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Don't Laugh, You're Next

This afterlife brought to you by St. Francis, Joe Huber (left), and Sean Mooney
Daniel Corrigan

Every working day, Joe and Sean are surrounded by death. They spit at it, chisel it, live with it, laugh at it, make art out of it. They're good at what they do. Someone comes through the doors of Minneapolis Granite and Marble Company on Chicago Avenue, having just buried their kid, husband, wife, brother, sister, or lover, and Joe Huber and Sean Mooney take their order for a gravestone and promise to make a monument out of their loss.

Then they put on their goggles and put their art-school chops to use. They carve an epitaph and the name of the deceased with an X-acto knife. Maybe they add some artwork. They dig into polished stone that comes cheap from China and India, leaving whatever message or image the family wants: a skateboard, snowboard, flower, angel, saint, Jesus.

Not long ago, for a little levity, Joe made a headstone for himself. It now rests at his parents' home in Bloomington, a smiley face that says, "Joe's Place." Sean hasn't made his yet, but he wants something funny. Not like Sandra Day O'Connor's ("Here Lies a Good Judge," yawn), but something like "Don't Laugh, You're Next." Or the one Bill Murray got at the end of The Royal Tenenbaums: "He Saved His Entire Family from a Sinking Battleship."

These are the kind of guys--mid-20s, ladies--you wish your daughter were old enough to date. They work hard. They have a few dozen monuments going at a time, each in various stages of creation. Some are covered with sandblaster's rubber, paper, and stencils; others are plastered with notes from customers. Some are being sandblasted and flashed with a frosted finish. Some are empty, enormous slabs of stone that cost $5,000; Joe and Sean's work is included in the price.

On a Monday afternoon in the workshop, Joe is wearing fatigues and a tropical bird shirt worthy of Margaritaville. He's stocky with close-cropped hair, and has a sprinkler-easy way about him. Sean, who is smaller and moves around the place with economy and worker-bee focus, wears a T-shirt advertising a friend's tattoo shop. They both answered ads in the paper for the gig. Joe graduated from MCAD, Sean from the St. Paul School of Art and Design. The shop has been open since 1906, and there have been other cutters, but Joe and Sean are this generation's design team.

Over the door of the sandblasting room hangs a horseshoe that protects the craftsmen from eternal misspellings. Next to it hangs what Joe deems "one of the most important features of the shop"--a small nude Pamela Lee Anderson calendar from 1998. Over by the time clock is a five-year-old cover from Sports Illustrated's swimsuit issue.

"'Are You Satisfied, Bob?' is going to be a chapter in Sean's book about this place," says Joe, standing over a row of in-progress tombstones. "Once we were sitting here cutting up markers. And you do think, 'What is this?' This is like the punctuation mark at the end of a person's life. This is the end here. Your last thing. I think the guy's name was Bob."

"Yeah, it was Bob," says Sean. "A white marble marker. Real plain."

"I cut out the lines, looked at it, and said, 'Is this good?' 'Cause you've always got to double-check and make sure everything's going to blow in, and the design works just right, whatever. I just looked at it and said, 'Well, are you satisfied, Bob?' Like, 'That's the end of it. Hope that's good enough.'"

"You either live on in memory, or you don't," says Sean, as he puts the finishing touches on a piece of rock with a small X-acto. "That's how you beat it. You see the [markers at the cemetery] that are grown over [with weeds], and they're gone. There's nothing left. You look around and you think, 'This is all that's here, and what does everybody know? What's lost to the world?'"

Joe majored in painting, Sean in sculpture. They use the phrases "2-D" and "3-D" the way car mechanics toss around "tire rotation" or "oil change." They love their work, which can be seen in cemeteries all over the Twin Cities. But Joe admits that, "even though there's this idea that they're sacred objects, the romance and reverence kind of goes out of that when you're doing so many a day."

They enjoy their time in the cemeteries as a break from the nose-to-the-headstone routine. It gets them into the fresh air. For the most part, they crank out their markers to the dead and don't ask why.

"We've had people come in who want a stone for their brother, who died 50 years ago as a stillborn," says Joe. "Sometimes people on their deathbeds request a stone for a sibling that's been dead since they were kids. They just want to tie up loose ends.

"If it's parents, and it's a young person who's died, they really care. They want something special, so we do a lot of custom stuff. I think some of the coolest things I've made have been for young people. I put some drums on one, pottery on another. I've done some nice portraits of young people from photographs.

"One of the first monuments I ever did was for a young man who got shot. His dad came in and out almost every day while I was working on it, looking at the portrait as it was a drawing, and then looking at the portrait as it was going on the stone, going, 'He had a dimple here,' or whatever.

"He was pretty cool and real light-hearted, and his friends would come in. I met a lot of the people that had been around the kid. And everybody was happy and fun. We had just gotten done cleaning it and were getting ready to put it out. The dad came in and we turned the cart around and he looked at it, and everything changed. It hit him. Choked up. Tears in his eyes. I was like, 'Oh, man. That's what we're doing. That's what this is.'"

Joe plays drums in an as-yet-unnamed indie rock band (they make their debut at the Uptown Bar on Thursday, August 18.) Sean skateboards and builds furniture. Both men practice martial arts. They are young, strong, and alive.

"I deal with death every day, but it's almost not a reality for me," says Sean, his tattooed arm etching a detail into a small marker as Joe hauls another slab on a forklift. "I'm not afraid of it in any way. Not that you don't care about anything--just live to the fullest every day, because you never know. We've made a lot of stones for people our age and younger."

Jim Walsh can be reached at 612.372.3775 or [email protected].

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