11 Secrets of Backup Dancers

Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images
Frederick M. Brown, Getty Images

What would "Thriller" have looked like without Michael Jackson's army of dancing zombies? What if Madonna had to preen and pose her way through "Vogue" alone? And how could the hype of Hammertime ever be conveyed without the high-kicking energy of those parachute pants-clad b-boys?

Backup dancers add depth and dimension to live performances and music videos, and though you might not always know their names, chances are you've practiced quite a few of their moves. But what is it really like to work in the industry? From the audition circuit to backing superstars on tour and in music videos, we got the answers for anyone who thinks they can dance.

1. THEY DON'T NEED FORMAL DANCE TRAINING, BUT THEY DO NEED TO CONSTANTLY BE LEARNING.

"I was late to the game," says Lori Sommer, a dancer who has worked with Mariah Carey, Whitney Houston, and Eve, of her start in the dancing world. "I was a martial artist, and that discipline and training gave me the ability to pick up choreography." Sommer says she was out dancing with friends at a New York club in the mid-'90s when she was scouted and encouraged to audition to be a club dancer at the popular house music venue Sound Factory Bar. There she befriended resident DJ Louie Vega, house music legend Barbara Tucker, choreographers, and others who could help her get her name in with bookers. Based on those connections, she landed her first tour with Reel 2 Real (best known for their dance track "I Like to Move It"). "That club really opened the door for me, but dancers have to constantly take classes and learn new things," she tells Mental Floss. "There's always a new style or move that will help us improve our abilities."

Dancer Mark Romain, who also had no formal training beyond joining college dance teams but has built a career dancing with Britney Spears, Katy Perry, and Ke$ha, agrees. "You have to work your craft. Like going to the gym to maintain your strength, you have to work out your creative muscles and skills regularly," he told BuzzFeed in 2013. "There is a big difference between doing well in dance class and being able to perform on a stage; it's important to get performance experience. If you start late, that's okay, but train, train, train."

2. SOME WILL CHANGE THEIR LOOK TO BLEND IN BETTER.

Though backup dancers need to have enough personality and style to stand out at auditions, they often learn they can't draw too much attention away from the main performer or the theme of a shoot. When Sommer was working on Whitney Houston's 1999 video for "It's Not Right But It's Okay," she realized her blonde curls stood out too much for the video's dark set. "We were all dressed in these army fatigues, and once we started shooting, the director was like 'she's standing out,'" Sommer remembers. They pulled her hair back and tried again, but the director wanted it toned down even more. "They ended up putting hats on all of us to cover my hair, which is how we look in the final video. After that, a friend recommended I darken my hair, and I realized if I wanted to work more consistently, I needed to make that change to be more uniform. That was the last video I did as a blonde."

3. THEY LEARN HOW TO ADJUST TO AUDITIONS TO AVOID GETTING CUT.

Often, dancers will show up to auditions with only a vague idea of what the artist really needs. So they learn to read a room. Dancer Pam Chu, who has done everything from being a Radio City Rockette to Cirque du Soleil to touring with Demi Lovato, told Cosmopolitan that when she went to audition for Britney Spears's Las Vegas residency, she was apprehensive because she didn't know any of the people involved. So she psyched herself up and figured it out as the day went on. "From the way the choreographers were teaching, I knew they wanted people who had technique, style, and would dance full out—all the time," Chu says. "I knew not to sit down in the audition—ever. We were there for nine hours." After a round of callbacks, Chu got a contract.

4. THEY OFTEN HAVE TO MAKE LIFE-ALTERING DECISIONS ON THE ROAD.

Because their lives are often dictated by demanding tour schedules and opportunities that feel impossible to turn down, dancers regularly have to miss family events and other personal milestones. "I sacrificed a gig and a tour once because I didn't want to miss my goddaughter's birthday," Sommer recalls. "I'd missed her first birthday because I was in Europe, and I said I couldn't miss her second. It's hard because you put yourself at risk of being replaced."

