Lives carved in stone tell a tale

Every life, an advertisement for a well-known cable television program says, has a story.
Monument manufacturers help people to tell their stories -- even after death.
Blank headstones, waiting for a sandblaster or diamond-tipped etching tool, surround the Warren-based Crown Monuments company on Niles Road.
Inside, granite slabs inscribed with examples of text and graphics hang on the wood-paneled wall, and other examples of full-sized headstones, in every color of granite available, rest on the carpeted floor.
One particularly eye-catching piece depicts a fall woodland scene in color, complete with antlered deer on the shore of a lake.
Personal touches: Tunis Selby III said his company can put whatever personal touches a person wants on the stone.
The most popular art includes pets and cars, along with common religious symbols.
"It's always nice to make sure your story is told the way you want it to be told," Selby said with a half-smile. "Unlike your other possessions, your monument is the only thing you get to keep."
His favorite was for a local woman who had been born and reared on the Hawaiian island of Oahu. She moved to Cortland with her serviceman husband years ago, but her Hawaiian heritage had always been important to her.
When she died, her husband wanted to memorialize that heritage.
"We did an etching of Oahu, complete with a mountain scene and the town where she was born," Selby said. "On the other side, we etched a husband and wife looking out over the ocean to the setting sun, where a sailboat was caught in the rays."
"He sent a picture of the stone to her mother. She cried."
Selby's most interesting request was for an unusual picture of the deceased to be etched on his stone.
"The customer wanted us to show the spirit moving up out of the body," Selby said. "That idea didn't go anywhere."
History: The Selbys have been in the memorial business since the 1940s, when Selby's grandfather and father, Tunis Selby I and II, opened it to complement their cemetery in Vienna.
"People with family-owned businesses are more committed," he said, his hazel eyes sweeping the shop. "You put your reputation and name on the line every time you do work for somebody. There's a lot of hard work involved, but also a lot of freedom."
Diane Corbin, owner of Warren Marble and Granite, agrees. Her company, just across the railroad tracks from Crown Monuments, has been around since 1890, when her late husband's great-grandfather started it.
"We look at the business as more of a service than as providing a product," she said, her blue eyes intent behind large glasses. "It makes it very fulfilling."
She said she has never made two monuments alike because no two people lived alike.
"It's an expression of their life and how they lived," she said. "It can be anything from a simple stone to one depicting things they were interested in."
Such interests include coffee cups, computers, semitrucks -- even outhouses.
"One of the nicest we've ever done was a tall monument that had an oval panel on the front," Corbin said. "The gentleman played in a band, so we carved a clarinet into the stone."
It usually takes about 12 weeks to finish a monument, depending on how detailed customers want them and what kind of stone they choose.
"It's not like walking into a Kmart and taking what you want off of the rack," she said. "It's more personal than that."
How work is done: Most of the designing is done on computer, Selby said. The designers use a computer-assisted drawing program to create a graphic, then show it to the family for approval.
After the final product is approved, the designer "prints" it onto rubber. Instead of an ink cartridge, however, the "printer" uses a blade that cuts the design out, making a rubber stencil.
The stencil is then placed over a blank stone and the engraver uses a sandblaster to etch it.
If a more detailed design is wanted, such as a portrait, an artist uses a diamond-tipped tool to cut it freehand into the granite.
Depending on how big and how detailed a stone is, the price can range anywhere from $1,500 to $15,000.
The importance of a headstone cannot be underestimated, Selby said. Not only is it a piece of history, but "it's kind of like the ultimate goodbye."