15 Secrets of Genealogists

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Genealogy is one of the most popular hobbies in the United States and a billion-dollar industry, but few people know what actually goes into tracking down ancestors—let alone putting information about them into any kind of context. Mental Floss talked to three professional genealogists to learn more about their increasingly in-demand profession, and discovered why they love weird last names, why they’re indebted to the Mormons and the Quakers, and how television is making their job more difficult.

1. MOST OF THEM DON’T HAVE DEGREES IN THE FIELD.

There’s only one accredited four-year genealogy degree program in the U.S.—a bachelors at Brigham Young University in Utah. Those who can't make it to Utah can enroll in certificate programs, such as the one offered at Boston University, where Melinde Byrne teaches. “A lot of people sign up [at certificate programs] thinking it’ll be simple,” she says. Unfortunately, lots of people then fail when they discover how much work the program really is. Learning how to use databases, evaluate evidence, document research, locate and search public records, and define genealogical terms is essential knowledge for genealogists-in-training. Other course offerings may teach about ethics in DNA testing, how to read historical documents in multiple languages, and the best methods for writing historical narratives.

But those who don't want to commit to a whole certificate can take advantage of other, less formal options, such as classes in conjunction with library science programs, lectures offered by historical and other societies, and week-long intensives at institutes around the country.

2. THEY'RE BOUND BY PROFESSIONAL STANDARDS TO CONDUCT "EXHAUSTIVE" RESEARCH.

Unlike, say, doctors or lawyers, genealogists don't need a specific qualification to practice. But they're still guided by professional standards—including the five Genealogical Proof Standards developed by the Board for Certification of Genealogists, a non-profit in D.C. The five standards are considered best practices for coming "as close as possible to what actually happened in history," and include 1) "reasonably exhaustive research," 2) "complete and accurate source citations," 3) "thorough analysis and correlation," 4) "resolution of conflicting evidence," and 5) a "soundly written conclusion based on the strongest evidence."

Professional researchers may have differing opinions about what constitutes “reasonably exhaustive” research, but most agree that it means visiting archives and making sure to cover all the bases—for example, looking at not just a death certificate to confirm a name and age, but census, birth, and burial records as well, to build a fuller picture and to corroborate it. "If you don’t do all the steps in the genealogical proof standard, then the conclusions aren’t convincing," Byrne says.

3. THEY OFTEN DISCOVER THEY HAVE A KNACK FOR GENEALOGY WHEN THEY'RE INVESTIGATING THEIR OWN FAMILIES FOR FUN.

Byrne, for example, looked into her family’s history and discovered that “my own father and mother would never have met if my great grandmother in Alsace-Lorraine hadn’t had a goiter.” This medical condition led her to circumvent Ellis Island’s rigorous physical exam in favor of entering the country via Boston, setting a whole new family history—and her parents’ eventual meeting—in motion.

Genealogists will often continue to use their research tools on their own families later in their careers, too. Lee Arnold, who oversees the collections at the Historical Society of Pennsylvania (HSP), has used them to research his family’s past. “One of my ancestors fought with the South Carolina militia during the Revolutionary War,” he says, and service records indicated that he’d “lost his horse.” To Arnold, who grew up on a horse farm, “That meant, I fell off my horse and he beat me back to the barn.” He later learned that the phrase actually meant that a person’s horse had been shot out from under him. These are the kinds of details that get people hooked on genealogy, according to the experts—“how their lives compare to mine, how … the things they did and didn’t do helped to form me,” Byrne says.

4. SOME OF THEM CHARGE MORE THAN $100 AN HOUR.

Genealogists in archive examining archival materials
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Genealogists are often hired by families who are curious about their past or hoping to join lineage societies such as the Colonial Dames; by specific libraries or archives; or by companies such as ancestry.com, who have genealogists on staff. Fees generally vary by experience and project, although they tend to start around $20/hour (for simple record searches) and go over $100/hour, with a mid-range of around $55 per hour.

Arnold says there are three levels of genealogical research he’ll personally take on: research limited to HSP’s holdings; research that takes him anywhere in the Philadelphia area; and “our Cadillac version, where we’ll get nana to talk to us about her life in the shtetl.”

5. THEIR RESEARCH SOMETIMES UNCOVERS FAMILY SECRETS.

Be careful what you wish for when you decide to go deep: “I always tell prospective clients, ‘This can be life-changing,'" Byrne says. "'You may find half-siblings and other relatives you never imagined existed.’”

HSP’s director of research services, David Haugaard, says that clients can be stunned to learn about family members who were deliberately kept hidden. "Within so many families there are people who are written off ... somebody might have [had] a mentally ill sibling who was kept secret. It's less common today than it was, so when people are doing genealogy, it's not uncommon to learn about people in fairly recent history [who were ignored]. You start to learn that the family was more complex than realized."

