Set in Stone

Bobby Schlitzberger adds a little life to the grave-marking business

Bobby, a baby boomer, knew better. "People wanted their monument to stand out, to make a statement," he says. And they still do. Colored granite now accounts for 60 percent of Schlitzberger's sales. Bobby keeps 37 colors on the lot, everything from white marble to green granite, from Dakota royal purple to coral blue from India. He especially likes "rainbow" granite, with natural multicolored swirls.

Color was just the beginning. Shapes also grew less traditional as the generation that wrote its own wedding vows refused to settle for a standard cross or rectangle. Often those markers reflect a profession. Lying at the center of Schlitzberger's lot is a 2,200-pound granite book, six feet long by three feet wide -- plenty of room for an author's epilogue. Bobby wistfully shows photos of granite 18-wheelers, markers for a trucker's last stop. He's never done one of those, he says, but he has made a giant badge for a sheriff, and he just finished a cowboy's headstone shaped like a belt buckle.

Other people identify themselves by their hobbies: fishing, hunting and sailing. And an especially large contingent pledge their everlasting fealty to the Lone Star State. In the '80s Bobby engraved the outline of Texas on a pink granite rectangle, and further adorned the stone with a cowboy on horseback, a flock of geese, some cactus and a rose that everyone would know was yellow. Now, on the lot, a horseshoe and a two-foot-high arrowhead wait for the customers that Bobby is sure will come. A five-foot pink granite Texas leans against a back wall, but it's not for sale. A family bought it four years ago, before anyone died or was even sick.

Last came technology -- not the Industrial Age's mass production, but Digital Age gizmos that promised ever more freedom and individuality. About six years ago Bobby saw a friend etch a photo onto glass for a wedding invitation and realized that he could use the same transfer technique on stone. The samples by his desk look like newspaper photos, only carved into half-inch-thick squares of granite, and with dots the size of BBs. On a tombstone, the effect is unnerving. You're reminded that not just any "beloved wife and mother" is buried here, but a very particular one: the bride who on her wedding day wore '70s Farrah hair and big-lensed glasses.

The technique works not just on photos, but on all sorts of artwork. You can see the shadows under a madonna's cheekbones and the embroidery on her robe -- a level of detail that would make an old-line stonecutter weep. Text, too, can be scanned and photo-transferred, and teeny quarter-inch letters can squeeze whole paragraphs of biography onto a modest-sized stone. In the back lot, Bobby points out a sample: "Schlitzberger," it says, "Bobby" and "Dianne," each born in 1949. In the center, a long paragraph of fine print tells how Bobby and his wife worked in the monument business, lived in Houston and -- a small sneaky joke at the bottom -- "enjoyed almost every minute of their lives."

No, Bobby says, that's not their real headstone, only a sample, a just-in-case emergency backup. He's toying now with ideas for the real one. It'll have scuba divers, he says, since he and Dianne love scuba diving. And a drill sergeant, since he used to be one. And a boat. And children. "You know," he says, "scenes from life."

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