16 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Plastic Surgeons

IStock
IStock

Our culture is pretty obsessed with what it sees in the mirror: Cosmetic procedures have risen an astounding 115 percent since 2000, with nearly 16 million procedures performed in 2015 alone. Breast augmentation, buttocks lifts, and minimally-invasive “injectables” have all conspired to literally change the shape of the male and female form.

For insight into the highly skilled hands that make these transformations possible, mental_floss spoke with several accomplished plastic surgeons about the living sculptures they create.

1. THEY SEE BEAUTY AS A MATHEMATICAL EQUATION.

Early in his career, Donald Kress, M.D., a plastic surgeon in Baltimore, Maryland, would find himself puzzled when encountering facial features he found unappealing. “I couldn’t figure out what it was,” he says, “until I’d match the face with the Golden Ratio.” The Golden Ratio, or Golden Mean, is a formula first articulated by Greek mathematician Euclid and later used to theorize that the most pleasing appearances in art and nature are created at a ratio of 1.618:1. In the 1970s, surgeon Stephen Marquardt, M.D., began to study commonly appreciated beauties like Marilyn Monroe and Sophia Loren and found the ratio applied to many seemingly universal standards of attractiveness.

Visualizing the formula using a “mask” designed by Marquardt in 1992 (above, middle) can reveal where a face is asymmetrical, though experienced surgeons can make a similar evaluation intuitively. “It comes up when you’re younger and don’t have a good eye for things,” Kress says. “After a few thousand patients, you can see it in your head.”

2. THEY HOST “BROTOX” PARTIES.

OnabotulinumtoxinA—commonly referred to by the brand name Botox—has been used for decades to paralyze muscles at a local injection site, which can prevent the contractions that cause wrinkles and frown lines. Some practices have taken to hosting the increasing number of male patients coming in by offering “Brotox parties,” where a number of friends will schedule at once to make the treatment a social event.

Z. Paul Lorenc, M.D., F.A.C.S., a plastic surgeon in New York City, says that “Brotox” is a result of men who have had a good experience recruiting their friends. “It’s kind of a support group,” he says. “They can interact in the waiting room. Men used to do this at parties, but that’s become passé. It was always a bad idea. You should never have alcohol involved.”

3. THEY’RE DRAWING LANDMARKS ON YOU.

Watch enough reality television and you’ll eventually spot a plastic surgeon taking a black marker to the bare torso of a patient. Matthew Schulman, M.D., a plastic surgeon based in Manhattan, says that surgeons are basically acting as topographers, marking areas of the body that may change shape or become less visible when a patient is lying down. “We’re drawing landmarks for ourselves because a person looks different when on the table,” he says. “I might circle where the fat is thickest, or where the nipple is while standing.” No special medical ink is used: It’s just a Sharpie.

4. BREAST IMPLANTS CAN CREATE “MOTION ARTIFACTS.”

There are several ways to insert breast implants, but Kress says that one in particular can create problems for patients who do a lot of jumping up and down. When an implant is inserted in a subpectoral incision under muscle tissue, it can give off the appearance of remaining stationary while the rest of the breast moves during physical activity, creating a visual ripple effect. “If there are big arm movements, or if they’re in front of people teaching or on television, I advise them of the potential consequences,” Kress says.

5. THEY CAN’T MAKE YOU LOOK PHOTOSHOPPED.

Schulman says that social media—especially the popularity of impeccably-proportioned Instagram models—has created a few headaches for his practice. “The problem with pictures is that they’re just a guide, but it’s not like picking a body off the shelf,” he says. “Half of the Instagram models are Photoshopped, so when you say you want to look like this, I can’t do it. I can’t give you an 18-inch waist.” Though Schulman does like having a visual reference for what patients have in mind, he prefers they understand it's a starting point, not a preview.

6. THEY DON’T WANT YOU TO LOOK GOOD ON THE TABLE.

“Everyone,” Schulman says, “looks great lying down.” But trying to achieve aesthetic perfection in the operating room is a recipe for disaster. “One of the first things we learn as plastic surgeons is that just because something looks good on the table doesn’t mean it’ll look good six months later. We want to make the result less than ideal to account for healing.” Breast implants, for example, might be placed higher than desired so they can “settle in.” Making them perfect during surgery means they’re likely to drop too low once the body recovers.

7. IT TAKES EXACTLY 90 DAYS TO GET USED TO A NEW FACE.

According to Kress, there’s a tremendous difference between a facelift and a procedure that radically alters the face. “In a facelift, you’re turning back the clock and people can adjust to it quickly,” he says. “But a new nose, a new chin, taking away a bump, you’re creating a person they’ve never seen before.” In his experience, it takes patients almost 90 days exactly to get used to the image in the mirror. “On day 87, they’ll see someone else’s chin. On day 91, it’s you. It’s freaky how accurate it is.” Kress will normally refuse to remove an implant (chin, cheeks, breasts) prior to the 90 days to account for this phenomenon.

