21 Behind-the-Scenes Secrets of Mall Santas

THE NOERR PROGRAMS
THE NOERR PROGRAMS

Being a mall Santa might seem like a relatively easy job: Put a kid on your lap, ask them what they want for Christmas, pose for a quick photo, and send them on their merry way. But any Santa who’s done even one season at the mall will tell you the job takes dedication.

“There’s no harder job in all of Christmas than being the mall Santa,” says Paul Sheehan, who worked as a Santa at a mall in rural New Hampshire and is now in his 36th season as a professional Mr. Claus. “Between Black Friday and Christmas Eve at 3 pm, I had seen over 17,000 kids. Someone in a bigger city, they’re doing twice and three times that.”

But there’s a reason thousands of rotund, bearded men don the suit every year: While demanding, being Santa is also incredibly rewarding. We spoke with a few professional Kris Kringles about what it’s like being the season’s biggest celebrity.

1. THEY GO TO SANTA COLLEGE.

If you’ve ever perched on Santa’s knee at your local mall, there’s a good chance he was a graduate of Santa University, run by Noerr Programs Corporation, an events company that trains and distributes Santas to more than 278 major malls and shopping centers across the country. Each Noerr Santa has to pass a background check and undergo several rounds of interviews. And a real beard is required. “That’s part of the magic,” says Ruth Rosenquist, Noerr’s Director of PR.

Every August, Noerr hosts its Santa University in Arvada, Colorado, where hundreds of “gentlemen of great mirth and girth” gather for four days of training on everything from Santa ethics to how to ho-ho-ho. “It’s amazing to sit with all these guys in their red shirts and suspenders,” Rosenquist says. “You look up and you’re speaking to Santa. It’s the best audience in the world.” Watch a sneak peek below:

2. RULE #1: ALWAYS STAY IN CHARACTER.

If you’re wearing the red suit, you must behave like Santa at all times. This means having a jolly temperament and never snapping or yelling at a child, no matter how frustrated you may be.

“The most important thing they need to understand is that they are Santa and they always are to remain in character of Santa,” says Rosenquist. “They’re never to break that character.”

For some of the more professional St. Nicks, the white beard and big belly stays with them all year, so they have to be careful about how they’re representing the jolly old elf in public. This means being on one’s best behavior and fielding questions like, “Santa, what are you doing at the grocery store?”

Robert Hildreth, a professional Santa of 30 years, says he doesn’t drink when he goes out for dinner with his wife Carol Hildreth (a.k.a. Mrs. Claus), because he wants to be the model image of Santa for children. “You gotta watch what you say and do because the kids are looking at you,” he says.

But playing a convincing Santa all year round comes with its perks, like the occasional free meal. “We’ve had a couple incidents where we’ve gone into restaurants and the little ones notice us,” Carol explains. “He’ll go over and talk to them a bit and then when we go to pay the bill it’s already been taken care of.”

3. THEY KNOW WHERE THE MALL’S SECRET BATHROOMS ARE.

Santa shushing in the show.

“I refuse to go to the public restroom if it’s at all avoidable,” says RG Holland, one of Noerr’s men in red. “The whole deal of being Santa, particularly at the mall, is when you’re dressed as Santa you have to stay in character and it’s kinda hard to be in a Santa suit staying in character in front of a urinal.”

In some malls, Santas have their own designated dressing area complete with a bathroom. And if not, they improvise. “I find the restroom in the mall that is the most obscure and private,” Holland says. “If I have trouble finding those, I find the nearest department store and use one of their restrooms that’s out of the way.”

4. THEY SECRETLY SWAP.

If a Santa needs to take a lunch break or his shift is ending, sometimes another one will step in without anyone noticing. “In the busiest of malls, we often set it up so there are two Santas and we try to match in terms of physical appearance so it’s not that obvious in mid-day when we swap,” says Holland. “We don’t want anyone saying ‘That’s not Santa!’ A lot of times even parents and especially kids, if they didn’t see us together, they wouldn’t know which was which.”

5. THEY GET A BODYGUARD.

According to Rosenquist, every Noerr Santa gets an escort when he leaves the set. This is supposed to discourage the mobs of fans from attacking him.

