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.

But no industry remains untouched by the times. Changes in power and transportation changed the monument business over the decades. Jessie Lie Farber, co-creator of The Farber Gravestone Collection, breaks up American burial practice into a few different eras. In the 17th and early 18th-centuries, gravestones were made from just about any stone that could have been "brought by wagon from the nearest quarry." Later in the 19th century, transportation improved and marble began to be favored.

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Then, as the 19th century melted into the 20th, pneumatic chisels made it possible to create memorials out of granite, a more durable stone than marble. At the mine level, compressed-air tools made it easier to quarry the granites of Barre, Vermont and Elberton, Georgia, two places that remain the two-chambered heart of the domestic granite industry. and sandblasters powered by air compressors and rubber stencils made it possible to create new designs. The Monument Dealer's Manual from 1920 is filled with new tools and techniques. 

After World War II, the industry saw a bit more change. Wire saws for slicing granite made upright memorials on a base easier to make, displacing many of the earlier designs.

"I heard someone talking about sliced bread on public radio the other day," said Burke. "Well, about the same time they had sliced monuments."

But these changes were small and slow. The basics of the gravestone remained: The person's name, the beginning and ending dates of her life on earth, and perhaps a short inscription were etched into granite stone. 

Laser-etched portraits, and the stones they require to look best, have changed all that. 

* * *

The lasering process works optimally on black granites because memorialists can achieve a higher contrast than with other granites. Unfortunately, "there is not good black granite on the North American continent," Burke said. So, the stone market went truly global. While the causality isn't exactly clear, new Asian granite producers started exporting black granite at just about the time laser etching made the stone more desirable. The raw material and the technology grew up together. "What the laser did is take the black granite that comes from overseas and show us what could be done differently," Dakota Monument's Anderson said.

Stone imports from all over began to boom in the early 1990s, according to the United States Geological Survey. In 1992, Americans imported about $400 million worth of stone. By 2010, the import market was $1.8 billion with even higher marks before that. The monument industry uses something like 40 percent of the granite that comes into the country, depending on the year. "It is so bizarre that we can buy finished stone from overseas cheaper than we can buy unfinished stone here." Anderson said.

At the same time, Italy and Canada, which had been this country's big granite suppliers, saw fierce competition spring up from Brazil (now our leading granite supplier), China, and India. That housing boom? New cheap Asian supplies of granite are one reason so many McMansions came with granite countertops. 

"We go to conventions. At one point, we started to count how many people from India from there. Then we started to count how many people were from India and China. Then, we started to count how many were left from Barre, Vermont or Elberton, Georgia," Burke said. "Because the number used to be well over 50 percent. Now it's down to two people." 

Not that the monument makers are upset about all that. They welcome the cheaper raw materials and the ability that gives them to offer their customers more ornate stones for a lower price. That's the only way they can compete with cremation's low prices. 

* * *

There is something funny about black granite, though. Every granite is a little different. Granites are igneous rocks formed from a mix of minerals--silica, alumina, feldspar, quartz, among others--found in magma. The particular mineral mix endows the stone with its particular color. Real granite comes in many different colors, from green and pink to gray and not-quite-black.

At Washington Cemetery, though, the newest headstones are black-black. They, in fact, are defined by their lack of other colors. They go commercially under names like Jet Black, Zoom Black, Premium Black, and India Black. All are sold as black granite.

But black granite is not actually granite. Take this collection of dozens of black stones for sale: almost none are actually granites. They are dolerites and gabbros and diorites and hornblende-amphibolites and basalts. These are all great rocks, but their names lack the patina that's grown on the word granite. In other words, "black granite" is the Chilean sea bass of the stone world.

Much of it comes from India from quarries in the Indian states of Andhra Pradesh, Karnataka, and Tamil Nadu, a scholar has found. The dolerites of Karnakata, for example, are found in large dykes that cut through the Dharwar craton, a massive geological formation that's one of the five pieces that makes up the Indian subcontinent. A geologist could spend a lifetime proposing theories about how exactly "Zoom Black" was formed in its geological home 110 miles outside Bangalore on the former Hulkunda Coffee Estate. 

Or, if you're a monument dealer, you could simply buy it under its tradename and have it cut and polished and shipped to you in New Jersey. Then, you could take a photograph of someone, perhaps Ilyusha Eisentat, and engrave it onto the stone along with the dates Nov. 11, 1956-Mar. 15, 2004. 

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Eisenstat's monument stands just inside the fence of Washington Cemetery and at the end of a long cultural, logistical, and technological movement. From his portrait, he had a high forehead and a curiously dashing little mustache. His family chose to add a star of David, an inscription with Cyrillic lettering, and a birch tree.

"The new style, that started with the Russian community pretty much," said Mike Ciamaga, who has been working at the cemetery for 13 years. "That would be early 90s." That would also be right around the time when monument makers were starting to buy laser systems en masse. 

I don't know if people started wanting portraits, so monument makers started buying lasers, or monument makers started buying lasers and pushed people to buy gravestones with portraits. The funeral parlor owners and monument makers in Brooklyn's Russian community didn't seem to find anything special about the laser-etched gravestones, if they were willing to talk about them at all. And in any case, why a new thing in the world catches on with a particular group is almost universally difficult to pin down. But once it's going, it's easier to see the trail of influence.

"Now American Jews have taken that style too," Ciamaga said. Some of the change came about because rabbis that the cemetery works with got used to the new technology. Eventually, they OK'd the etched portraits.

Death doesn't change. But that doesn't mean that death escapes its time or culture. The older sections of Washington Cemetery have an identifiable style, too, Ciamaga said. The new stones are just the latest one. But if that's true, then these stones say something about the times in which we now live and die. 

Our death stones are shiny and global and technologized to display high-resolution portraits of our loved ones. Our death stones are not quite as durable as the gray granite of the 20th century, but they are stitched between the rocks that came before.

See more #longreads from The Atlantic Technology team.

Images: Alexis Madrigal.

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Alexis C. Madrigal

Alexis Madrigal is the deputy editor of TheAtlantic.com, where he also oversees the Technology Channel. He's the author of Powering the Dream: The History and Promise of Green Technology. More

The New York Observer has called Madrigal "for all intents and purposes, the perfect modern reporter." He co-founded Longshot magazine, a high-speed media experiment that garnered attention from The New York Times, The Wall Street Journal, and the BBC. While at Wired.com, he built Wired Science into one of the most popular blogs in the world. The site was nominated for best magazine blog by the MPA and best science Web site in the 2009 Webby Awards. He also co-founded Haiti ReWired, a groundbreaking community dedicated to the discussion of technology, infrastructure, and the future of Haiti.

He's spoken at Stanford, CalTech, Berkeley, SXSW, E3, and the National Renewable Energy Laboratory, and his writing was anthologized in Best Technology Writing 2010 (Yale University Press).

Madrigal is a visiting scholar at the University of California at Berkeley's Office for the History of Science and Technology. Born in Mexico City, he grew up in the exurbs north of Portland, Oregon, and now lives in Oakland.

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