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Set in stone: Headstone carving business in the Martin blood

By Josh Lintereur, Skagit Valley Herald
July 7, 2007

MOUNT VERNON — Lucy Martin was supposed to be a medical assistant — at least that’s what her college degree implies.

But so often the careers that people wind up with aren’t anticipated or planned out in advance.

So it was for Lucy Martin, who’s never worked a day as a medical assistant. Instead, the 27-year-old spends several days a week inside an old tool-cluttered workshop surrounded by fields of potatoes and corn.

Inside she dons a full-body canvas suit, orange hood and face mask meant to protect her as she sandblasts thick granite blocks into artfully rendered gravestones.

Some bear a cross, others a rose. One even depicts a man driving a semi-truck while boldly flashing his middle finger. In the end, each stone is intended to capture the personality of the individual whose name will be carved into the stone.

This isn’t the kind of work that Martin envisioned for herself. Then again, the same can be said of her father, Todd Martin, 54, who a little more than a decade ago started the business, Todd’s Monuments, through a misunderstanding.

At the time, Todd Martin had been running a side business cleaning headstones to supplement his job working for the state Department of Fish and Wildlife.

One day a woman called and asked him to make a headstone.

“I don’t make gravestones,” he told her. “I clean them.”

The woman paused, and asked how much he charged to create the monuments.

Again, he explained that he didn’t make gravestones.

She ignored him and repeated her question: How much would he need to carve one?

Before he knew it, he’d made his first sale in a business he knew absolutely nothing about.

“I figured God put this right in front of my face to do it, so I did,” he said. “The worst I could do is break some stones.”

With zero access to the tightly-held techniques used in the industry and  no training available, Todd Martin went about teaching himself the trade.

He carved his first 20 headstones by hand before eventually acquiring a sandblaster. Through word of mouth, his business grew. Over the years, he’s made about 150 headstones.

Lucy Martin always figured that carving gravestones was just another one of her dad’s numerous hobbies.

At the family’s home just south of Mount Vernon, her father maintains  three distinct workshops: the car shop, where he restores and tinkers with old Subaru automobiles; the woodshop, where he canes antique chairs and the stone shop, where he sandblasts gravestones.

Shortly after retiring from his state job earlier this year, Todd Martin approached his daughter about running the headstone business. She’d never considered it — never even seen him carve one.

“I was never like, ‘Hey, let’s go to the cemetery and install a headstone,’” she joked.

Showing the same spontaneity and trust in her own intuition that led her father to start the business in the first place, she agreed.

“I never envisioned doing it,” she said. “But as soon as he asked me, I  knew I was going to.”

During the past few months, father and daughter have worked side-by-side as Lucy learns the trade, which involves cutting granite by blasting sand-like abrasive material into stone.

In a way, engraving the stone is the easy part.

The hardest and most emotional step remains choosing a design, a part of the process that conjures memories of the deceased and often leaves both carver and client in tears.

The business has succeeded, thanks to the shop’s decidedly unstuffy pastoral setting in South Mount Vernon, where birds in nearby trees drown out the din of nearby Interstate 5.

The Martins’ laid-back demeanor helps, too.

“Look at you,” a client once told Todd Martin, who often wears overalls and sports a long beard. “I’m sick of suits and ties. I’m sick of mortuaries.”

Understandably, Todd Martin pointed out, even the most satisfied customers leave hoping they don’t return for a long time.

Lucy Martin still finds herself adjusting to her newfound job. She  shares in the double-take reaction she gets from people when they ask her where she works.

“I tell them that I sandblast gravestones, and they say, ‘You do what?’” she said.

But gravestone carving has become the first job that has Martin comfortable with settling down.

Several years ago when she came home from Everett Community College with her medical assistant degree in hand, she hopped a jet to Europe and returned with little desire to work in her chosen field.

“I said, I’m never getting a real job, ever,” she said.

She’d recently worked in advertising for several different publications in Bellingham, where she lives, and couldn’t shake a nagging sense of wanderlust.

“I don’t like being tied down,” she said. “I was going to split town.”

But suddenly that’s changed.

Having lost several close friends in recent years, the emotional experience of creating monuments for people who’ve also lost loved ones has helped in her own healing process. She feels she’s settling down for the long haul.

“I never envisioned doing this,” she said. “But I feel blessed and have no regrets.”