A memorial needn't be set in stone

When Sue Utton's husband died, she wanted more than an `off-the- peg' memorial headstone...

Finding a headstone for the grave of her artist husband, who died of cancer in 1990 at the age of 48, was the most difficult purchase of Sue Utton's life. She was certain that the grave near the churchyard yew tree was where her husband would have been happy to be laid to rest, but was faced with trying to find a headstone that he would also have liked.

"It was a daunting task. I knew I had to do something special but it was completely new territory for me," says Mrs Utton, 41. "Fortunately, a friend had seen an article about Memorials By Artists, a service for bereaved people seeking headstones that are more personal than those provided by most monumental masons. I got in touch with the director, Harriet Frazer, and, after one false start, found a man who seemed wholly sympathetic and attuned to what I wanted."

Mrs Utton's husband had been an admirer of the work of the late Victorian artist and sculptor Alfred Gilbert. She was able to discuss the shape of the stone and the bas-relief detailing with Martin Jennings, a letter- cutter and sculptor, who went through some of her late husband's books on Gilbert and came up with an abstract design that captured the flavour of the artist's work. She approved the design and Jennings cut and installed the stone in 1992.

"I was hugely satisfied," Mrs Utton says. "At the time I was conscious of cost, but I calculated that the price was barely more than than half as much again as a standard stone from the memorial mason's catalogue. My view was that this was a gift to my late husband that was to last a long time. I'm sure I was right."

The cost of commissioning a one-off headstone from an artist mason starts at around pounds 1,200, compared with pounds 500 for a standard headstone in native stone from a monumental mason.

Mrs Utton says that commissioning the stone helped the grieving process for her family. "Ever since I have wanted to tell people that there are alternatives to the standard dreary designs," she says.

Her sentiments are echoed by Kathleen Lawrence, 89, who had a stone cut for her late husband, Rex, by Alec Peever, one of this country's leading letter-cutters. Rex Lawrence was a farmer and Devon county councillor. The stone depicts his involvement with the local community, with a tree, a tractor sowing seed and a seagull. Mrs Lawrence liked the stone so much that she commissioned one for herself to go alongside her husband's, depicting her own interests. The seagull from her husband's stone re-appears in hers.

Mr Peever was apprenticed to Richard Kindersley, whose father, David, worked with Eric Gill, the acknowledged master of fine letter-cutting in this century. "You can only be expressive in stone by obtaining a personal brief from the person commissioning the stone and working on ideas together," he says. "It could not be more different from a catalogue from the monumental industry full of standard stones that look like fireplaces and lack any real individuality."

Peever has depicted a child's balloon, family pets and steam billowing up from a distant, unseen locomotive in the case of a railway buff. He is currently cutting a series of 30 paving stones, each with a quotation from the author's work, for Roald Dahl's widow, Felicity.

Harriet Frazer started Memorials By Artists from her Suffolk home in 1988 after she had great difficulty in finding a fitting memorial for her step-daughter who had died suddenly at the age of 26. "The vast majority of memorial companies still give the impression that there is little or no alternative to the soulless machine-cut stones, often made from shiny black foreign granite or marble. These stones do not weather at all like our British sandstones and limestones and do not harmonise with the beautiful old stones in many of our churchyards.

"A memorial stone is the only work of art most people are likely to commission in their lives. Commissioning a fine and thoughtful stone in this way can greatly assist in the grieving process."

Teresa Quinn from the National Association of Memorial Masons claims that few people consider deviating from standard designs: "Our members include some extremely good masons who are tearing their hair out to do something different, but only once or twice a year are they asked to do so. Generally, people see the shiny memorials - especially polished granite - and say, `We'd like something just like that.' " However, although these stones are seen in most cemeteries, they are banned in many churchyards because the church authorities do not like the shiny finishes. "Where they are seen in churchyards, it is usually because the vicar has not had the heart to say no."

Memorials By Artists, Snape Priory, Saxmundham, Suffolk IP17 ISA (01728 688934). A booklet explaining the service costs pounds 5 post free. National Association of Memorial Masons, Crown Buildings, High Street, Aylesbury, Bucks HP20 ISL (01296 434750). A list later this year will highlight members who can produce individual memorials. Alec Peever, The Old Post Office, Combe, Witney, Oxon OX8 8NA (01993 868012).

Gravestones: a user's guide

Tomorrow is the fourth English Day of the Dead. The event, based on the Mexican Day of the Dead, was started by the Natural Death Centre (0181-208 2853), which claims that a similar English tradition existed but was moved from Spring to October and later became distorted as Hallowe'en. Pumpkins and ghosts have little to do with this weekend's events which takes memorials as its theme. Here are our suggestions for something more personal than the standard funeral package and production-line headstone.

1) PLANT A TREE: Britain's 19 woodland burial grounds, set up by farmers and wildlife trusts, provide inexpensive, environmentally friendly burial sites. Trees are planted to mark graves, gradually creating woodland. Burial can be in shrouds or biodegradable coffins. Visit your nearest site on tomorrow's open day: call the Natural Death Centre for details.

2) CELEBRATION BOXES: Make a secular shrine to your loved-one's memory. Friends and relatives bring photographs, letters, and other objects they may associate with the deceased and place them in a decorative box. For something really beautiful ask Yvonne Malik (015242 21767) to decorate one of her specially designed boxes, which come with tiny shelves on which momentoes can be placed.

3) CUSTOMISED COFFINS: For more and more people the traditional oak coffin with brass attachments seems a sad waste of money and a poor reflection of their life and personality. Thankfully there are alternatives. Vic Fearn & Co, a coffin manufacturer based in Nottingham (0115-977 1571), has a number of artists on its books who will handpaint a coffin or casket to your specifications.

4) CASKETS, URNS AND REALLY USEFUL COFFINS: Heaven on Earth in Bristol (01179 421 836) stocks a range of weird and wonderful funeral paraphernalia, including fabulous urns should you want your ashes to remain housebound. The handpainted coffins include a selection that start out as shelves, wine racks or blanket chests before you take up residence.

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