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How do you capture a life in stone? Blending artistry and culture to honor the dead

Melanie Young
Judi Leff at her parents' grave in Colma


Judi Leff stands in the early morning sun at the Home of Peace Jewish Cemetery in Colma. It's a beautiful park-like setting. The graves here bear a mix of English and Hebrew inscriptions. Leff points out the little stones that rest on the tops of many of the memorials.

“That's a Jewish tradition,” Leff explains. “You put a stone on top of the grave to show I was here.I always tease my parents when I come visit them because they have so many stones. I say: ‘You see, you're just as popular in death as you were in life.’”  

Leff lost her father, Henry, in 2007 and her mother, Sylvia, in 2010. But in some ways, they’re still a part of her life.

“I come out here all the time,” Leff says, “just because I love the cemetery and I miss my parents. So it's a way for me to actually kind of hang out with them.”  

In their day, Leff’s parents were well-known actors and educators who mentored many Bay Area performing artists.

“The most interesting thing about growing up with my parents, they had traveled all over the world, they were interested in everything and everybody,” recalls Leff. When her parents passed, she was left to ask: how do you say that in a stone?

That’s a question many eventually face. When someone we love dies, how can a headstone express who they were? The answer begins with diamonds.

How to create memorials for diverse communities

Inside the the American Monumental Company, foreman Richard Bortoli lowers a circular saw onto a slab of granite. The saw is embedded with diamonds to give it the strength to slice through granite. As he cuts, the stone begins to shimmer.

Bortoli maneuvers the saw along a wooden pattern to create a custom top for the headstone. Dozens and dozens of patterns line the wall. They’ll be used to help turn the thousands of pounds of granite surrounding Bortoli into tailor-made monuments. Chris Vierhaus, owner of American Monumental, says they have designs for everyone, practically.  

“As the Filipino and Latin American community has become more established in our area you see a lot more Our Lady of Guadalupes and the Virgin Marys... The Asian designs are a lot of the little bamboos, the little pagodas, phoenix and dragons. Arabic is ... usually not much more than their name and their dates ...and also a lot of times a religious saying in Farsi or Arabic.”  

Vierhaus learned the monument business from his father, a master stone cutter from Germany. Now as the head of American Monumental, Vierhaus has kind of developed into a cultural anthropologist. He says with a smile: “You just learn a lot of different cultures you learn a lot of different religions. And you learn a lot of stories here.”

Sometimes he even knows more than his clients. So they turn to him for guidance.

“I mean many of the families, they're second generation,” he says. “They're not aware of certain cultural or ethnic kinds of things. For instance, I've had a Mexican American family come in and they really like this one cross and I've had to point out, that's a Celtic cross. I don't think that's the right cross for you because it looked really neat, but it's really an Irish catholic cross and they go god, I wouldn’t have known that, thanks.”

Sometimes clients need advice, but sometimes they yearn for what they already know.

Coaxing a story from a stone

Art in Stone, another monument shop in Colma, started out by filling one culture’s particular need. Leon Rader opened Art in Stone in the 80s during a wave of Russian immigration. His son, Michael, immigrated with the family and he explains: “The Russian Jewish community, they’re accustomed to what they saw back in their homeland and they didn’t have anybody to manufacture it for them.”  

Leon Rader learned his craft in the Soviet Union. “I came to work with artist when I was 14 years old. Step by step I learned. Working, working, drawing, drawing.”  

Through his training, Rader mastered the very distinctive Russian style. If you go to the Russian section of the Jewish cemetery, it feels a little like you’ve entered a fairytale. Huge, granite sculptures rise up to represent the dead. They cover the entire grave and reach as high as 16 feet. Some take the form of a loved one’s passion, such as a life-size guitar or grand piano for a musician, or a winding strip of film for a photographer.  

For many years, Rader also hand-etched images into granite. Much like creating a tattoo, he would use a needle and etch in each dot. He created vivid images. The work was slow and painstaking. But he says he didn’t mind.

“Oh I love it,” says Leon Rader. “When I work I don’t need food, I don’t need water, I don’t need anything, I am fully in this work.”

Today, Leon Rader’s son, Michael, says computers have changed all that.

“We have a different technique now. It’s also etched in stone but it’s half computerized, half sand blasted,” Michael Rader explains.

In a way, the process transforms granite into a photographer’s lens. Families can design much more intricate and realistic imagery for their loved ones. Michael Rader points to an example of the work.

“This is one we did for a young kid. Used to race with his father, loved baseball, loved the Giants,” Rader describes. “And this is what you should see for a loved one. Something that brings you back to the good times.”   

The stone is covered with happy images. The boy beams out from under his baseball cap, the former Pac Bell stadium behind him. To the right, he and his father sit astride a race car. They hold a winner’s trophy.  

Monuments today can showcase both cultural traditions and the very personal. What’s more, Michael Rader says designing a monument can help families heal. But, he says, the timing needs to be right: “Sometimes when I have families come in directly after a funeral or within a week, I send them on the way. Because I’m a big believer If you design the memorial when you’re in grief, every time you’re going to come back that monument you’re going to come back to that pain, to that grief. I always tell them, go home, come back in six months, seven months -- you need to design with a straight head. Then they’re always happy with the design.”

Back at the Home of Peace cemetery, Judi Leff says she took the time she needed to design her parents' monument.

“It was really important to me their stone reflected how special and how talented they were and the things that were really important to them,” Leff says.

Capturing the memories

Leff and her family worked with their monument-maker, Kollmann and Sutter of Colma.

“First thing we decided was the stone had to look like chocolate because that was important to my parents and we kind of feel like chocolate kept them alive,” Leff says. “They were on the four food groups of chopped liver, chocolate, cigarettes, and bourbon.”

She selected a cocoa shaded stone dappled with pink. Next, Leff turned to what the stone should say. Performing was a huge a part of her parents' lives.

“So I put the Hollywood walk of fame sign, the comedy tragedy mask, the radio microphone, TV screen and the film reel,” she explains. “My husband drew them and the monument maker was able to inscribe them into stone and the expression: ‘All the worlds a stage.’”

Leff says that in Jewish tradition, families hold a monument unveiling ceremony one year after a loved one has passed. When she saw the monument, she says she felt she’d done right by her parents’ memory.  

“That was it, I just knew right away that's it.”

Memorials vary not only across culture but also time. Recent trends include environmentally friendly headstones made of plant materials and interactive stones that link visitors to a website. While memorials continue to evolve, the impulse to honor and cherish a loved one remains everlasting.


This story originally aired on December 4th, 2014