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.

11 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Holiday Window Display Designers

iStock.com/andykazie
iStock.com/andykazie

For decades, lavish holiday window displays at department stores have been one of the first signs of the season. But have you ever wondered how the designers behind the windows create those enchanting arrangements? Here’s a behind-the-scenes look at everything that goes into making the holiday windows so magical at this time of year—from the best way to arrange lights to the pre-season all-nighters.

1. Every holiday window has a purpose.

The holiday windows are supposed to make you feel something, says Jacques Rosas, New York-based artist, founder, and CEO of Jacques Rosas, which does holiday window installations in stores such as Godiva, Elizabeth Arden, and Bed, Bath & Beyond. Whenever Rosas is working on a window, he asks about the personality of the store, what they’re imagining, favorite decorations, traditions, and more—all starting with what they sell. “I try to pull settings that have nostalgia for them,” Rosas says. “I think the magical part is the nostalgia.” He loves the feel of an old-fashioned Christmas—last year, he decked out one store window with handmade stockings, old ornaments, and a real train.

2. You won’t see many Christmas trees in the store windows.

A Macy's 2007 holiday window display.
A Macy's 2007 holiday window display.
Wally Gobetz, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (cropped)

At least not any real Christmas trees, Rosas says. Usually, the windows are hot, dry places, so any live trees would dry out and die. They could also catch fire, so a lot of the newer buildings won’t use them even if they could create the right environmental conditions. “We tend to use a lot of fake stuff,” Rosas says.

3. You also won’t see any products.

While store windows throughout the year are supposed to sell products, this time of year is all about the entertainment, says David Spaeth, CEO of Spaeth Design, which does holiday windows for Lord & Taylor, Saks Fifth Avenue, Bloomingdale’s, Tiffany & Co. and Bergdorf Goodman. Sure, you may see a product or two in some of the windows (it’s not a hard-and-fast rule), but this is the time to seduce customers with gorgeous snowflakes or pretty (fake) trees instead of fantastic outfits.

4. But you will see lights.

A Bloomingdale's 2008 holiday window
A Bloomingdale's 2008 holiday window
Wally Gobetz, Flickr // CC BY-NC-ND 2.0 (cropped)

Lights are what draws customers to the windows, and they can really make the displays pop. But you’d be surprised at how few lights will make a big splash, Rosas says. “There’s not a lot of lights—that’s a big mistake,” he says. "If you do too many, the reflection will play tricks on the viewer, and you won’t actually be able to see anything but lights.” Instead, he uses a few perfectly placed lights that bounce off each other. Rosas also tends to use plenty of wood composite, fiberglass, bark, paper, and plastic to create his scenes. But don't be surprised to spot other wacky items in holiday store windows, like Lite-Brite (yes, the retro toy), coffee stirrers, and even taxidermy. Anything goes when it comes to creating the perfect holiday window.

5. They plan ahead.

When the holidays start dying down, these designers are just getting started on the following year, says Michael Bednark, owner of Bednark Studio, a Brooklyn-based fabrication studio that is responsible for some of the Macy’s holiday windows throughout the country. Design talks start in January, and by March, the ideas are set. It takes two more months to figure out rendering, and the summer months are for fabrication (building the physical elements). Installation starts even before Halloween—by about mid-October, Bednark says.

6. They have working habits comparable to vampires.

Ever wonder how holiday windows pop up like magic? That’s because the artists work through the night to put them up so that they’ll appear in the morning. Installation for the simpler windows usually takes six to eight hours, Rosas says. “We have to be like wizards,” he explains.

7. Some windows can take weeks to install.

A Bergdorf Goodman holiday window in 2014
A Bergdorf Goodman holiday window in 2014
iStock.com/LukeAbrahams

A regular window display is an overnight job, but the team working on the Macy’s windows pre-builds them inside the shop. There’s a fake window inside every single Macy’s store, filled with the entire holiday window display. “We pre-build inside the shop so we can make sure that everything fits,” Bednark says. The pre-build takes about four weeks. If it’s a go, it’s moved into the regular window, which takes three weeks.

8. To make it look perfect, the artists touch every light.

The reason store windows look amazing while your holiday display might look just passable is because these designers really pay attention to the details. “When you decorate a tree, or you’re doing your lights and everything, the secret to really nice displays is to touch and adjust each branch, each light, and position everything as if everything was its own individual thing,” Rosas says. “That’s the secret to styling.”

9. When the season is over, the displays are usually tossed.

Some stores will re-use the decorations in-house, but many will toss them because the décor is so unique. Basically, they don’t want to wear the same outfit two days in a row, Spaeth explains.

