The last word: Bobby Schlitzberger at work.
The last word: Bobby Schlitzberger at work.
Deron Neblett

Set in Stone

The squirrel statues clutch Texas A&M flags in their chubby paws: a two-rodent honor guard saluting a fallen Aggie animal lover. Giant acorns serve as vases, and gray granite kitty-cats curl at the grave's foot. Two lovebirds perch above the headstone's pièce de résistance, a square engraved "ATM." That square is precisely the right shade of maroon, and it darned well ought to be. Bobby Schlitzberger had to special-order the granite from China.

I stared, slack-jawed, at the photo on Bobby's desk. "Hey, I just sell 'em," he laughed, then handed me more pix. For a couple who retired in San Mateo, he carved a beachscape, complete with shrimp boats and a pelican perched on a stump. A Vietnamese family brought him a watercolor scene showing a rice paddy, water buffalo and town meeting place; Bobby sandblasted the delicate scene onto stone. For a 19-year-old, he carved a unicorn into the lower right-hand corner of a white stone, then used special permanent paint to render a rainbow in twinkly pastels. "Kermit the Frog would like that one," he said.

On one monument, he carved a '34 Ford. The deceased tinkered with that car for 17 years, Bobby said. He showed me a magazine picture of another monument maker's work: a '56 Chevy to mark the grave of a Utah man killed when his showpiece fell on top of him.

That car killed him? I asked. And it's on his gravestone?

Bobby shrugged and moved on to the next photo. Death is part of his business, no big thing, happens to everybody. The way he sees it, you're lucky if you die doing what you love. And why shouldn't your gravestone reflect that? Why shouldn't your statement in death be the same as it was in life?

Bobby sells coffins, too. He showed me catalog pictures from White Light, a Dallas company that sells "art caskets," steel boxes photo-laminated with eye-popping murals. For the proud Irishman, there's a green, white and orange model bedecked with shamrocks. A ribbon of text declares, "May you be in heaven two hours before the Devil knows you're dead." For the golfer, a blue-sky, green-grass scene serves as background to a ball perched on a tee. The model is named "Fairway to Heaven."

A while back, Bobby kept White Light's "Angels" in his display room, but that didn't work so well. The casket's side shows that inescapable pair of Raphael cherubs, blown up about three times the size of real toddlers. "People would walk in and go, 'Eeeeeew,' " he says.

That's the difference between casket customers and monument customers. Casket people are recently bereaved. They're numb and usually lack the energy to do anything but fall back on tradition. Bobby doesn't crack jokes around casket buyers.

Monument buyers, though, have taken a few months to recover. If they haven't waited that long, Bobby advises them to cool off, warns them that they're still vulnerable and that he could sell them anything. Recently a family appeared at the monument office still dressed in their funeral clothes; Bobby politely shooed them away.

When at last the buyer is ready to commission a loved one's marker for all eternity, the process can be as informal as getting your car lubed. Bobby takes his emotional cues from the customer -- somberness is met with somberness, tears with Kleenex -- but he naturally tends toward laughter. He wears dark colors, but polo shirts, not suits. If the buyer seems receptive, he'll lighten the atmosphere with his usual jokes: that it's not for nothing his initials are "B.S."; that his family is a bunch of chiselers. His wife works in the office, and his niece's husband is out in the yard. Sometimes the grandkids are playing in a back room, and sometimes a buyer's kids will join them.

Bobby likes it when monument buyers want something a little different, something that evokes a specific person. Sometimes the families know exactly what they want. One rancher's widow made sure that when Bobby carved a cowboy roping a bull, the lariat encircled both the animal's hind legs. And once, a terminally ill tax attorney left precise instructions for her own monument. "Taxed to Death," it said.

But most often, Bobby designs the monument with help from the family. He begins by asking the family members what the deceased loved. Acting, they might say, or Jesus, or the palm trees in Galveston. That's when they usually cry, Bobby says. Not when picking out the casket; and not when the monument is installed in the graveyard, but in between: while remembering the life.

John Schlitzberger Sr., Bobby's dad, began making monuments in 1922, when he was 15. The hammer-and-chisel technology hadn't changed much since the Stone Age, and a reserved, tasteful sameness reigned. The granite was always gray or white. The chiseled text was large and expensive, so there wasn't much of it. "Beloved Mother" was about as personal as an inscription got.

Schlitzberger's still makes plain monuments like that. (In fact, they made one for the movie Rushmore.) But around 1970, soon after Bobby returned from Vietnam and a stint as a drill sergeant, the family business tuned in to the Me Generation and started offering colored granite: pink, like the state capitol in Austin, and dark reds out of Wisconsin, then the popular blacks. At the time, the idea was scandalous. Cemeterians called and said, "You boys are crazy. Nobody will buy that."

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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