signing off on a contract can be an emotional step for someone who's grieving. “The most important thing you can do is give people the room to process their grief,” Greg Lundgren of Seattle-based Lundgren Monuments, which focuses on cast-glass memorials, says. He's come up with ideas for clients who then went dark on him for two years before moving forward on the commission. It usually takes him just a week or two to come up with preliminary drawings, but he and the client might go back and forth for up to a year discussing dimensions, prices, and other factors before the client is 100 percent sure about the design. Then Lundgren drafts up a contract, and typically finishes up the memorial in six months or so.

Dioguardi estimates that crafting a memorial takes around eight to 10 weeks at his company. First, however, customers typically come in for two or even three consultation visits where they learn about the process, talk about design ideas, decide on something, and finally come up with a contract.

3. ... SO THEY OFTEN FEEL VERY CLOSE TO THEIR CLIENTS.

A grave marker for Franz Xaver Gabl
Greg Lundgren

In the course of creating a monument, "you become very deeply engaged with the family," Lundgren says, much more so than you would in any other sort of designer-client relationship. Talking about a deceased loved one and trying to come up with a design that will adequately capture who they were as a person is naturally more intimate than if you were designing, say, a piece of furniture or a new kitchen. The process can create a relationship that lasts beyond the scope of the project itself. "I have families in other parts of the world where if I were to visit that city, I would completely go visit them and have dinner with them, and I know that I would be welcome," Lundgren says.

4. CLIENTS OFTEN TRY TO CRAM TOO MANY MOTIFS ON ONE GRAVESTONE.

“One of the most important parts of my job is to remind people that there’s no way they can capture a real person in a piece of stone,” Lundgren says. Clients often want to incorporate as many symbols of their loved one’s life as a stone can fit—requesting that the designer incorporate an image of their college mascot, and their truck, and a dove, and a photograph of them, and a poem memorializing them, for instance. But that impulse can mean the memorial “ends up looking like a NASCAR [vehicle] with all the company sponsors on it,” Lundgren explains. His biggest advice is to follow the old adage "less is more.”

5. FAMILY DISAGREEMENTS ARE A CHALLENGE.

One challenge memorial designers face is that families often don't come to unanimous decisions. “Everyone has an opinion,” Lundgren explains. “It’s a hard thing, especially when you’re faced with the legacy of a person and it is so permanent—it’s not like buying a shirt.” While a family might be able to agree on the size, shape, and color of a monument, they often get hung up trying to decide on the specific text that should be included.

6. A NUMBER OF THEIR CLIENTS ARE STILL LIVING.

You don’t have to leave your gravestone’s design up to the people who outlive you: You can choose something for yourself before you go. “It’s extremely common here,” Dioguardi says. It’s called “pre-need.” That way, there’s no guessing or arguing among your family members about what you might want—it’s already determined.

7. THEY DON’T ONLY MEMORIALIZE HUMANS.

A modern urn
Ruth the dog's urn
Greg Lundgren

When asked about the most elaborate memorial he has ever designed, Lundgren described not a huge tombstone or complex statue, but an urn he made to memorialize a dog. Ruth was a stray Australian shepherd his client found on the street, and when she died, he was heartbroken. To honor her memory, Lundgren created a bronze and stainless steel urn. Ruth had one brown eye and one blue eye, so he incorporated two semiprecious stones, one brown and one blue. “I think it was the fanciest urn I’ve ever made,” he says. The result is an urn that looks more like a piece of modern art than a memorial for a deceased pet.

“If you lost something you love and want to pay your respects to it, I’m going to approach it with that same sense of humanity,” he says, whether it’s a person or a pet.

8. THEY’RE NOT ALWAYS CHISELING BY HAND.

How your memorial is made depends a lot on who you commissioned it from. Lundgren doesn’t consider himself a stoneworker. He labels himself a designer, and says much of what he does is really graphic design. “Basically what you’re doing is creating line art,” he says. “Most engraving is not done [the] old-fashioned [way], like hand chiseled and chipped away. I’d say probably 99.9 percent is formatted on a computer, cut as a stencil, and then sandblasted and carved into the surface.”

Dioguardi disagrees with that assessment. “A lot of consumers think this is all machinery-based,” he says, but not all firms rely entirely on stencils and computers. Rome Monument uses an automated sandblaster for lettering, but also uses chisels and other tools to create designs by hand. If a family comes in and asks for a gravestone with a rose on it, one of their sculptors will actually carve that rose into the stone freehand.