10. The holidays aren’t their only busy season.

People love holiday store windows, and they’re great for business. But these artists are busy year-round, Rosas says. In addition to doing store window displays for every season, they also decorate show rooms, do trade show displays, and even create sets for TV shows and product launches. In Rosas’s studio, they have two 7500-square-foot spaces, and they use these for creating fake store windows or for marketing experiences. For example, a yogurt company may hire Rosas to use that studio to build an entire yogurt set as a backdrop for a yogurt product launch. The yogurt company would then invite members of the media to the room, where they’d take pictures and do interviews. “We try to inspire people to write about [the company] there,” Rosas says.

11. If you want to replicate the look, get out your checkbook.

A Bergdorf Goodman 2014 holiday window
A Bergdorf Goodman 2014 holiday window
iStock.com/LukeAbrahams

To hire a professional display artist to do your holiday windows, expect to pay anywhere from $40,000 to $100,000 per window, depending on the number of details and amount of work it will take, Bednark says. In other words, making this kind of magic doesn't come cheap.

A version of this story first ran in 2016.

12 Secrets of Dollar Store Employees

A dollar store in Brooklyn
A dollar store in Brooklyn
Spencer Platt/Getty Images

Discount retailers have probably been around as long as commerce itself, but it wasn't until the 1950s that a string of stores began popping up in the South that shared a common element: Everything they sold was dirt-cheap. In recent years, the country has experienced a wave of frugal storefronts selling everything from stationary to seafood. Stores like Dollar Tree, Family Dollar, Dollar General, and a rash of independently owned stores catering to the budget-conscious now outnumber Starbucks and McDonald's in the U.S.

To get a better sense of the activity that surrounds these wallet-friendly outlets, Mental Floss spoke to three employees of Dollar Tree. Here’s what they had to say about stocking their shelves, fanatical customers, and why they spend so much time filling up balloons.

1. Paper goods are the best deal in stores.

You can find practically anything at dollar stores, including frozen food (more on that in a moment), toys, and cleaning products. Assortments can vary widely by store and by franchise, but according to Brenda, the store manager of a Dollar Tree in the Midwest, customers get the best deal sticking with paper products. At least, that's what employees buy most frequently. “The items that my employees and I purchase at Dollar Tree for value would definitely be toilet paper, paper towels, birthday cards, candy, balloons, plastic ware, paper plates, envelopes, stationary products, and the daily newspaper,” she says. At her store, toilet paper and the local newspaper are the top sellers. While the former is a pretty obvious necessity, newspapers at her location are typically cheaper than in other stores; the Sunday edition in particular is up to two or three dollars cheaper. (Like a lot of their inventory, the chain likely gets a tremendous discount for buying the papers in bulk.)

2. They know you won't be in the store for too long.

The exterior of a Dollar Tree store is shown from a low angle
Joe Raedle, Getty Images

Dollar stores typically have little signage, few frills, and a small real estate footprint (Dollar General's is around 7300 square feet, or one-tenth the size of a Walmart). But having limited space with easily accessible items is by design—the average shopping trip for a Dollar General store is just 10 minutes. “Planning the store around fast trips is one good way to improve the fast experience many customers are looking for, while also keeping sales high by allowing customers to see many products,” says Hank, an assistant Dollar Tree store manager in Canada. Customers “tend to want to get in and out fast. They are often busy and have other plans for the day and don't want to spend too much time wandering the store.”

3. They want customers to feel like they’re on a treasure hunt.

According to Moody’s, an earnings and credit analysis firm, Dollar General rotates its inventory on a regular basis to make customers feel like they need to buy items now in case they’re not around later—perpetuating what it calls a "treasure hunt" feel. That helps the stores compete with online retailers like Amazon, which typically maintains stock of popular products and may not provoke the same sense of urgency in buyers.

Dollar Tree’s approach is slightly different. While new inventory does arrive from suppliers, it’s not as frequently. “When we are doing the truck we get really excited when we see a new product,” Brenda says. “We only see maybe 10 to 15 new things per week out of 1500 items that are coming off of the truck, so when we get something new we immediately cut open the box and examine it.”

4. They catch a lot of shoplifters.

You can walk out of dollar stores with an armful of goods for $20, $10, or less, but that still doesn’t deter people from swiping even the cheapest targets. “The shoplifting is ridiculously rampant,” Brenda says. “We catch someone just about every day.”

Oddly enough, the price may help facilitate the theft. “The thing with the low prices is that there is no real deterrent from people stealing since none of the products have any security around them," Brenda says.

5. They recommend you skip the steak.

A steak sits on a grill
A steak purchased somewhere other than a dollar store.
iStock.com/NightAndDayImages

Shopping for frozen foods at the discount chains can be hit or miss. Some items might be OK: “I’ve had the little pie slices, the sausage and pancake bites, and the Cinnabon bites are amazing,” Brenda says. “The frozen dinners are good as well. People also love the frozen vegetables and fruit.”

