Tombstone engravers carve memories into stone

Amador Memorial Company employees, Javier Delgado Jimenez and Jim McCarthy in Mountain View Cemetery.

Amador Memorial Company employees, Javier Delgado Jimenez and Jim McCarthy in Mountain View Cemetery.

On a hot spring afternoon, Javier Delgado Jimenez kneels on the grass at Mountain View Cemetery. He is poised over a flat gravestone and wearing a gas mask, knee guards, long work gloves and a white hood with a clear plastic visor. With intense concentration, he aims a rod attached to a round metal canister at the face of the gravestone. Plumes of red dust billow into the air.

Jimenez is an engraver and he is sandblasting a new name into an older family gravestone. His partner, Jim McCarthy, takes out a small air duster, kneels down and sweeps away the leftover bits of sand. “Loving husband, father, grandfather, generous and kind,” the gravestone reads. The man died in November 2010, joining his wife who passed away just a year prior. Studying the grave, McCarthy notices that the wife died first even though she was younger. “There’s all sorts of ways to die,” he says.

A pre-need gravestone designed by Floyd Francis and Claire Ortalda Salas.

Every couple of months, Jimenez, McCarthy and their work colleagues go to local graveyards to add new names to gravestones. They rent an air compressor and use a portable sand blaster. But normally, they do most engraving at their shop, Amador Memorial Company, which is located at the base of Mountain View Cemetery on Piedmont Avenue.

Amador Memorial Company is the only full-service monument company in Oakland. It supplies granite or bronze headstones, and also designs, carves and letters all memorials according to customers’ needs. “You’re making something that will be there forever and it’s something that’s a tribute to someone,” says Cindy Horton, who runs Amador. “Every stone should tell a story of some sort.”

Inside their display shop, granite stones of dozens of colors line the walls—Lake Placid blue, black mist, crimson, diamond pink and royal emerald. Their muted colors shine with rainbowed mica-like flecks. “Granite comes from all over the world,” Horton says. “China, India, Minnesota, Vermont.” Its color changes depending on where it’s quarried.

Engraved on the granite stones in the shop are inscriptions like: “He will always be in our hearts and memories,” “Together forever” and “She touched everyone with special love and kindness.” They come in many languages and script, from Arabic to Korean to Greek.

Framing the inscriptions are drawings and designs, such as a cardinal sitting on a pine branch, a curled up fawn, the Virgin Mary and the Star of David. Some of the displays have photos of the deceased person inlaid into the stone—old timey black and white images of individuals posing or color photos of couples with their arms around each other. “I’ve seen so many amazing things carved in granite over the years,” Horton says.

Amador Memorial Company is one of the longest-surviving businesses in Oakland. It was started in 1866, and was originally called Amador Marble Company and focused on stone supply and shipping. Over the years, its employees began engraving and sandblasting. In 1978, Bob McCarthy, its current owner, bought the business and a few years later changed the name to Amador Memorial Company. His son, Jim McCarthy, still works there today. Amador’s employees work with a dozen cemeteries in the area and do etching for gravestones, plaques, upright monuments and civil memorials, like the war memorial for the city of Tracy.

A display example of the type of headstone people can choose.

“The biggest change in monuments in the last 25 years is that with the computer you can do almost anything with fonts,” says Horton. “They used to do lettering that was laid out by hand and then hand chiseled.” Around the turn of the last century, people began sandblasting and stenciling, she says. At the time, stencils were hand-drawn and hand-cut. Then, cookie cutter-like stencil letters were invented that came in three fonts. Horton says they used that system until 1994 when they got a computer program to do the design layout and a special printer to make rubber stencils exactly to size. Now they can create thousands of fonts.

The types of stone used over the centuries have also changed. In the early 19th Century, marble and sandstone were popular because they were softer and easier to chisel. However, they tended to “sugar” over time and break down. “Slowly the inscription disappears because the surface of the stone is dissolving,” says Horton. “Granite doesn’t do that.” As sandblasting became more widely used, granite became popular because of its durability despite weather and time.

Today, people have lots of choices when designing a headstone, including the color, shape and size of the stone, as well as the design and font of the inscription. Making a decision is sometimes difficult for people who are grieving, says Horton. “I don’t think people at that time are emotionally paying attention,” she says. Her goal is to help people make the right choice and know their options. “They’re not customers, they’re grieving family,” she says. “It’s our job to educate.”

Horton says that oftentimes people come in and already have spent their entire budget on the funeral. “The hardest part about the death industry is people don’t know their options,” she says. “By the time they come to pick a monument they have no money left.” (A flat gravestone can run anywhere from $500 to $3,000.) The biggest complaint Horton says she hears is that it’s so expensive to die—she adds that thanks to the economic recession, she’s seeing a lot more people picking what they can afford rather than what they like.

Outside Amador’s display shop, behind a chain link fence and a yard full of granite headstones, is a worn-looking cottage. The sound coming out of it is deafening. Inside Jimenez is working with the shop’s automatic sandblasting machine—a ceiling-high mechanism with pressure valves, tubes and a garden hose-sized nozzle that is mechanically operated to spray both horizontally and vertically.

To prepare the stone for sandblasting, Jimenez spreads the stencil onto the stone, using a towel to smooth it down. Then, with an X-Acto knife he quickly cuts around the print-out design on the stencil and peels off what needs to be exposed to the sandblaster—the letters of people’s names and the lines of the designs.

The sand blasting room.

Carefully, he sets the stencil-covered stone on a dolly and rolls it into a room with a small window and an iron-shuttered door. This is the sandblasting room. The floor is peppered with dark grey sand and in the corner is a drain—a vacuum pit where sand is sucked back up into the machine so it can be constantly reused until it dissipates into dust, a process which takes about a year.

Jimenez controls the sandblasting nozzle from outside of the room because the sand comes out with such force that it can injure human skin. Even from outside the room, little specks of sand somehow fly out. If it gets you, Horton says, “It’s kind of like being hit with a pushpin.”

Once Jimenez starts blasting, he looks in through the window to make sure he’s not going too deep into the stone or cutting into the stencil. The machine moves back and forth in a slow rhythmic motion. Every once in awhile, he turns off the machine and checks on his work—as he opens the iron shutter, sandy dust blows out giving the room a warm desert-like smell. He keeps going until the lettering is just right.

“Every gravestone is made as perfectly as we can,” Horton says. “Everything is made as if it’s for our own family.” To do this work, she says you have to be a perfectionist and have absolute dedication. A gravestone, she says, is “not just some stone that you step over. It’s the last statement you’re going to make because it’s permanent.”

Engraving stones is an intimate process. On that hot afternoon as Jimenez and McCarthy finished work on the small flat headstone surrounded by graves in Mountain View Cemetery, McCarthy stopped for a moment to point to all the other gravestones they’ve done. “We did Miller over here and Rendel over there,” he said. “There’s a personal feel to it all.” Gesturing to one gravestone with an etching of narrow candles topped by delicate flames, he said, “That’s a really fine menorah.”

“When you’re working on a gravestone you’re trying to do the best you can for it,” McCarthy said.

“When you do this kind of job you need to do it with your heart,” Jimenez replied.

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