8. MORNINGS ARE BEST FOR DETAIL WORK.

If you’re opting for cosmetic surgery and have a nose job scheduled for late in the day, you may want to reconsider. According to Kress, procedures that require fine motor skills like nose jobs, facelifts, or eyelid surgeries are best performed in the morning, while gross motor work like breast implants and liposuction can come later. “You don’t want to reverse the order because it can take between 45 minutes to an hour for fine-touch motor skills to return. I start with the most delicate surgeries first, have a good lunch, and do bodies later.”

9.  THEY CAN MAKE YOU LESS ANGRY-LOOKING.

Not all cosmetic surgery is focused on restoring the appearance of youth: Some people just want to look happier. “Many of my Botox patients coming in say that everyone thinks they’re angry all the time,” Lorenc says. “They want to correct a frown or a heavy brow.” Kress has also seen people ready to go on the job market for the first time in years who want to appear more awake—or sober. “Sometimes eyelids can make you look like you drink, or don’t get enough sleep,” he says.

10. THEY WORK WITH WITNESS PROTECTION.

That gangster-movie cliché of having to modify your face to avoid being spotted after offering damning testimony? It’s true. Kress has operated on several government witnesses, and they can forget about follow-up visits. “I’ve had Federal Marshals come in and tell me, ‘This is the only time you’re going to see this guy, so give him whatever instructions he needs,’” he says. Kress has also worked on covert military operatives who have had their name and image published in media and run the risk of being recognized. 

11. THEY HAVE SIGNATURE NOSES. (AND BUTTS.)

Many surgeons get into the cosmetic field because of an artistic impulse: They don’t want to perform cookie-cutter procedures and like to improvise. But a certain segment can also offer procedures with a dependable aesthetic outcome that becomes a kind of signature. “Some doctors are known for noses I can spot across the street,” Schulman says. “I do a lot of butt-lifts and make them look like an upside-down heart. Patients come in because they want that result.”

12. CALF IMPLANTS ARE A THING.

And not just for men, either. Lorenc regularly sees patients of both genders who want to rectify their genetic misfortune and sport shapely, powerful-looking calves. “I’m one of the few surgeons who does them,” he says. “The stereotype is that it’s only bodybuilders, but that’s not true. They make up only a percentage. Some people just can’t develop them in the gym no matter what they do.”   

13. BEING A SMOKER IS A REAL NO-NO.

One universal truth of cosmetic surgery: Operating on a smoker is never a good idea. Nicotine constricts small blood vessels, which can delay healing and open up the door for complications. “Every good plastic surgeon will require a patient stop smoking before a procedure,” Schulman says. His patients sign an agreement requiring them to cease any kind of smoking four weeks prior and for eight weeks following an operation. “They agree I can nicotine-test them [via urine] and if they’re positive, the operation is canceled and I keep their money.”

14. THEY’LL WORK ON KIDS FOR ONE REASON.

There are very few cases of surgeons electing to work on anyone under the age of 18 for purely cosmetic purposes, with one key exception: protruding ears. Kress says that ears that stick out too much can become a psychological burden and that there’s a sweet spot to get them pinned back. “Around age 5 or 6, the ear has gotten big enough to work on and see a lot of the underlying structure,” he says, “but it’s also before they get into grade school and the taunting really starts.”  

15. THEY THINK TRANSPLANTS ARE THE FUTURE.

While fat transplantation is an increasingly popular and effective alternative to artificial fillers—adipose tissue can be harvested from unwanted areas and injected into the butt or face—Schulman sees the future of plastic surgery being far more radical, and less focused on aesthetics. “I think in the next ten years, we’re no longer going to be doing reconstructive work for trauma,” he says. “If you need breast tissue after a cancer operation, it will be from a donor. Things like face transplants and hand transplants are being led by plastic surgeons, by microsurgeons. I see full limb transplants. The possibilities are endless.”

16. THEY’RE NOT REALLY STRESSED.

Lorenc finds it amusing when friends or acquaintances remark that being a surgeon must be one of the most stressful jobs you can have. “When I step into the operating room, it’s like nirvana,” he says. Barring the rare complication, no one is in critical condition, bleeding to death, or under any extreme duress. Surgeons tend to work at their own pace, sometimes with a soundtrack. “I listen to Pink Floyd, the Allman Brothers, Jimi Hendrix. Sometimes reggae.”  

All images courtesy of iStock unless otherwise credited.

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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