And for others, an opportunity can change their whole trajectory. Ashley Everett, Beyonce's longtime dance captain, was just 17 when she made the cut for her first-ever tour. The timing seemed impeccable—The Beyonce Experience tour would wrap up the week before she was supposed to start classes at her dream school, Juilliard. But then, the tour was extended. "I had to make a decision," Everett told Refinery29. "Go after the lifelong dream that had been on my bucket list my entire life, or stick it out with a legend, with no idea of what would happen next. I took a leap of faith and stayed on the tour. Obviously, it paid off!"

5. IT'S NOT A PARTICULARLY LUCRATIVE CAREER.

Despite the jetsetting lifestyle and getting to work with superstars, most dancers are essentially independent contractors. That means booking gigs piecemeal, working long hours, and, according to the Bureau of Labor Statistics, making roughly $14 an hour on average, or $34,000 a year.

"Yes, longer-term jobs like a tour or a TV show or a movie might keep us busy for months straight, but the reality of the situation is that eventually that job will end and we have to start back over—gigging or auditioning for something else," Everett wrote in a 2016 HuffPost piece. "I'll be in 12-hour rehearsals for two months straight, then on other days I'm left not knowing when my next job will come. It's the business. We always have to stay on our toes and stay grinding."

Sommer agrees. "It can be a struggle," she says. During their time between shoots or tours, dancers frequently have more steady side jobs. Sommer worked as a dancer-for-hire for entertainment companies, where she would go to bar mitzvahs or weddings along with the band or DJ and encourage guests to come out on the dance floor. Many others do projects as choreographers and teachers, and look for commercial work, which is usually short on hours but long on pay (think dancing in Gap, Target, or car commercials). "You gotta work when work is available," Sommer says. "There's a lot of eating on a budget, a lot of ramen noodles. But every dancer I know wouldn't change it for the world."

6. THEY HAVE TO KNOW HOW TO GO WITH THE FLOW.

While many artists are known to tweak routines between tour stops or switch up sets or transitions to keep things fresh, sometimes a dancer's hard work will get sidelined because the artist just isn't feeling it. That can be devastating, especially for major award shows like the Grammys or the VMAs, which are extremely sought-after roles with multiple auditions and rehearsals that can last for 10 hours a day.

Sommer recalled that at her first VMAs in 1999, she snagged a spot dancing for Jay-Z, who was also making his first VMA appearance with a medley of his recent hits like "Can I Get A…" and "Hard Knock Life." "My friend Ray [dancer and promoter Voodoo Ray] had choreographed this great piece, and it was a huge opportunity for him," Sommer says. "And on the day of the VMAs as we were rehearsing, all of a sudden Jay said he didn't want anyone dancing backup." Instead, he wanted his crew, which included DJ Clue, Amil, and 15 or so other friends, to hang on stage where the dancers were meant to be. The dozen backup dancers were moved to the side stages and were allowed to dance there, but it didn't have the same effect as the choreographed routine they were preparing for. "I mean, I got paid for my time," Sommer says. "But not to do what I'd practiced and really, really wanted to do."

7. THEY'LL SOMETIMES WEAR IN-EAR MONITORS ON STAGE.

It's common to see singers use earpieces during live shows in order to hear themselves or their band better. But dancers will often wear in-ear monitors as well, especially for large arena shows when the roar of the crowd can drown out any chance of staying in sync with the music. "It's an interesting experience … because we can't hear the audience," dancer David Shreibman told W Magazine about wearing "ears" while touring with Justin Bieber. "All you're hearing is Bieber's voice and the choreographer talking to us throughout the show. I took my ears out last night … and it was SO loud. When he goes into 'Baby,' it's crazy. I had to cover my ears."

8. TWO CAN SOMETIMES BE BETTER THAN ONE.

Sometimes having a built-in dance partner can help get dancers noticed and book gigs. French dancers Laurent and Larry Bourgeois, already known in their home country as "Les Twins," made a splash in the States when they started working with Beyonce in 2011; they've since toured with her multiple times, appeared in numerous videos, and recently won Jennifer Lopez's new competition show, World of Dance. Mark and Donald Romain often appear together as dancers at awards shows and have been in videos like Britney Spears’s "Till the World Ends." And up-and-coming Korean twins Kwon Young Deuk and Kwon Young Don, who have backed Psy and other KPop acts, are getting plenty of fan attention and calls to upgrade them to "idols" in their industry.