But when it comes to unprocessed food, like meat or seafood, you should probably consider a visit to the local grocer instead. “I don’t eat any of the frozen fish or rib eyes because I don’t trust frozen seafood or meat that costs a dollar,” she says.

Nate, a Dollar Tree manager in Minnesota, agrees. “I would never buy the steak,” he says. “I’ve heard from more than one person that it doesn’t cook [well] and it feels like rubber.” In 2016, television affiliate WCPO in Cincinnati attempted a taste test, serving up the four-ounce $1 ribeye along with a butcher's and supermarket cut to some area firefighters. Among the responses: "I guess it was meat" and "It's not terrible."

6. Other stores use them to stock up.

When most everything is a dollar, it’s easy to see why discount chains find themselves acting as a warehouse for local small businesses. Hank says that he’s observed independent proprietors coming in to stock up on items. “There is one man who runs a convenience store and buys boxes of chocolate bars and bottles of soda,” he says. “We also get plenty of event organizers buying supplies in bulk, sometimes hundreds of items at a time.”

7. They dread the sight of Hot Wheels toy cars.

A Hot Wheels toy car is pictured
iStock.com/CTRPhotos

While many toys at dollar store locations are of suspect quality, there’s at least one bit of inventory that causes a lot of excitement in aisles. “We get a lot of the infamous 'Hot Wheels Hunters,'” Nate says, referring to collectors of the popular die-cast toy car line from Mattel. “I guess they scour the internet and find out when stores are getting shipments. I’ve had people show up a day after my 2000-piece truck [arrives] and demand I go find the one box of Hot Wheels I got so they can be the first to buy them.”

If they’re polite, Nate will try to accommodate them. Some of the nicer Hot Wheels fans even deputize themselves as de facto employees. “The one guy that is a frequent visitor will take the boxes I have and stock them neatly on the shelves while he looks for what he wants," Nate says.

8. They sell pregnancy tests. And they’re reliable.

A home pregnancy test shows a positive result
iStock.com/nazdravie

If you’re wary of the accuracy of a home pregnancy test kit that costs $1, well, you probably should be. But according to Nate, his store stocks a reliable brand. “The pregnancy tests we sell are the same ones used in most hospitals,” he says. Most all pregnancy tests detect a hormone called human chorionic gonadotropin, or hCG, which is produced during pregnancy. More expensive tests can detect lower levels earlier in a pregnancy, while cheaper tests—like the ones in dollar stores—might not register a positive until a woman is a little further along.

But they're still effective. And according to Brenda and Nate, they're also among the most-stolen items in their stores.

9. Balloons keep them aloft.

Most Dollar Tree and many other dollar store locations have a counter devoted to mylar balloons intended for birthday parties and other events. That’s because the low cost and easy storage of the un-inflated balloons makes them a very profitable endeavor. “Balloons do a ton of business for Dollar Tree,” Brenda says. “A ton. Especially for big events.”

In a given week, her store might sell 150 to 200 balloons: “If you think about it, every day is someone’s birthday, baby shower, graduation, or anniversary.”

10. They might warn you away from a bad deal.

Shoppers browse the aisles of a dollar store
Spencer Platt, Getty Images

If you’re on the fence about whether or not a dollar purchase is worthwhile, you can always ask an employee. They might tell you if it’s worth the cash. “I know that the quality of our products is not always the best and I obviously am not going to constantly bring this up to customers, but I am not afraid to give them a bit of heads up when I know a certain item is especially poor, or could be found much cheaper at a competitor,” Hank says. “I know that the company will survive without those couple sales, and I prefer to make customers happy over adding a few more dollars to the wallet of the company.”

11. The store manager is often overworked.

Dollar Tree, Dollar General, and other chains have come under fire in recent years for tasking store managers with a lot of responsibility in order to keep the costs of staffing low. According to Nate, that checks out. “In my district they are trial-running having the stores unload the semi-trucks instead of the drivers," he says. "But they won’t give us the hours to add an extra guy, which means I’m the manager on duty while being in the back of a semi throwing 1800 cases."

12. They can’t keep Donald Duck on the shelves.

Bottles of Donald Duck orange juice line a store shelf
Ted Eytan, Flickr // CC BY-SA 2.0

In stores filled with a lot of unfamiliar brands, customers like to see one recognizable face: Donald Duck’s. The Disney character is front and center on Dollar Tree’s orange juice, and his smiling bill is one of the most popular items in the stores. (The drink is produced by Citrus World, which owns the Florida’s Natural label and licenses the Donald imagery and name from Disney.) “The Donald Duck orange juice is our third most-sold item,” Brenda says. “To be honest, I’m not sure why it’s so popular. A lot of people stop at our store on the way to work or wherever, so it’s kind of a quick pick-up.”

SECTIONS

arrow
LIVE SMARTER