Lasers for the Dead: A Story About Gravestone Technology

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BROOKLYN -- We hopped on the F line in Carroll Gardens, but not in the normal direction, north to Manhattan. Instead we headed south, out towards Gravesend. The train rattled through the long stretches of Brooklyn where immigrants and the formerly hip have families and grow up and old. Each stop looked like the one before it. 

Then, the doors opened at Bay Parkway.The elevated train tracks bisected a cemetery. Gravestones surrounded us. We could see where tens of thousands of people had been laid to rest. We had known we were going to a graveyard, but this one seemed improbable and indelicate. Industrial.

My fiancée's great grandmother's century-old headstone was out there somewhere among the sea of granites marking the graves of European Jews who had been lucky enough to receive a proper burial. We'd come to see it, but we walked down the stairs of the platform and right into a sign that told us we were too late; the place was closed. We hung around the entrance peering in at the rows of memorials, then decided to walk around the perimeter, seeing as we'd already made the trip.

As we circumnavigated the plots, we began to see a pattern. Shiny, black headstones lined vast tracts of lighter gray headstones "almost like stitching," Sarah observed. These headstones were different from the ones that had come before them. Not only were they a different color and texture, they also featured photorealistic portraits of the people buried underneath them. They were a new breed of monument. One look at them could have told you that no human hand had chiseled those drawings in the stone.

At some point in the not too distant past--our initial investigation pointed to the last decade of the millennium--the way people marked the graves of their loved ones in this cemetery changed. And after that, for the rest of the time civilized humans observe such things, the difference will be apparent. Future archaeologists will be able to deduce when civilization had advanced to applying light amplification by simulated electromagnetic radiation to their eternity-invoking rites for the dead.

Lasers had arrived in the death industry.

* * *

Lasers were one of those miracle inventions of the mid-century, when progress seemed assured. First developed in 1960, it wasn't until the next decade that they found their defining and inglorious early task: cutting sheet metal. From there, they began to be incorporated into all kinds of industrial processes. And so, thirty after they appeared, a small Fitchburg, Massachusetts company, Vytek, a subsidiary of Vinyl Technologies, decided that lasers could be used to make a better gravestone.

In 1989, Vytek began to sell laser systems specifically to the monument industry that could take a photograph or drawing and reproduce it on granite. The laser works almost like a printer, but instead of putting dark ink on white paper, the laser blasts away the polished surface of the granite to reveal the lighter rock underneath. Then, a worker goes over the lasered parts with a razor blade, scraping very lightly to remove any debris. The process produces a high-resolution grayscale image on the stone, a far cry from the thick line drawings that chiseling and sandblasting had allowed before. A name could have a face.

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In the next few years, forward-thinking memorial shops began to adopt laser engraving. More companies began to market laser systems to them and they got better at producing the portraits. The lasers were a big investment and required not just the machine itself, but substantial comfort with Corel Photo-Paint or Adobe Photoshop to manipulate the digital images. It all felt very high-tech at a time when few people even had a digital camera. 

Even those firms that bought into the technology had their problems. There were the small things about operating the machines -- the lenses needed cleaning, for example -- and then the much bigger movements in the death industry. In 1985, only 15 percent of Americans chose to be cremated. Since then, the number has been steadily growing. The only publicly listed memorial company, Rock of Ages, even had to list cremation's new popularity as a risk to their business in filings with the Securities and Exchange Commission. Monument shops were dropping left and right, particularly the ones that couldn't handle the new technology.

As you might guess, the memorial business is not the most nimble. "In 1994, we started [using lasers]," said Peter Burke of Cochran's Inc in Barre, Vermont. "It's been 17 years and people are still looking and wondering what we're doing. It's a very slow moving industry."

"Over the last twenty years, probably 75 percent of the monument companies that were around are no longer around. They faded away and haven't come up to speed," said David Anderson of Dakota Monument Company in Fargo, North Dakota. "Something as simple as a fax machine was too much for them."

Other death industry companies can be slow to react, too. "We service rural America and we go in and talk to the funeral homes and tell them the stuff we can do, they are kind of stunned," Anderson said. "It's so different than it was. It's not just one rose and a cross anymore."

The industry's pace of change has accelerated, and especially for this set of companies, it's hard to keep up. For hundreds of years, the memorial industry only had to keep one time: almost eternity. They dealt in granite and worked headstones by hand. Two lines of text could take an hour to chisel into stone! But the slowness didn't matter relative to the length of time a grave marker would remain. Cemeteries are our most conservative civic place. Nearly every company that makes monuments advertises its triple-digit age.

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