6. THERE’S A RIGHT WAY AND A WRONG WAY TO BLEACH A BEARD.

While some naturally-bearded Santas are blessed with snowy white bristles, others aren’t so lucky. In that case, bleaching is the best option, but only when it’s done gradually and with great care. “It’s gotta be done in stages,” says Rosenquist. “If you try to go snowy white all at once, you’ll burn your hair and it gets yellow.” Smart Santas begin the coloring process in October in preparation for the holiday season.

7. THE MONEY’S PRETTY GOOD.

Santa holding lots of money

Noerr doesn’t disclose how much it pays its actors, but according to Rosenquist, it’s a salaried position, and the rate can vary by location. Ed Warchol, president of Cherry Hill Photo, another Santa distributor, says his Santas earn “well into the five-figure range for just six weeks of work.”

8. AND SENIORITY HELPS.

The more experience a Santa has under his belt, the bigger his paycheck. “We always look for experience,” says Rosenquist. One 18-year veteran St. Nick said he could make $30,000 in one season.

For some comparison: according to a cheeky report from insurance information site Insure.com, the real Santa Claus would earn roughly $140,000 a year if he were compensated for all the work he does, including overseeing the toy factory and piloting the sleigh on Christmas Eve.

9. THEY MIGHT KNOW SIGN LANGUAGE.

Noerr teaches Santas-in-training key ASL gestures so they can communicate with deaf children. They’re also advised to learn basic Spanish. Rosenquist says the demand for Santas of different races and backgrounds is growing. “We are in a lot of markets that are heavily Hispanic, so having bilingual Santas is of supreme importance,” she says.

10. THERE’S A SECRET SANTA GREETING.

In public, Santas speak in code to one another as a show of camaraderie. “I’ll go up and ask him if he’s being good this year,” says Holland. “That’s a giveaway.” Or, if a Santa lookalike answers to “Brother In Red,” you know you’re talking to a St. Nick.

11. A ROUND BELLY IS NOT REQUIRED.

“You don’t necessarily have to have the belly full of jelly,” Rosenquist says. “We don’t measure our Santas by their waist, we measure them by their hearts.” Noerr’s training program actually includes a session on how to eat properly and avoid the health risks that come with being Santa-sized, like diabetes and heart disease. If Santa needs a bigger belly to be convincing, he can be “enhanced” with padding.

Some Santas also wear makeup to maintain a rosy glow. “Number 30 rouge for the cheeks and maybe a little touch on the nose to give him a little bit of weathered look,” one actor told This American Life.

12. CONDIMENTS ARE TO BE AVOIDED.

“If he’s presenting that day, it’s pretty much just water and sandwiches with no ketchup or mustard in them,” says Carol Hildreth. “Otherwise the beard gets dirty.” And nobody wants Santa all up in their face if he’s got bad breath, so good Santas keep breath mints on them at all times. Robert adds an extra special touch: His beard oil is peppermint-scented.

13. THEY HAVE TO STUDY.

“One of the things you have to have at your fingertips at all times is all the culture that goes with Santa,” says Sheehan. This goes way beyond being able to recite the names of Santa’s reindeer. Sheehan tries to keep up with every new movie or TV show in which Santa makes an appearance and memorize the plot so he’s not caught off guard by an inquisitive child. “You could be blown away by a new movie out this season that you haven’t seen yet, but the kid has like six times,” Sheehan explains. “They’re asking details about what happened in the movie and you don’t know what’s going on.”

Santa also has to know all the latest toys—after all, he makes them. “I go through the toy catalogues every year,” says Sheehan. “In a nutshell, it’s staying current. Like any dentist or doctor has to read professional journals, it’s the same with us but we have to stay up on everything that has to do with Christmas.”

14. “I’LL ASK MRS. CLAUS” IS CODE FOR “I DON’T WANT TO ANSWER THAT.”

Kids say the darndest things on Santa’s knee, and no amount of studying can prepare a Kris Kringle impersonator for all the odd questions or bizarre requests. You know you’ve stumped Santa when he brings up the wife.

“I blame a lot on Mrs. Claus,” says Holland. “If anything comes up that’s questionable, I say ‘I’ll have to check with Mrs. Claus about that.’ It really defuses a lot of skepticism.”

