Architecture: A personal alternative to headstones-by-numbers: Nicholas Roe reports on a group of artists who are reacting against modern assembly-line memorials

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THERE is a small grave in a cemetery just north of London that contains the body of a still-born child. Above the grave stands a simple headstone of rough, unpolished slate, which offers two messages. The first is straightforward and moving: the name of the child and the date of his birth and death, recorded in a circle around a tree-of-life motif. The second message lies not in words or symbols, but in the fact that the memorial exists at all: a rare stroke of individuality in the bland and unsightly dumping grounds for the dead that many of our burial grounds have become.

A question asked by a growing band of critics is whether such marks of care represent the birth of new hope for cemeteries - or the death of the old. The sad fact is that the Georgian and Victorian habit of investing heavily in death, bestowed a grand legacy of art that is being devalued almost daily. History bequeathed not just grand mausoleums, but individual headstones and memorials that were hand-crafted and said something personal about the deceased and the artist. The result was a comfort for the bereaved and a visual treat for casual visitors.

From the Thirties onwards, however, the rot set in. Factory methods and production-line attitudes to memorials introduced a depressing crop of off-the-peg gravestones. The trend may be linked to the growth of a consumer society, whose members resent confronting death and so conceal it in mediocrity and meanness: off-the-peg costs less.

In any case, Chris Brooks, head of English and American studies at Exeter University, who has written widely on the subject, says: 'The general standard of monuments today is appallingly low. The monumental mason industry is geared towards meeting a uniform need, and it turns out a huge number of standardised stones. We have lost the language in which to grieve.'

As Kate Ashbrook, of the Open Spaces Society, says: 'Cemeteries are important. They are peaceful and tranquil. They are different from other places.'

Sue Clifford, of the charity Common Ground, which helps to preserve local landscapes, mourns the suppression of local distinctiveness under the weight of polished granite and marble headstones, many imported from South Africa and Italy as 'blanks' requiring only a little personalising trim. 'I feel very sad,' she says, 'about the standard shapes and the loss of geological connection with the place itself.'

Cemetery and churchyard officials are also to blame: they have laid down strict size and shape regulations, which can inhibit creativity. Even in death, rules are rules. Although stonemasons say that regulations are easing, the fact remains that relatives, at such a vulnerable moment, can pick only from what is easily on offer: usually a catalogue number for a piece of stone cut by sand- blaster and decorated by stencil (the biggest companies even offer 'computer-aided design').

However, the gravestone described at the beginning of this article, its unpolished slate poignantly representing an un-lived life, came from the workshop of one of a growing band of artists-cum-stonemasons who are bucking the trend. John Das Gupta, who works in north-east London, studied stonemasonry and sculpture after his degree in painting, and now takes commissions in memorial work and architectural lettering. 'I think people forget that cemeteries are very public places,' he says. 'We should all be rather concerned about them.'

His concern is reflected in the individual design, shaping and lettering that he bestows on memorials, after discussing with clients the character they wish to reflect. 'It's all down to time and discussion and showing them that there is no limitation,' he says. With great care, he cuts deep, using a hand-tool to give shape to letters, and working from original designs for shape and letters rather than resorting to a pattern book.

Martin Jennings, another monumental sculptor and craftsman working in Oxford, says that many machine-worked stones are cut so shallow that they become illegible within a few years. 'I sit down with a pencil and paper, and draw my own lettering. The monumental mason will offer you one from a set of three or four.'

Both of these designer/craftsmen are registered with an organisation called Memorials by Artists, an extraordinary venture, run from Snape Priory in Suffolk, by Harriet Frazer. She keeps a register of artistic stonemasons who are capable of good, individual work, and liaises with clients seeking a personalised memorial.

Mrs Frazer set up the organisation after the death of her stepdaughter, which occasioned a depressing search for a suitable memorial. 'I tried eight companies, but I was always being sent basically the same brochure,' she recalls. 'I would try to explain what I wanted, but they would say, 'I think number E14 is what you want.' Then I discovered that there are people hidden away, who will help you.'

Her list of such people has now reached 100. Whether these scattered bulwarks will ever become a dam remains to be seen, but the signs are encouraging. Mrs Frazer has overseen the creation of more than 250 new memorials since she began work in November 1988, and craftsmen themselves praise the effect she is having on public perception.

This is the key. Theresa Quinn, national executive officer of the National Association of Memorial Masons, says that many of her members do carry out individual, personalised work, and are yearning to do more, but they are not being commissioned.

Taking pains in bereavement, however, costs time and money that many cannot afford. A well designed stone costs from pounds 1,000 upwards (including placement) which is about one-third more than a standard memorial from a large company's glossy catalogue.

The main complaint, however, is not the blandness itself, but that it exists almost to the exclusion of anything else. Even a partial turning of the tide could make a difference, yet a funeral is often bought as a package - transport, coffin, grave and stone - that buttons the bereaved into a distressingly restricted choice of memorial. Mrs Frazer has produced a beautifully worked booklet, 'Memorials by Artists', to help to show people that they can exercise their own taste.

Every time an artist such as John Das Gupta or Martin Jennings puts up a memorial, they are erecting a subdued advertisement for how things could be if we all took a little more care. A good perspective for judging this comes from Richard Morris, director of the Council for British Archaeology, who has spent years digging in graveyards for clues to our past.

'As a citizen, I find that much of the development over the past 30 years in churchyard fashion is disastrous,' he says. 'Stereotyped slabs with picked- out gold lettering in alien materials, garish, and marking a sharp cultural break with the traditions of the past. However, as an archaeologist, I would say that this descent into mass-produced cultural standards is exactly the thing that archaeologists in 200 years' time will rub their hands over. It is a partial reflection of what late 20th-century society is.'

Additional research by Georgia Glyn-Smith.

'Memorials by Artists', pounds 5, including p&p from Memorials by Artists, Snape Priory, Saxmundham, Suffolk IP17 1SA.

(Photograph omitted)