But for Canadian sisters Jenny and Jayme Rae Dailey, who have done music videos, TV shows like Smash and X Factor, and movies like the Step Up franchise, sometimes working together just isn't in the cards. "For us, it's not really competing because we go in together as twins. We are a team when we audition," Jenny told the Montreal Gazette in 2013. "Our mentality is, 'If it's not both of us, it's none of us,' although it doesn't always work out that way."

9. EVEN WITHOUT A SIBLING, DANCERS CAN FEEL LIKE FAMILY.

For all of the stories of artists who date their backup dancers (Mariah Carey and Bryan Tanaka, Jennifer Lopez with Cris Judd and Casper Smart, Prince and Mayte Garcia, Britney Spears and Kevin Federline, etc.), those long hours rehearsing and traveling together can really cement a familial bond. "I became very close to those who danced with me, but even closer with [those] who danced on tour with me," Janet Jackson told an audience in October 2017 before she brought out a number of those dancers to perform "Rhythm Nation," a staple at her shows since the song and its iconic video took the world by storm in 1989. One those dancers who returned was Jenna Dewan-Tatum, who got her big break touring with Jackson in 2001-02.

"Janet asked her 'kids' to come back and perform rhythm nation at the Hollywood Bowl," Dewan-Tatum posted on Instagram. "I dreamt of dancing with her since I was a kid and literally pinched myself every night of the All for You tour. And here I am pinching myself again last night. She created a legacy for her dancers and she personally began my career! It all begins with Jan. Thank you for this my love!!!"

(Another person who worked as a backup dancer for Janet before making it big on her own? Jennifer Lopez, who was in the 1993 video for "That's the Way Love Goes.")

10. FOR DECADES, DANCERS HAD NO UNION OR HEALTH CARE ASSURANCES.

The lack of health coverage and union benefits for dancers was widespread until very recently. Dancers Alliance, a group working to negotiate equitable rates, healthcare options, and ensure dancer safety, launched campaigns in 2011 to get contracts for work on music videos and in 2013 to unionize tours. "I believe dancers who have trained themselves to a professional level should be treated—and compensated—as professionals," Dancers Alliance board member Dana Wilson told Dance Magazine in 2015. The group had worked out a contract with SAG-AFTRA for music video shoots in 2011, but Wilson, who was dancing with Justin Timberlake at the time, pushed for a union tour contract so that the dancers would be eligible for health care and other benefits while on the road. It worked. In 2014, Timberlake became the first artist to protect his backup dancers under a SAG-AFTRA contract.

11. THEY ALWAYS HAVE A BACKUP PLAN.

As with most athletic careers, dancers know that eventually they'll have to back away from their sport. Injuries, from muscle strains and spasms to various tears and sprains, can take their toll. Many performers, like Paula Abdul and Lady Gaga, have discussed their issues with chronic pain.

"The wear and tear on body is tremendous," Sommer says. She would know—a herniated disc sidelined her dancing career in 2002. "Most dancers are going to find ways to work through injuries. A lot of Epsom salt, Bengay. It's a beautiful life that enables you to travel and see the world, but there was the point in time when I couldn't walk."

Many dancers find ways to stay active by teaching or going into the fitness industry, developing exercise and training careers. Some, like much of the staff of New York's Westside Dance Physical Therapy, were professional dancers who turned their specified knowledge of dancers' bodies into careers in the medical field.

In fact, the variety of post-dance careers can be as varied as those of non-dancers. Sommer went into comedy, becoming a mainstay stand-up in New York City and now managing the West Side Comedy Club. And at least one former '90s dancer became a football coach: One of M.C. Hammer's original "U Can’t Touch This" dancers, Alonzo Carter, is currently the running backs coach at San Jose State.

16 Secrets of School Portrait Photographers

iStock.com/HKPNC
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

iStock/marako85
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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