Art of tombstone making

The Chronicle

Stanford Chiwanga
HE handles the rotary diamond saw like the pro that he is and cuts the huge granite slab before him into smaller slabs.

Then he takes one of the smaller slabs and polishes it to a smooth, glossy finish. But he is not done yet, he makes a vertical cut through the polished stone and fashions it into the appropriate shape using a chisel and a hammer.

Again, he polishes the surfaces of the stone using an automated polishing machine. To make intricate shapes, he adjusts the diamond wire saw, etches shapes into the headstone.

The headstone is ready for finishing — so he chisels the outer edges of the stone by hand, giving a more defined, personal shape.

With that done, he starts engraving the stone using the sandblasting technique.

Again, he polishes the stone and closely inspects it. With a smile of satisfaction on his face, he approves the works of his hands. But he is not done yet — he has a relook — a final inspection. Carefully he examines the stone, he takes his time, but finally he nods his head — a sign that he is satisfied.

With that done, he instructs his driver to transport the tombstone to the customer.

Welcome to the world of Mr Jeffrey Nyevhe, a man who puts food on the table for his family by manufacturing gravestones in Bulawayo’s Thorngrove industrial area.

Mr Nyevhe has been in the tombstone industry for 14 years — thanks to his late father, Fibion Nyevhe, who began teaching him the art in 2006.

14 years later, the apprentice is now the master of his art.

“I owe this skill to my father. He was tough on me and I am the man I am today because of him. Not that he wanted me to make tombstones but if it’s in you, it’s in you,” he said.

Some of the finished products at the company

That unwavering tough love has seen Northern Granites, the company that the late Mr Nyevhe founded in 1999, thriving even after his departure.

Northern Granites not only manufactures granite tombstones, it also makes granite floors, countertops, kitchen tops, window seals and does graveyard maintenance.

But there is no doubt that headstone making is the cornerstone of the company. However, making granite tombstones is not an easy art — it requires skill to carve by hand.

Modern methods of carving include using computer-controlled rotary bits and sandblasting over a rubber stencil. Leaving the letters, numbers and emblems exposed on the stone, the blaster can create virtually any kind of artwork or epitaph.

And Mr Nyevhe is a brilliant artist when a granite stone is placed before him.

“Tombstones are for the living to see their dead relatives in beautiful graves and it is my duty to ensure that we honour our departed loved ones with beautiful stones. No one wants to visit an unmarked grave or a grave that is not decorated. It’s an insult to the dead. It also allows the living to heal,” he said.

History and practice agree with Mr Nyevhe — a tombstone is a stele or marker that is placed over a grave. It is traditional for burials in the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religions, among others.

In most cases, it has the deceased’s name, date of birth, and date of death inscribed on it, along with a personal message, or prayer, but may contain pieces of funerary art, especially details in stone relief.

Originally, a tombstone was the stone lid of a stone coffin, or the coffin itself, and a gravestone was the stone slab that was laid over a grave. Now, all three terms are also used for markers placed at the head of the grave. Some graves in the 18th century also contained footstones to demarcate the foot end of the grave.

This sometimes developed into full kerb sets that marked the whole perimeter of the grave. Footstones were rarely annotated with more than the deceased’s initials and year of death, and sometimes a memorial mason and plot reference number.

Gravestones are a focus for mourning and remembrance. Since tombstones and a plot in a cemetery cost money, they are also a symbol of wealth or prominence in a community. Some headstones were even commissioned and erected to their own memory by people who were still living, as a testament to their wealth and status.

In a Christian context, the very wealthy often erected elaborate memorials within churches rather than having simply external tombstones. Crematoria frequently offer similar alternatives to families who do not have a grave to mark, but who want a focus for their mourning and for remembrance.

Carved or cast commemorative plaques inside the crematorium for example may serve this purpose. Now, according to Mr Nyevhe, tombstones are a source of comfort and a way that mourners manage grief and remember the dead.

He said: “People want beautiful tombstones as a way to commemorate their loved ones. Tombstones convey a message to the bereaved and display the desire of loved ones to honour the dead. The decorations that we do functions to serve the living, it is not for the dead because the dead know nothing.”

Article Source: The Chronicle

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