Gravestones Carved By Hand In Rhode Island Provide Comfort – And Joy
By Jill Kaufman • Dec 24, 2018
Karin Sprague is among a small group of artists who still etch stone memorials by hand.
Early on, good at lettering, Karin Sprague found work painting names on boats. She opened a sign shop on Block Island. She went to art college, and began carving signs in wood. Then a teacher introduced her to stone.
“It’s very different than wood, because you're using different tools. You're not pushing a chisel. The mallet is pushing the chisel forward with every tap,” she explained from her studio in Scituate, Rhode Island.
When she carved her first letter, Sprague said, something ignited in her soul, quoting a line from a Pablo Neruda poem.
“I had never gotten so lit up!” Sprague said. “I mean, I get lit up a lot. I get very passionate, very excited, but you know when you have those moments?”
That was 1991 and Sprague said she still gets lit up when she sees a beautiful, hand-carved letter in stone. She uses that energy when she gets the first call from a grieving family, asking her to design something deeply personal.
“The phone call could be a mother, who’s buried her daughter,” Sprague said.
And on the other end of the phone, Sprague is not a therapist. She's more of a compassionate listener.
“Letting someone speak about their beloved is the most important part of this work,” she said.
The early conversations and consultations infuse the physical part of of mallet and chisel in hand, etching into slate a flower, a figurine or even a tennis ball -- and always a name, the year of birth and the year of death.
Sprague’s studio, a renovated barn, is a short walk from her house, and she employs a small team of carvers and an office manager. The space is filled with light and heated by an enormous wood stove.
Several finished stones lay out on pallets and lean against the walls. They’ll be installed at cemeteries in the spring, Sprague said, unless the foundation is already set. One is going Montana, another to Cambridge, Massachusetts.
Sprague also gets requests for engraved benches to be placed under a tree and other large types of monuments. When pushed to say more about how long it takes to carve these memorials, Sprague said they take as long as needed. For customers, she frames it this way: her studio is neither the fastest nor the least expensive.
On this December afternoon, Javier Alfonzo, who has a graphic art background, is sitting before a piece of slate weighing hundreds of pounds, held up on a sturdy easel. Wearing protective glasses, he is at work carving a name in a headstone that will go to a cemetery in New Jersey. It’s for a man, a father, Sprague said. His wife called.
Comfort and Joy
A few weeks ago, Sprague traveled to New York City to speak at a gathering of the Metropolitan Cemetery Association, a sizable group of industry people. The topic was hers to choose, she said, and surprisingly, the words "comfort and joy" popped into her mind.
“And I thought, 'Oh! It’s the holiday season,'” Sprague said. “They're asking me to speak at their holiday meeting! I went with it.”
Among the stories she told was about a woman she made a stone for -- someone who is still alive, Sabra Field, a print maker in Vermont. The two women first met almost 20 years ago when Sprague, a fan of Field's wood block pieces, wrote her a letter, and slipped in an article about her own work.
“And then in my mailbox,” Sprague said, “is this letter from Sabra saying ‘Karin, thank you for your letter and I love this work that you're doing, and I want you to carve my gravestone!’”
Sprague went to Vermont. Field showed her a print she made decades ago of grasses, and this, she told Sprague, was what she wanted carved. Sprague did it. Field asked the headstone be put away in her barn until needed.
The two went some years without speaking again. When Field's husband Spencer died in 2010, Sprague got a call and she and Field designed and set his stone in the cemetery.
Then this spring, Sprague said she received another call from Field, who had been thinking about her grave stone and wanted to put an epitaph on it.
As Sprague relayed, Field said, "It’s something about how we live our lives like the grass and then the wind comes over it.”
It was, they found out after some research, one version of Psalm 103.
After the stone was finished, Field said she was ready to put the 400-pound black Welsh slate next to her husband's in the cemetery. Her son would help set the foundation.
Sprague tells the story:
I return on this gorgeous fall day, and Paul has dug the foundation. He helped me set it. We've got it upright and perfect. We bring the sod back and Sabra arrives and she comes walking over and she is just grinning ear to ear! She sees her stone is in place, and I said ‘Sabra, I brought some paper and some rubbing waxes. I'd love to do a rubbing with you now!'
She sat there and did a rubbing of her stone and pulled the first print off her stone and that was just incredible joy for me to watch the joy coming out of her. And while she was doing the rubbing, she's telling me about Spencer. She’s telling me more stories about what it was like as a woman in her time moving to Vermont as a single mother and creating a studio.
It's rare that she gets to bring such joy to customers. It's usually comfort.
“I'm remembering a family who came to me for a stone for their son,” Sprague said. “They had not gotten a stone for him [for a few years] because they had no idea who to call, no idea what it should look like.”
Sprague said there was a beautiful process of designing the stone together.
“When it was delivered to them," Sprague said, “it was a holy moment.”
While the stone is now in a Michigan cemetery, the family saw it for the first time at the Rhode Island studio.
“We sat and had some tea. Yes there were tears. There were tears, when talked to [the mother] about her son Christopher,” Sprague said. “Any mother who has lost their child, they just want to talk about them. So you just want to say, 'Tell me another story about your son.'"