9. YOU CAN BUY A MEMORIAL FROM WHOMEVER YOU WANT.

A family mausoleum
Vince Dioguardi

Just because you choose a particular cemetery or funeral home doesn’t mean you have to buy a headstone or monument directly from that company. “Cemeteries that do sell memorials make the consumer think that they have to purchase a memorial from the cemetery,” Dioguardi explains, but that isn’t the case. You can commission a memorial from any designer, and then have it delivered and installed in that cemetery. Both Dioguardi and Lundgren design and ship memorials to cemeteries all over the country. Lundgren, in fact, has designed memorials for installation all over the world.

“There’s a lot of funeral homes and cemeteries that will show families a very narrow slice of what’s possible. They’ll say, ‘Pick something out of this book,’” Lundgren says. “I think it’s important for families to remember that there’s no limitation on what can be done.”

10. SOME DESIGNS CAN BE VERY ELABORATE ...

Just because he advocates for “less is more” doesn’t mean Lundgren thinks all memorials should be simple grave markers with minimal text. He has designed memorials shaped like giant boomboxes and unicorn heads, hot pink headstones, and all manner of custom sculptures.

“Whatever that consumer can think of that they want to do, we can design it,” Dioguardi explains. That goes for the industry as a whole, not just his firm. “There’s a monument in Vermont that it’s a full scale Mercedes-Benz [made] out of a single block of granite,” he describes. The only thing that truly limits what kind of memorial you can design for your loved one is your budget— and your imagination.

11. ... BUT THEY HAVE TO CONFORM TO A CEMETERY’S RULES.

A headstone designed with a rainbow on top of it that reads 'Marcie Ann Ljunggren'

Cemeteries do have some say over the type of memorial you install at your love one’s final resting place. “A cemetery is like a condominium association,” Dioguardi explains. While you may own the gravesite itself, there are still certain rules you have to abide by. Specific motifs typically aren't off-limits, but designs are often restricted by size, material, and sometimes even by color.

These restrictions can even vary within cemeteries. In one cemetery Rome Monument has worked with, for instance, some areas are restricted to bronze monuments, while monuments in another section have to be granite. Recently, a customer called to inquire about buying a memorial for a family member, but didn’t know where in that cemetery they were buried. “We had to make a couple phone calls to the cemetery to find out where this family’s loved one was laid to rest so that we know what type of monument that we [could] design,” Dioguardi says.

Some of these rules stem not from cemeteries looking to strong-arm customers into buying monuments from their own catalog—though that’s an issue, too—but from real concerns about how certain materials age. “It’s always a good idea to have restrictions and rules to make sure a cemetery is going to age well,” Lundgren says. Many rules were developed in the 1920s and '30s to keep people from installing materials that would quickly deteriorate, like wooden crosses or metals that would rust. But those rules haven’t necessarily kept up with new technological advances. The large-scale cast-glass memorials Lundgren makes are only possible because of computer technology that wasn’t commercially available until the 1990s. Part of his job is simply educating cemeteries and funeral homes about what long-lasting materials are possible.

12. CARS ARE A SURPRISINGLY POPULAR MOTIF.

The guy in Vermont who was memorized with a giant Mercedes-Benz sculpture isn’t a total outlier—a fair number of people ask to somehow incorporate cars or trucks. While many of Dioguardi’s clients request memorials that incorporate themes like faith, family, hobbies, and career, Lundgren says he’s created multiple memorials that somehow involve vehicles. “Strangely I’ve gotten more cars than I would have thought,” he explains. He suggests that it could be a demographic pattern. “A lot of the work we do is for younger people, and when you have someone who’s 17 or 19 years old and the family is trying to recall what’s important to them, cars are often a lot more important to [teenagers] than if you’re 60 or 70 years old.” He says he also receives a lot of requests for birds, flowers, and butterflies.

13. WORKING WITH DEATH ISN’T ALWAYS SAD.

“As depressing as it might sound to be a monument designer, it’s really amazing,” Lundgren says. While most aspects of dealing with the logistics of a loved one’s death are stressful and depressing, figuring out a way to memorialize them permanently is actually a positive process. “To be able to be that one person that can talk about beauty and art and legacy is really powerful,” he explains.

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