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Where the gravestones are works of art

Vt. cemetery like a 'museum'

BARRE, Vt. -- For almost 70 years, a grieving wife has been staring into the eyes of her dying husband.

Not far away, a couple sit in bed, holding hands. A labor activist prepares to stand to rouse a crowd. A bored angel, chin resting in her hand, seems to watch people go by.

In Hope Cemetery, gravestones are more than simple markers. They are stock cars and soccer balls, airplanes and chairs, giant letters, and broken flowers symbolizing lives lost.

This is more than a final resting place for the dead. It's an art exhibit for the living, where granite industry artisans showcase their talent in memorials so dramatic that the city offers guided tours.

"That's the thing with the cemetery -- there are so many of these stones that qualify not just as memorials, but as sculptures, and that's why I kind of think of this as a huge outdoor museum," said Shelley Ibey, who works for the Barre cemetery department.

For more than a century, sculptors who come to Barre to carve the gray granite buried under the surrounding hills have channeled their talents into creations that commemorate their friends, relatives, customers, and -- sometimes -- themselves.

But an increasing reliance on cremation is reducing demand for cemetery lots and traditional headstones, and it's getting harder and harder for Barre to meet the expenses of maintaining the 65-acre Hope Cemetery and two other cemeteries .

Two years ago, as a way to raise extra money, Ibey started giving tours of the cemetery. Sometimes, she takes people through on buses. Sometimes, she walks smaller groups through, offering an oral history of the granite industry, the last century, and the lives of the people interred .

The cemetery is still selling lots and, with only a few basic rules, people can have whatever they want erected above their final resting place: The monuments have to be Barre gray granite, no photographs can be etched onto the stones, and the monuments have to fit the plot.

Photographs can't be etched because they fade. But images can be sand-blasted or carved into stone, and they frequently are.

For carvers, Hope Cemetery jobs are an opportunity to show off.

"Everybody gets excited when you get something that's not a cookie-cutter design," said Judee Chatot, president of North Barre Granite. "The only limitation that I have, or that a consumer has, is a consumer's imagination. We'll always find a way to do anything anybody wants."

Hope Cemetery also serves as a showroom. About 75 percent of the monuments are designed by the people who will one day rest beneath them, Ibey said.

"It's one thing to show a picture of something, but to be able to actually show what this is going to look like when it's all put together is definitely a huge boon for the different sheds," or buildings where the granite is carved, Ibey said.

One of the most famous monuments is of Louis Brusa, a local sculptor who died at age 51 in 1937 of silicosis caused by the granite dust he inhaled. Before his death, he pushed for requirements that granite sheds install a ventilation system to cut down on the dust.

A year before he died, he succeeded.

In secret, Brusa carved the monument that shows his concerned wife holding him as his lungs fail.

"No one had seen it until after he died," Ibey said. "It's a memorial to him, certainly, but I think his intent was also that it would be a memorial to all the granite sculptors and the incredible talent that was lost at such young ages."

Nearby is the monument to Elia Corti, a socialist labor activist gunned down in a Barre union hall in 1903. The life-size monument makes it appear that Corti is emerging from a solid block of granite -- a style called "rock pitch" -- the tools of a sculptor's trade piled at his feet among palm fronds and roses.

"It looks just like him. I've seen pictures of him," Ibey said. "I can only imagine the talent and the ability to be able to do this."

Hope Cemetery is for the rich and poor.

Basic headstones cost about $2,000. More elaborate ones are in the $20,000 to $30,000 range, Ibey said.

Tucked at the back of the cemetery is an angel, carved in the 1920s, in an uncelestial pose: Her legs crossed, she leans forward, one arm resting on her thigh, her trumpet a kilter in her lap. Some say she looks bored, others call her the "thinking angel."

Ibey says she has her own personality:

"One of the guys who works here insists her expression changes as he drives back and forth on his mower."