6. BIBLES CAN BE UNEXPECTEDLY USEFUL.

Genealogists use plenty of sources you might not suspect would be helpful. Family bibles, in particular, can offer a wealth of relevant tidbits, since they were once often used to record births, deaths, and marriages. Scrapbooks, tax and church records, land deeds, and the 1870 Census (the first to list African Americans after emancipation) can also be goldmines. So can letters, whether provided by the family or found in manuscript collections, which might causally mention a family member’s birthday or offer snippets about day-to-day existence. “You can gather lots of information from them in a real-life kind of way," Byrne says.

7. THEY OFTEN FIND MISTAKES IN ORIGINAL DOCUMENTS.

List of 19th century births used for genealogy
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Genealogists know it’s key to consult paper sources—and to give a critical eye to the “facts” they offer. Arnold recalls a colleague becoming confused when an ancestry site listed her grandfather as white and from North Carolina, when she knew he was black and from Louisiana. “I was able to go into the original documents and see that they had been transcribed wrong,” Arnold says—a common occurrence for sites outsourcing work to other countries. (Another common transcription error: mistaking a florid handwritten 17th century S for an F.)

That doesn’t mean paper sources are error-free, of course. Sometimes mistakes were made in the original documents themselves: Census workers may have misspelled names or miscounted children; priests may have mis-marked birth dates on baptismal certificates. Pros know how to cross-reference all that, too … with more documents!

8. THE WEIRDER YOUR LAST NAME, THE MORE THEY LIKE IT.

“I often tell people we’re like private investigators looking for dead people—we know your ancestors have to be there; you didn’t just hatch from an egg,” Arnold says. “The problem is, it’s so labor-intensive for a common name; you could spend hours looking at the wrong Smith. It’s better if you have an obscure last name.” Names like Brown, White, Jones, and Johnson are especially tough—although matters can be made easier if family members had a distinctive first name ("Napoleon Jones" will be easier than "John Jones," for example).

9. THERE'S A WHOLE FIELD THAT DEALS WITH LEGAL CASES.

Forensic genealogists—like Byrne—apply genealogical tools and principles to cases with legal ramifications. In the process, they often solve mysteries. Byrne might track down a next of kin for someone seeking the heir to a family fortune, or to repatriate the remains of a soldier killed in action. One of Byrne’s colleagues helped a woman prove that the man who kidnapped her as a girl was not her father—and was in fact a grisly serial killer. Another forensic genealogist discredited a woman who claimed she was raised by wolves and that she killed Nazis while hiding out in the woods. Sometimes, Byrne says, the tip-off comes just from talking to relatives; in the wolf case, for example, “Her first cousin was still living and he basically said, ‘Misha always had such an incredible imagination.’”

The man thought to be the Golden State Killer and East Area Rapist was also caught using forensic genealogy strategies. Police compared DNA found at the killer's crime scenes with DNA test results from an unidentified genealogy site, and found a match with a user of the site. The user wasn't the killer himself, but by going through their family tree for potential suspect who matched clues in the case, police found their man. "The techniques used to find the Golden State Killer combined solid police work with genetic genealogists’ principles," Byrne says. "This is done routinely to reunite children and birth families, to identify the remains of KIA or MIA soldiers, and increasingly to identify John Does, Jane Does, and Baby Does."

10. THEY’RE GRATEFUL TO THE MORMONS …

Person with hand on marriage records
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A good number of online records exist thanks to the efforts of Mormons. For years, they’ve been sending missionaries to HSP and other archives to scan hundreds of thousands of family histories, usually in exchange for a royalty and free access to the scans for the society’s patrons. What’s their interest? Posthumous baptisms for the family members who weren't Mormon—so they can stay together in heaven. Genealogists agree the scans are a tremendous asset to researchers, with a caveat: Not even close to everything is scanned, and mistakes are also common. “You still need to use as many different paper sources as you can,” Haugaard advises.

11. … AND THE QUAKERS.

Some things make genealogical research a snap—for example, if your ancestors were Quakers. According to Haugaard, that’s because the Quakers were always issuing certificates; when someone moved, say, to use as an introduction at the Quaker Meeting in a new town, and also when they were kicked out of the community. “Lots of [mid-18th century] Quakers got in trouble for fighting, or drinking, or marrying out of unity, then were disowned,” Haugaard says. What that means is, “Basically, they kept great records.”

