LIANE HANSEN, host:

This is Weekend Edition from NPR News. I'm Liane Hansen. It's not news that digital forms of communication are replacing hand-written letters and diaries with text messages and Facebook entries. Even the ancient art of carving an epitaph on a gravestone is not sacred. Stone carvers say they're losing business because of rising cremation rates, and their work is being replicated by computer graphics. Reporter April Dembosky visited with a veteran stone carver to talk about his trade's precarious future.

APRIL DEMBOSKY: Sprinklers rotate as twilight falls over Holy Cross Cemetery in Colma, California. A gaggle of geese forage for dinner in the damp grass, waddling through row after row of gravestones.

Mr. TOM DIETRICH (Veteran Stone Carver): There are more people buried in Colma than in any other place in the world. There are millions of people buried here. Literally, millions of people.

DEMBOSKY: Which means millions of gravestones.

Mr. DIETRICH: My name's Tom Dietrich, and I'm what's known in the trade as a stone figure carver.

DEMBOSKY: Dietrich is a tall, gentle man with very grey hair and very dusty clothes. To him, stone carving is like blacksmithing, and age old blue-collar trade that takes decades to master.

Mr. DIETRICH: In old times, every monument shop had a load of apprentices.

DEMBOSKY: Dietrich learned his craft in South Tipperary, Ireland from a master who started out as an apprentice. His name was Shamus Murphy.

Mr. DIETRICH: And he had to do all this grunt work, and sucked dust and, you know, work real hard on these things, and run errands. And you know, it wasn't getting a cup of coffee. It wasn't getting a pint for the lads at lunchtime.

DEMBOSKY: Those days are long gone.

Mr. DIETRICH: We don't have apprentices here. We can't afford them. With workman's comp, and SDI, and all that, it's - there's no way you could have apprentices.

DEMBOSKY: Instead, there are machines.

Mr. DIETRICH: OK. So this is a sandblast room. What it does, it takes a certain kind of silicon sand, air compressed, and you see, the big one we have, you know, powers it through this nozzle, and it's so tough. It'll eat away at the pattern we've designed there. That dust then is filtered in through here, you know, and taken out of the room.

DEMBOSKY: The sandblaster drills the stone in the shape of the rubber stencils Dietrich draws and cuts by hand. He moves to smaller tools for the detail work.

Mr. DIETRICH: It's hand-carved with a mallet and a chisel. Some of it is done with very sophisticated diamond tools.

(Soundbite of drilling)

DEMBOSKY: Hand carving is the one thing that still distinguishes Dietrich's work from other companies. Today, most monument makers rely on computer designs. They scan old images or a photograph on to the stone. And an electric laser traces the outline into the granite. The final images are shallow and fade after a few years.

Mr. DIETRICH: It's not real work anymore. You could actually buy a computer package and be on your merry way producing monuments.

DEMBOSKY: Many gravestones today are adorned with these computer-generated images. The Virgin Mary, Chinese dragons, fishermen, and hot rods are all laser etched to perfection. Dietrich believes he could be the last generation of carvers.

Mr. DIETRICH: You'll probably see this - this particular trade will be carried on in the world in China.

DEMBOSKY: Wait a minute, China?

Mr. DIETRICH: Beautiful carving there, just absolutely exquisite. And they, too, you can just, you know, send them a photocopy and pictures of what you want, and they'll, you know, they'll carve and Irish cross for you, and do a hell of a job, too. ..TEXT: DEMBOSKY: Still, he believes in China, machines will also take over from skilled hands, and he worries the art will fade into history. For NPR News, I'm April Dembosky.

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