A grave marker sits just finished at OM Stone in Hillsboro. Laser technology allows the color art to be infused into the stone, where it could last for centuries. (Courtesy OM Stone)
A grave marker sits just finished at OM Stone in Hillsboro. Laser technology allows the color art to be infused into the stone, where it could last for centuries. (Courtesy OM Stone)

For Catholics steeped in sacramental sensibility, a grave marker carries important meaning. The engraved stone not only celebrates a life but also links a person to the next life with images and words of faith.

Under each stone is a person; behind each stone is an artist.

For Catholic cemeteries from Seattle to San Francisco, most of those designers work for a family-owned company in Hillsboro. OM Stone, begun in 1911, has been a partner of Archdiocese of Portland cemeteries for more than 50 years, engraving names, Scripture quotes, images of saints and Jesus — evangelization in stone.

“The beautiful thing about the Catholic faith is that Catholics appreciate art,” said Tim Bronleewe, the owner of OM Stone. His grandfather and father were past owners.

“Symbols are important in Catholic life and can honor a life that was lived,” Bronleewe said. “Catholics don’t want just the name and dates. They like to tell what happened, what the person did and believed during life.”

Catholics frequently ask for images of Mary. Among Hispanic Catholics, Our Lady of Guadalupe is beloved. One OM Stone artist created a stunning panorama of the Vietnamese martyrs. Other popular images among Catholics include St. Michael the Archangel, the Sacred Heart of Jesus, the Ascension of the Lord, St. Francis and the crown of thorns. One family asked for an image of St. John Paul II.

Greg Gnos of OM Stone uses a sandblaster to apply a name and date to a slab of granite at Gethsemani Cemetery in Happy Valley in 2016. (Ed Langlois/Catholic Sentinel)

A relatively new process allows OM Stone artists to create durable color images. Ian Chambers, an OM graphic designer, describes the method as a tattoo for stone. Using lasers, the marker surface is burned so that it will absorb pigments. The vibrant colors can last for centuries.

Even the more standard process of engraving letters and numbers is high-tech now. Gone are the days of hammer and chisel. Artists create rubber stencils strong enough to stand up to sandblasting. The stencils are applied to the stone and sand blasts away at the openings, creating names and dates.

OM Stone artists — there are 10 on the team — once communicated with families through cemetery staff and funeral directors. During the pandemic, however, the artists have taken a more direct approach. Chambers has set up online meetings in which staff can share their screens and design the memorial while families watch and comment.

Chambers and the other artists get absorbed in the details of their craft, but now and then step back and realize the importance of what they do.

“I find a lot of joy in my work,” he said. “It is a sad time but it is a celebration of life.”