Q&A: Ray Ballard

When your number is up, Ray Ballard makes sure it gets carved into stone. As the owner of Ray Ballard Services in Humboldt, Tennessee, Ballard travels to cemeteries throughout the Mid-South to "update" gravestones — carving the final death dates into markers that are already in place. And though his process has certain high-tech components, the real work is a nitty-gritty task.

What attracted you to such an unusual occupation?

Right out of high school in 1967, my girlfriend's daddy was doing this, and he said he needed somebody to help him. Being raised on a farm, I knew this was outside work, so I took it, and he showed me how it was done. I worked construction for a while, then started working for the fire department, but then this turned into a full-time job, and it's been pretty good to me. I stay busy.

How long have you been at it?

I've been doing this for 40 years now. I do most of the cemeteries in Shelby County — Elmwood, Calvary, Forest Hill, lots of others.

How do the various cemeteries give you the information?

They usually call or fax me an order, then I'll go to the cemetery and locate the grave. Normally, they will contact me within a month or so after someone has died, but I've done graves all the way back to the 1800s. People will be doing genealogy on their ancestors and will track down a gravestone and it may have everything on it but their day of death, and they want that added.

Tell us how the work is done

I've got a laptop computer in my truck that has my drawing and graphics program. Generally, just by looking at the gravestone, I'll know what font I need. If I don't, I have to scroll through some 2,400 different fonts and try to find something that matches. If it doesn't match, I can draw it by hand. I type that information in, then I have a printer that cuts out a rubber mat with an adhesive backing. I glue that to the stone, sandblast the letters out, and then peel the stencil off.

The actual carving is done by sandblasting?

Well, it's not actual sand. That raises too much dust, and people have gotten more concerned about lung disease. We use a mineral called Starblast, made by DuPont, that's a lot safer on your lungs, though I still have to wear a mask.

Most people probably think the gravestone is hauled back tot he mortuary company and re-carved.

No, that's not very productive because it would cost so much to pick it up, chisel it, and drop it back off. And most of the monument shops these days don't have an on-site shop anyway.

How many gravestones do you carve a day?

I generally do six or eight a day. I've had better days than that, but you've got to have long days, in the spring or summer, to do that.

How long does it take?

Just for the date of death, which is what I normally put on there, it only takes about 30 minutes once I locate it. But sometimes it can take me two hours to locate a grave. I drive more than I work — more than 50,000 miles a year.

What's the most unusual detail you've carved on a gravestone?

Well, I've carved lots of ornamental details — crosses and flowers and things. I've carved guitars on gravestones, and one time I added a Gila monster.

A what?

A Gila monster. A lizard. It was some boy's pet, and his family wanted it on the grave. They gave me a picture of it, and I made a sketch and carved it.

We guess you've learned a lot about stone in all these years

Yes. I can tell what kind it is just by looking at it. This one here [pointing to a nearby marker] is China granite. It has a lot of iron in it. I use a rubber mallet to make sure the stencil is stuck down before I start blasting, and when you hit China granite, it will ring like a bell. I'm serious. 

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