Finding, designing, and carving my grandparents’ headstone

Grandma loved life, almost as much as she loved Jesus and her family. Her personality was something to behold. She did not fear dying, but feared only missing time with us.

My Grandma Miller passed away in early 2023 after a long, hardheaded fight with a body that didn’t have near the energy of her spirit. I know we’ll see each other again soon, but even now well over a year later the pain from her being gone is still very fresh.

As the youngest grandchild, I think I can safely say I spent more time at Grandma and Grandpa’s than anyone else. Their small farm in the hills of Ohio is something of a magical spot. It had plenty of places for adventure and a young Joel to find his way in life. My zeal for nature is in no small part thanks to the long summers spent on that land (and the rest of the seasons too). Grandma and Grandpa built their farm from nothing but blood, sweat, and tears.

When the time came for a headstone, our family felt a rock from the farm itself would add a particular meaning which words alone could never reveal. I was drafted into service and we got to work.

Finding the rock

Much like a quest, we set our sights on rocks around the farm. Our corner of the world seems pretty similar to Norway – minus the Viking past. That’s how rocky the land is! Over hill and over dale, we hiked the dusty trail when along a tree line that runs the middle of the farm, we found a uniquely colored stone with a flat face poking out of the ground. It was not so unique that it looked completely out of place on the farm. It was reminiscent of its surroundings, yet somehow different and wonderful in its own way. A bit of digging revealed the stone in its entirety was just what we were looking for. With a pinkish hue and some striking streaks, we hauled out the mostly gray granite with whole family effort, a couple of choice words, and a trusty backhoe.

Deciding on the design

Finding the rock was the easy part. Landing on a design that was both fitting for the type of v-cut letter cutting I do – but also met the desires of the family and fit with the look of the stone – was another matter completely. We initially considered the face of the stone to be oriented in a more horizontal manner, then landed on the idea of a vertical design.

Grandma and Grandpa’s names are Peggy and Charles, but everyone always called them Jim and Peg. Don’t ask me why on the Jim part! This led to putting the ‘nicknames’ front and center at the very top, as well as the two things that defined them in their life – their faith, denoted by a large cross front and center – and farming, pictured by a horizontal piece of wheat acting as a line divider between their nicknames and the surname of MILLER in large serifed font.

The MILLER itself is a unique combination of lettering styles, with the ILLER following closer to the traditional Trajan typeface. The Trajan M felt a bit too sharp for the rustic style they associate with. Instead, I went more of a Georgian route with the M, and found the marriage of the styles worked quite nicely.

Follow it all up with simple and flowing script for their full names, plus a sans serif font for the dates, and there we have it.

Work progresses

Before the letting cutting could begin, I decided to grind and rough polish the face of the stone a bit to give a truly flat face to the work, though the natural faced edge of the stone was plenty flat already. A fine way to begin!

I also decided to use a new two-axis laser level to help exactly align the design on the stone. The locked in laser combined with projecting on the the design made for a great combination that was both speedy and exacting. A carpentry pencil (and several sharpenings later) and it was all transferred. I made a couple extemporaneous design decisions on the stone itself, and let the letter carving begin.

By this time, it was about mid-February. The goal of this project, which was happening simultaneously as a few other projects (we can talk about the efficiency of such some other time. Spoiler – it’s not.), was for it to be done and installed by Memorial Day. Memorial Day is important to our family as the place in which Grandma is buried is the site of a wonderful hometown ceremony on that American holiday. In my opinion, the cemetery is one of the prettiest little places this side of heaven. It’s a sight to see on Memorial Day.

You know the rest – hammer and chisel ting-, ting-, ting-ing away in the early morning and late at night until I was finally to a place I was proud of the depth of the letters and their details.

We decided on a deep black base painting within the letters. This was the first time I tried a ‘coverall’ technique with the paint in a wild stone carving. This involved painting over the letter completely, covering every inch of the letter and beyond its boundaries with the paint. It’s a time efficient process, but pretty dang terrifying. Even though you know the process and how it works, I still found myself thinking halfway through, “Welp, I’ve really messed this up,” staring at a piece of rock with paint all over. Trust in the process prevailed!

Placing the stone

For some hair-brained reason, I cooked up the idea of moving and placing the stone all by myself. After talking with the local sextan about the best strategy for placement of the stone, we opted for a loose gravel base to compliment it’s non-flat underneath, as well as the general wild nature of the rock.

A quick sidenote and shoutout to Mr. Rod Watkins - the cemetery's sextan - for not only keeping the cemetery beautiful, but working hand-in-hand with me to ideate and comfortably arrive to the conclusion of this project.

So yeah, why not move this big ol’ rock all by myself out of the shop? I won’t go in too much of the details, but yes, I did enlist an industrial cart to move it to be washed and yes, I did use my trusty heavy-lift tripod and chain hoist to lift it on and off the trailer, and yes, I did feel sore for the next three days.

Presenting it to Grandpa

Placement happened on a Saturday and a family emergency was called to come see it after church the next day – most especially for Grandpa. He of course had seen and approved the design, but hadn’t seen any of the carving.

His tears and pride in the work he let me do for him and Grandma – words escape me. It can’t be replaced.

Though after all that toil – the many long days of searching, moving, designing, preparing, carving, and placing – I found myself at the end of a quiet day stopping by the rock. I realized all of that time alone in the stone carving shop was not time alone at all. I was sitting and talking with the only Grandma I ever knew, finally saying my last goodbye to her a year after she had gone.

Thank you Grandma. For everything.

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