By VANESSA McCRAY
TRAVERSE CITY — In the old Catholic section of Oakwood Cemetery, family surnames scroll across the front of many gravestones, marked by heavy crosses. Symbols such as the menorah and Star of David repeat on stones in the Jewish section of the Traverse City cemetery.
Some of the cemetery's recent markers boast different kinds of designs. There's an etching of a truck on a 1996 stone and a bicycle with c-shaped handlebars on a new-looking marker. And, then, there are the accoutrements — helium-filled birthday balloons floating above a grave, Christmas decorations collected near another and a loving message written on a bowling pin propped next to a plot.
"You definitely see trends. Back in the old days, it was definitely a status symbol. Bigger was better," said Oakwood Sexton Branden Morgan.
Now, cost and cemetery rules limit the size of monuments. Those who walk through a cemetery this Memorial Day weekend may observe a range of graves from historic headstones to distinctly modern markers that serve as a palette for personalization.
Little lambs often marked the graves of children who died years ago. A contemporary family of a child who dies might request a photograph laser-etched into black granite, or, really, any imaginable individualization of a stone.
"The most unusual thing I've ever done was... (a) monument with the Starship Enterprise. This young man is a very big fan," said Marilyn Blum of Bay Area Memorials.
In her Traverse City showroom, Blum works with families to create a marker for a loved one's grave. At least 30 percent of the time, someone chooses their own stone.
Some want an old-fashioned marker that looks as if it could have been planted a century ago. Celtic crosses may be requested, and the use of religious symbols "is making a return," Blum said. Markers can be personalized with the deceased's signature or a picture of a beloved pet.
"If they want something real unusual we literally will walk through the cemetery and get ideas there," Blum said. "I see more and more of the angels and... tractors or trees. It seems to be something dear to them. If they love hummingbirds they may want hummingbirds on the marker."
Deb Wilson, who owns Creative Stone Designs in Traverse City and Central Lake with her husband Dave, said about half of her customers ask for a natural looking boulder instead of polished granite. Requests have included military symbols and animal images. No two markers are alike, she said.
Morgan, the Oakwood sexton, has seen everything from pictures of homes, swans, hunting and fishing scenes, wedding rings and marriage dates on markers, in an effort to "try to connect the people to the stones."
How a person's life is memorialized in stone atop a grave is something poet, essayist and Milford funeral director Thomas Lynch has contemplated. He noted that following a death, there is no longer as much of an effort to position one's perspective according to a theological view.
"Rather than conducting funerals for lapsed Catholics or Orthodox Jews... or devout Methodists..., it's more like gardeners and golfers and bikers and bowlers," Lynch said.
Some of the area's older markers with shell shapes, flower bouquets or lines of script were created by Gottlieb Piltz, a stone carver who died in Fife Lake in 1896. He rests in an unmarked grave in the city portion of Oakwood Cemetery. He worked primarily in marble, and his stones, on which he took the unusual step of signing his name at the bottom or on the back, can be found in many area cemeteries, said Kathi Farley, of the Grand Traverse Area Genealogical Society.
The group raised about $800 to purchase a marker for Piltz's grave. It features a man with a hammer and chisel, the icon for a carver. The stone will be dedicated at 2 p.m. June 4 at the cemetery.
"We just felt that he made our cemeteries so beautiful that he should get a little credit," Farley said.
Markers can cost from $400 up to a million dollars for an extravagant mausoleum, Blum said. No matter what the marker looks like, she said families can find one that fits their loved one. Many people will wait, sometimes years after a death, before picking out a stone, she said.
In the case of Piltz, Farley said funds were donated by his descendants, society members and strangers moved to give out of the belief that "everybody should have a marker, even if you scatter your ashes someplace. You should have a marker so we know you were here."