The Instability of Stone

Wrinkled Stone by José Manuel Castro López. [A stone that appears to be folding over like dough and stuck into the side of another stone.]

“And she was born in ’39?” I confirm before showing Sue a mockup of her mother’s  headstone.  “Yes, on January 28th.”  

I turn my laptop in her direction. She checks her mother’s dates, not saying anything for a  moment. Then, turning to her father, she says, “It’s amazing. All that living happens in that little dash.” 

Five months ago, I found this job like any other: in plain sight on the wild wild web. I can’t explain why I knew it was for me. But Memorial Designer immediately felt like a fit. I want to  share about the spoken and unspoken demands of this work. Daily interaction with emotionally tender people hasn’t been easy. But poetics have lessened the debilitating effects of long term exposure to fresh grief, and in turn, have helped me to serve my community.

The most central part of my job is meeting with families to design stones. (There are many  words for granite memorials — tombstone, headstone, monument — but I’ll use “stone” here, as it’s the most all-encompassing.) When they arrive at the cemetery, we meet in a small conference room. I bring in my laptop. I enter into a mockup website created by a granite company. I ask the family a few formal questions about what type of granite they’d like to use and what size memorial they want. 

Next, I ask if they have any engraving ideas. Some families know for sure that they want an engraving of a football helmet somewhere, or that they’d like to feature a specific religious verse. If that’s the case, that’s where we start. The mockup website has a vast library of illustrations and a small typeface selection. A family tells me what they’ve considered including, I look for imagery that matches their vision, and I tinker with the composition. 

If they don’t have an idea to start with, I ask about their person. This is usually when the space becomes poetic. People begin speaking lovingly about who they believe their departed person was or is. Their nicknames, their mantras, their proudest titles. Sometimes they ask impossible questions about forever and afterlife. Sometimes the air in the conference room gets so thick with sadness that we can’t move on any decisions. We may schedule a meeting for another day. Most days we decide on a design without a problem. Once a design is agreed upon, I send it to the granite company and expect to have a completed stone shipped to the cemetery in a number of months.


Beyond Halloween decoration, I didn’t have much experience with stones before I started this work. And I had no real concept of how it would feel to be part of this design process. Now I see designing a stone as an acknowledgement of an absence, as part of a ritual of grief. I try not to become numb to that grief, or overwhelmed by it. And I try to remember that my work may help families live with their losses. I’m not totally sure what a finished stone means to a family. I’ve heard people mention “closure,” but I think the effect feels less final than “closure” sounds as a word. 

A designed stone is a personal sculptural object. In designing it, I’m collaborating with families, and I’m also collaborating with the environment. Stone design is always in conversation with land and time. In conversation with what’s above and below.  

End Matter (2015), Katrina Palmer. [A visitor listens to an audio guide as they stand before large stacked blocks of stone on the Isle of Portland.]

Hundreds of millions of years ago, many miles below the Earth’s surface, granite formed from cooled magma. Over time, as volcanic mountains eroded away, the rock rose to the surface. Today, granite companies quarry it with giant pieces of machinery, and eventually perfectly squared blocks make their way to the cemetery where I work. 

When I learned about the origins of the stone, I thought my job was pretty blasphemous. The stone itself is older than language. It’s worthy of a deep respect, likely deeper than I can fathom. To ask someone to engrave stone sometimes feels like inciting vandalism. But as I’ve continued to work, I’ve gotten more comfortable with identifying the magma and the engraving as part of the same story, with no part being more or less important than another. 

When I’m trying to reconcile this work’s relationships to language and nature, I turn to the work of Etel Adnan. In her 2015 talk on transformation at Serpentine Galleries, she spoke about her intimate relationship with Mount Tamalpais, and of how the mountain, though unmoved, was different every day. This image of ongoing natural change started to inform my understanding of the instability of a stone. Stones erode, they get swallowed by soil and plant life. Weathering softens engravings. Permanence and change are inseparable. 

Stone of John Thomas Alexander Smith Thorpe, Photograph by Janet Weeth. Courtesy of [A tree growing out of the top of a tombstone.]

People purchase stones to memorialize their loved ones, in hopes that they’ll never be forgotten. But, for me at least, it’s also been liberating to know the stones I design will also change. Not in my lifetime, and not in the family’s. But over the next hundreds of years, the stones will take new shapes. Likewise, I’ve begun to think about death less as something permanent and eternal, and more as life taking a new shape. I often think about the Law of Conservation of Matter, that matter cannot be created or destroyed. The same is true for mass and energy and, I think, love (isn’t love also energy?).

Handwritten note by Etel Adnan, for Hans Ulrich Obrist's instagram, 2015. [The note, on bright pink paper, reads “Love doesn’t die when we die. It is our resurrection” — Etel Adnan]

Thinking about what it means to memorialize, and about this more planetary scale of time, has led me to think about other things differently, too. I’ve started to see rivers and canyons as giant engravings, carved out by time. A handprint in wet sidewalk cement holds water and memory in a similar way. Initials and hearts etched into a tree remember the site of a first kiss. Looking around the other day, I thought the cemetery looked like a miniaturized city; there are so many worlds thriving there, invisible to us living folks. On my way home from work, I drive past the hospital where I was born. You can see it from the cemetery, it’s on the same street. I say to myself how grateful I am to not be stuck in either place. But to be moving forward, living through my little dash.

This piece was originally published in the Annual 2023, available here.

Morgan Strahorn is a sweet person with an art degree. She lives and works in Dayton, OH.