But Mrs. Claus does more than just take the blame for Santa’s shortcomings. She often helps shy kids feel more comfortable. “Sometimes the little ones are afraid of the big guy in the red suit and the beard but they’ll come to someone who looks like grandma,” says Carol Hildreth. “So they’ll sit on my lap and then talk to Santa.”

15. THEY’RE NOT ALLOWED TO PROMISE.

One of the worst things a mall Santa can do is promise a child they’ll get what they want for Christmas. “If you promise stuff the parents can’t provide then it’s rough on them and it makes Santa look bad too,” says Holland.

Noerr coaches its Santas to deliver a message of hope, but to make no guarantees. “The most you can say is that you’ll try,” says Sheehan. “Even if I know you’ve bought it for them, I’m not gonna tell them that because god forbid the garage catches fire and the toys are gone.”

16. THEY HATE CRYING BABY PHOTOS.

But for some reason, parents love them. “Unfortunately some think that’s the thing to have,” Holland says. “I do everything I can to avoid them. Parents say it’s ok if they cry, but the crying picture is not any fun for the kid and it’s not any fun for Santa either.”

The best way to avoid a screaming, sobbing child is for parents to stay close, rather than shoving the kid in Santa’s lap and walking away. “Give the kids time to acclimate to Santa,” says Robert. “The child is scared and crying and screaming because they don’t know who you’re handing them off to. Please don’t throw your kids to us.”

“Some of these people slug their kids around like they’re 10 lb bags of potatoes,” says Sheehan. “I had a woman in the mall who almost tossed the child to me. She let go of the kid before I had a grip on the kid, then walked away and was wondering why the child was crying. Parents are the worst part of the whole thing of being Santa.”

17. THEY WISH YOU’D DO THE HEAVY LIFTING.

 Santa Claus napping

The constant up-and-down that comes with hoisting kids on and off your knees for 12 hours a day can cause all kinds of aches and pains. After their shifts, the older Santas are probably going home to ice their knees or put a heating pad on their backs.

“Like any business you go into there’s always something that wears out, some part of the anatomy that takes a beating,” says Sheehan. “For Santa it’s the knees and hips. By the end of the season, you’re really going to be hurting.”

If you want to make your local mall Santa happy, save him a little bit of effort by lifting your child onto his lap.

18. NOT EVERY SANTA CAN NAIL THE SIGNATURE LAUGH.

“Interestingly enough, there are some Santas who just can’t ho-ho-ho,” Rosenquist says. “We try to get them to do it but for some of them it’s just not their nature.”

19. KIDS’ TOY PREFERENCES ARE CHANGING.

The old standbys never change: Lots of boys want a fire truck and girls want an American Girl doll. But according to Sheehan, requests for gender-specific toys have fallen over the last two or three years. “So I will hear boys asking for an Easy Bake Oven and the girls will like LEGOs and the kinds of toys you can build something with,” he says. “There is a shift and transition there that’s happened in last couple years.”

20. THE PROFESSIONALS HAVE LIABILITY INSURANCE.

All it takes is one squirming child who falls off a knee and Santa could be liable for thousands of dollars in damages. As a precaution, the professionals carry their own insurance.

“We carry $2 million of liability insurance,” says Robert Hildreth. Luckily he’s a member of a Santa training and advocacy group called International Brotherhood of Real Bearded Santas, which helps him get a group rate on insurance. “We’ve never had to use it, but it’s nice to have it there,” he says.

21. IT’S ALL ABOUT BEING A GOOD LISTENER.

The most important part of a mall Santa’s job, according to Sheehan, is to lend an ear to kids who might be feeling lost. “Being with Santa might be the best thing that’s gonna happen to that kid all day,” he says. “I try to make it warm and affirming and raise them up. Everyone needs affirmation.”

Some kids ask for the impossible, like the return of a deceased family member or a reunion between divorced parents. “There are some things Santa can’t do, but we’ll pray with them,” Holland says. “Another thing I like to do is tell them that as long as they remember the person who’s gone, they’re still with them. You have to really philosophize with some of them and tell them stuff in a way that makes sense and that they will come away feeling like it’s gonna be ok. The parents get the pictures, the kids get the experience.”

All images via iStock unless noted.

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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