Beginning at the end

Photo by Matthew Zimmerman Banderas.

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Tony Pugliese’s work begins when that of other people comes to an end.

For many in the Walla Walla Valley and beyond, Pugliese — manager and graphic designer for Wylie Monuments — is assigned the task of setting in stone the history of the deceased. For forever, or at least 2,000 years, the average life expectancy of granite.

When centuries have passed and memories grown dim, a monument in a cemetery often displays the final sentiment expressed about a family member, Pugliese said. “One with just a name and the dates just says ‘this person existed here for these years.’ The biggest thing for me is the personalization, telling the story of a person’s life.”

The designer spends his work day surrounded by the tablets on which to do just that.

Like a stone garden, the Main Street shop blooms with colored slabs birthed from the earth. There’s a veritable crayon box of granite from around the globe — the vivid, metallic swirl of cobalt, charcoal and silver in Blue Pearl from Norway, mottled browns of Morning Rose from Canada, deeply rich hues of Lake Superior green and the familiar dark and light speckles in Georgia Gray, mined from what may be the largest vein of granite in the world.

Marble, harking back to an earlier era of monument art, glows a soft white among the shine, as if to offer the eye a rest from the abundance of pattern and contrast.

So many to consider. “It’s like picking out countertops,” Pugliese said with a smile.

The type of stone is but one of the overwhelming choices families are faced with when putting the period at the of a life. “A lot of times the first thing out of their mouth is ‘I’ve never done this before,’” explained Pugliese, who has worked in the industry for 25 years. “They’re befuddled. Not only are people dealing with loss, and everything that follows a death, but now it’s time to compose something that reflects the life that’s ended.”

It’s a lot of pressure, even for those with faith of an afterlife, and some things are completely out of a family’s hands. Every cemetery has marker regulations about how wide, how high, standing or flat, Pugliese explained. Some cemetery rules vary from section to section, as well. Those will eventually help determine how much can be engraved on the stone.

Customers may land in his office thinking they have no idea what a marker should say. That’s when his job really starts, the manager said. “Families will start talking, and the stories will come out. Those start putting images in my head and I get ideas down on paper. Sometimes I can see who a person was without ever meeting them.”

Like the West side logger who loved riding his motorcycle, Pugliese said, pulling out a pencil sketch. “I thought if it was me, I wouldn’t just want a picture of some bike. I’d want to show what the rider was seeing.”

The final design shows the view from the motorcycle’s seat, looking out to a highway heading into the horizon. When the man’s widow got the sketch for approval, “She said ‘That’s him,’” Pugliese said. “‘That’s exactly who he was.’”

Once wording and art is decided, the artist begins the design, on paper and then computer. The company’s system translates the final work to a rubberized stencil — a far cry from the steel letter days and an “evolution in the business,” eliminating the need to do every painstaking square inch by hand — which is then adhered to the stone, he said.

Once the stone — weighing more than 100 pounds and way up — is hoisted into the blasting booth, special sand sprays away anything not covered by the stencil, taking the polish off the granite. Pugliese and fellow employee Virgil Badgett employ a pencil nozzle attachment to further carve away the rock, forming everything from life-like roses to doves flying to heaven.

Layer by layer, sandblasting will reveal the stone’s character, allowing a mountain range to be outlined against a lighter sky, for example. “Different grits of sand will create different tones,” Pugliese explained.

Other tools, such as paint and a coating of highlighter, will add instant contrast to the lettering. In yesteryear, that job fell to Mother Nature, the cutouts appearing as the stone aged, he said. Today, “people want that contrast now.”

Yet is it his hope that the people left with the final honor of memorializing a life will approach the process as slowly as they desire, he said. “People should come in at their own personal speed. I say, ‘Let time heal you a little bit because it will make some things more clear. You will know what you want.’”

Sheila Hagar can be reached at sheilahagar@wwub.com or 526-8322.

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