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Old tombstones get new life in other uses

Old tombstones get new life in other uses

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A flat granite tombstone sitting beneath a bird bath may seem a little weird to some — and downright morbid to others. But Marlette, Mich., resident Bill Nichols says the marker adds a certain serenity to his yard.

”It has a pretty cross on it,” he says. ”I like it, and the birds seem to like it.”

The marker once lay embedded in the ground as an identifier of somebody's loved one buried below. Now it has a new life as one of three former tombstones Nichols uses to decorate his yard about 100 miles north of Detroit. It's one of many uses that those with a creative or thrifty bent have found for unwanted grave markers.

Just ask Nichols, who's seen just about everything in his job at his family-owned Detroit monument company:

”Haunted houses, fish tanks, countertops, paper weights, pet tombstones, truck weights, fence reinforcements,” he rattles off without taking breath. ”Gardens, driveways, foundations, cornerstones, address labels.”

In Central Nebraska, Max and Norma Lorenzen found that about 30 markers donated by Desch-Paine Monuments in 1996 helped keep the banks of Prairie Creek from washing away on their Hall County farm.

”My husband was just going to get some concrete from the county from when they redo the pavement,” said Mrs. Lorenzen, who lives on Chapman Road north of Grand Island. ”Then my son recommended the tombstones.”

The monument company was spared the time and cost of burying the tombstones, and the Lorenzens ended up with an effective way to save their creek banks.

”It's not spooky at all,” Mrs. Lorenzen said. ”Our neighbor came over and got one to use as a stepping stone into a building on their property.”

Desch-Paine General Manager Alan Lepler said he also has found old obelisk-shaped tombstones for a couple homes in Lincoln. The stones are being used as centerpieces in gardens with reflecting pools.

"They're old and mossy and hard to read, but that adds to the beauty of it," Lepler said.

Nichols, of Otto Schemansky Sons in Detroit, says most tombstones later recycled for other uses were left by people who ordered new tombstones and didn't want the old ones. Some have never been used because of a misspelled name or wrong dates.

Lepler said the labor of sawing off a tombstone face and repolishing it makes reusing old tombstones more expensive than making new ones.

Costs to purchase used tombstones vary. If someone wants an old marker as it is, Nichols often just gives it to the person.

Sometimes customers want the stone turned over and engraved on the back for address markers or cornerstones. They are only charged for the engraving — which can range from $20 to $120, compared to the $150 to $600 it would cost for a new granite tombstone with engraving.

Some people want the names and dates removed, while others just want pieces of a tombstone.

Selling used tombstones amounts to a very small portion of Schemansky's business, and Nichols says most people who use old tombstones work in the business. But the stones have other fans as well.

They have been used as gifts — a miniature engraved headstone as a paperweight for a boss.

They have even been used as movie props. One monument on display in Schemansky's yard has names and dates on both sides. One side bears the names of a real couple, the other the name of a fictional character from the 1992 movie ”Zebrahead.”

A scene from the Oliver Stone movie was shot at a Detroit cemetery and the marker left by the film company before it was picked up by Schemansky's.

Dave Huber, who owns Monument Center in Ferndale, said he doesn't believe the marker was ever on top of a grave but that it had been rejected because of a problem with the name or positioning.

Movie workers, he said, came in because ”they didn't want to spend a whole lot of money.”

In Nichols' yard, none of the names and dates on his three used tombstones are visible. One of the markers sits face down under the bird feeder and another upside down under the yard's water valve.

”It's great. My wife uses it as she gardens. She can rest the cans on it as she gets water or whatever,” Nichols said.

On the back of another old marker, he engraved a cow and the name of a neighbor's dairy farm. The stone was a gift to his neighbors as a cornerstone.

Like buying used tombstones, selling used tombstones isn't for everyone. Chris Fortosis, owner and vice president of Patten Monument Co. in the Grand Rapids suburb of Comstock Park, said he won't do it because he fears being held responsible for problems.

”What if someone gets granite from me for weight in their truck and then they get into an accident and the granite goes through the window. I could be held liable,” he explained.

Jeanne Dwyer of the Monument Builders Association of North America in Des Plaines, Ill., said there are no laws governing the use of used tombstones, except those issued by the government for a veteran.

Those markers, if taken up, must be returned to the government, destroyed or given to a family member.

Craig Stankevick, owner and general manager of J.E. Martinson in Detroit, said his monument company gets occasional requests for a used tombstone. Most are for haunted houses at Halloween time, but some customers want old markers broken up to put in fish tanks or to use as address stones.

”I don't mind doing it. It depends on what they want and how much work is involved,” Stankevick said.

But, for him, there are limits.

”I can't give somebody a marker with the name on it. It's not fair to the people,” Stankevick said.

And as for himself, Stankevick said he has ordered new granite for a fireplace and countertops for his home but never considered an old marker.

”I don't think I would want to use a used one,” he said.

Glen Steinberg of Steinberg Monuments in Manistee said in his 15 years of business he also has received all sorts of requests, including ones for used markers to be used for an unmarked grave.

”Sometimes people will come by and want just something to put down on an old grave they have discovered that never had a stone, just to have something down there.”

Richard R. Reichenbach of Marsh & Sassi Monument Co. in Detroit also recalls being asked to recycle a used marker for a new grave.

”Occasionally, every once in a while, someone comes in and wants a really cheap marker for someone's grave,” Reichenbach said. ”It doesn't happen too often, but there are some cheap people out there who would rather us flip over an old marker and try to engrave someone else's name on the other side.”

He said he doesn't recommend old markers be reused again as markers because they become weakened and don't last as long as a newer one.

”There are all types of people out there, and it takes all kinds,” Reichenbach said.

Copyright 1998 The Independent

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