12. GENEALOGY SHOWS DRIVE THEM NUTS.

Producers and participants of "Genealogy Roadshow" speaking onstage during a panel discussion in 2013
Producers and participants of Genealogy Roadshow speaking onstage during a panel discussion in 2013
Frederick M. Brown/Getty Images

Grudgingly, Arnold admits that TV shows like Finding Your Roots and Genealogy Roadshow have “introduced people to genealogy and made it really hot—I mean, you can’t swing a dead cat without hitting an ancestry.com commercial.” But the shows have also given people unreasonable expectations about what genealogy can and cannot do. Byrne says, “People don’t understand that [the history] is not all laid out in front of you" as it typically is on TV. Arnold says he fields requests from patrons who ask him to “‘Tell me about my ancestors, just like that guy on TV did.’ They think it’s easy and quick.” In fact, what Arnold calls those “ta-da” moments offered by hosts like Henry Louis Gates Jr. are actually made possible by professional genealogists hired to painstakingly research ancestry over the course of days, weeks, months.

13. IT'S EASIER FOR THEM TO RESEARCH YOUR ANCESTORS IF THEY WERE RICH.

Ancestors with less money—who maybe didn’t own property or pay taxes—can be less likely to leave a paper trail. But employment agency, almshouse, prison, and orphanage records can get the research ball rolling, as can advertisements offering rewards for runaway indentured servants. Haugaard explains that charity society records also frequently provide details: Society workers would visit families and “make records indicating the woman of the household’s name, how many people were in the household, what religion they were, and what charity they received, like coal or groceries.”

14. PERSECUTED GROUPS CAN BE A MAJOR CHALLENGE.

Research files being used for genealogy
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Three groups of people looking for their roots make Arnold steel himself for some rigorous research. If the case involves African Americans, Native Americans, or Jews, “I know this is going to be a tough one,” he says. That’s because their records are often scant or nonexistent. Slaves often weren't allowed to marry (or their marriages were never recorded); Native Americans didn’t traditionally write their histories down; and Jews fleeing Europe during World War II often had all family records destroyed as synagogues and villages were torched. Sometimes, their papers were falsified in order for people to survive.

These factors make picking up someone’s trail difficult, if not impossible. “I had one woman come in to a talk I was giving and say, ‘How do I start? All my ancestors were killed in the Holocaust,’” Arnold remembers. “And I said, ‘Alright, then your ancestry starts with you. Document your life for your [descendants].”

15. THEY MIGHT ENCOURAGE YOU TO THINK TWICE ABOUT DNA TESTING.

According to Arnold, DNA test results can be sketchy. His own experience with DNA tests from seven companies yielded seven different results, some of them “bizarre”: “One said my family was from Tuscany, but I’m paler than a Presbyterian. Another said I was 5 percent African American. Another said I was Swedish—and that probably means that they found a gene from some randy Viking pillaging the Scots Irish 1000 years ago.”

Part of the problem is that DNA test kits are dependent on data from other people who have taken the tests, which means they are more accurate for some well-represented groups than others. (For example, an American with Irish background taking the test may get a more reliable result than someone whose ancestors were of Middle Eastern descent, since people from the Middle East tend be less represented in the database.) Also, different companies are working with different data sets, and using different algorithms—which can produce different results.

Haugaard also says that DNA testing may tell you some things you don’t want to know. He recounts a story about a man who connected deeply with his Irish heritage, yet DNA testing undertaken by his family showed he was Jewish, switched at birth with an Irish-American baby. “He passed away before he could learn that,” Haugaard says.

16 Secrets of School Portrait Photographers

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iStock.com/HKPNC

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

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

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

1. SCHOOLS GET A CUT OF THEIR FEE.

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

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

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

2. PARENTS TAKE PICTURE DAY VERY SERIOUSLY.

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

13 Secrets of Tombstone Engravers

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iStock/marako85

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

1. THERE IS NO "NORMAL."

A mausoleum in a graveyard on a sunny day
Vince Dioguardi

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

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

2. THE PROCESS CAN TAKE YEARS ...

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

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

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

A grave marker for Franz Xaver Gabl
Greg Lundgren

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

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

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

5. FAMILY DISAGREEMENTS ARE A CHALLENGE.

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

6. A NUMBER OF THEIR CLIENTS ARE STILL LIVING.

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

7. THEY DON’T ONLY MEMORIALIZE HUMANS.

A modern urn
Ruth the dog's urn
Greg Lundgren

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

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

8. THEY’RE NOT ALWAYS CHISELING BY HAND.

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

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

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

A family mausoleum
Vince Dioguardi

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

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

10. SOME DESIGNS CAN BE VERY ELABORATE ...

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

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

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

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

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

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

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

12. CARS ARE A SURPRISINGLY POPULAR MOTIF.

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

13. WORKING WITH DEATH ISN’T ALWAYS SAD.

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

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