Marking the Dead

ANY OTHER TIME of year, Jeffrey Kivens, the middle-aged owner of Minneapolis Granite and Marble, would be too busy to answer questions. But winter is the slow season in the memorial trade. When the ground's frozen it's hard to set the concrete footings for monuments. If the monuments can't be erected, then buyers usually aren't interested in putting in their orders and paying the requisite deposit.

At a table in the corner, he sits all the way back in his chair with his hands on the arms. He wears the small businessman's uniform, khaki pants and a checked shirt--casual wear that says I don't get dirty and I don't kiss ass. He takes his time answering a question. The long pauses in his speech don't invite interruption.

"All these markers"--he makes a proprietary gesture round the showroom--"are granite. Granite monuments came in around the 1880s in this country, but only the wealthy could afford them. Too expensive to quarry and carve. But when technology made granite easier to work, everybody went to that." A pamphlet entitled "Tranquility" displays the color options: mahogany, Salisbury pink, ebony mist, lite gray, morning rose, rainbow, blue pearl. Kivens points to a smiling face carved on a marker by the front window. "Personalization is rising in popularity continually," he explains, then stands up. "Come here, I'll show you." Back in the workshop we stop beside a monument in progress, with a stencil sheet pasted on the face. In the upper left hand corner is a drawing of a cabin and beneath it the words "Hidden Valley." "These people"--it's a "companion" stone--"spent a lot of time up at this cabin, and their kids wanted it on the marker. There's all sorts of things you can do. If you're a farmer, say, you can get a tractor. If the deceased was an outdoorsman, you can put in ducks or deer. Some people want a likeness like that one out front, and we do those working from photographs. That can be tricky, especially when they want you to add in a little more hair, fix the teeth. But we can do it.

"I'll tell you, though," he continues, when we're seated back in the showroom, "most Americans aren't all that interested in personalized stones. Now the Europeans, those people pay more attention to funerary customs. Americans are too busy, in a hurry. It's, 'Let's get it over with, get him in the ground, and then we can go on.' Afterwards they rarely visit the cemetery, if ever." He pauses. "Well, I'm generalizing, but it's true. Cremation's growing in popularity. But you need a place to focus your grief."

We both think that over for a minute. "I don't get along with people in a hurry," he says, as if the transaction between buyer and seller were a moral exchange. "I'm set up for people who care about what they get." The Minneapolis Granite and Marble Co. has been in operation since the late 1880s, at its present location on Chicago Avenue since 1906. Kivens has owned the company for the last 22 years. In the mid '70s, after some years of working at "this and that," he decided he wanted his own business. He considered a floating fishing lodge above the Arctic Circle as well as a tire recapping company, but the monument business was the best deal. "Business, that was my first consideration," he says. "It didn't matter so much what, just so it worked. In business you buy at this price, sell at that, and you make money. If you don't make money, it's not a business, it's a hobby."

Warming to the subject, Kivens pulls out a couple photo albums to show examples of the company's machine-tooled monuments. Most are the usual big rectangles, but there are unconventional shapes: a double, overlapping heart, a woman's profile with long flowing hair down one side, a bird-bath stone, a few in the shape of benches. There are more examples of personalization, too: signatures above a couple's names, a lake scene that includes not only fringing trees but their reflection on the water ("More garbage than you might want," he says of that one), and a carving "World Champion Ballroom Dancers: 3780 Continuous Hours."

Kivens points out the thick and substantial monuments of those he calls "movers and shakers," mostly local corporate executives. "I don't want you to use their names," he instructs. He pauses, too, at the markers of those who died young, narrates the death stories, a plane crash, a hotel fire, a murder. "Those are the surprises." It's the first time he's spoken directly of death. "It would be better," he claims, "if people ordered pre-need, instead of waiting 'til a grief-stricken time. It's harder to make good decisions then. And think about it: No one gets out of this alive... maybe when you're 20, you don't think about it, you have your whole life ahead of you. But when you're 40, you start to think, well, it's going to happen. By the time you're 60, you think, I should be getting ready. When you're 80, you think, any day now. And when you're 100, you think, enough already, not another day." He doesn't smile, but I do, and then he does, a little.

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