The Coldest Chisel

Stonemason John Edstein is exactly the kind of guy you want carving your tombstone. Nic Stone tells us why.


There is a little piece of John Edstein in most of the cemeteries up the east coast of New South Wales. John's a stonemason - a craftsman and arguably an artist too, who takes his raw materials from the earth and turns them into everything from altars and headstones to kitchens.

As you approach his neatly manicured house, you can see his work everywhere: the sandstone garden trimmings, the granite bench tops. No headstones though. When he lets me in, I ask him about the fine stonework surrounding us. “Oh, they're just off-cuts,” he says, glancing at the garden. Pretty good for off-cuts.

Like many people in possession of skills that are getting rarer, John laments the loss of traditional trades. He's the third generation in his family to cut stone since his grandfather started a business in Raymond Terrace in the Hunter Valley in 1896. In those days, stonemasonry was an industry that relied less on complex machinery than upon the skill of the individual mason. Bullock and dray were used to cart stones across the country, and only small, hand-held tools were used to carve epitaphs.

“The quality of tradesmen in those days was far better. Everything was tailor-made, painstakingly done,” John says, adding that what you lost in terms of speed, you gained in care and artistry. For John, working on gravestones used to be “more like an art-form” than it commonly is now.

The hand-crafted, carefully shaped headstone has given way to mass-produced, sand-blasted memorial, and John feels the drop in quality of much of his industry keenly.

The use of photo tiles as portraits of the deceased has also taken over a lot of the more artistic work, and shifted the emphasis away from the hand-crafted element that John appreciates so much. But even so, the new technology doesn't have it all its own way, and there are still some jobs you can't use it for. The tiles will only work with certain photos, and copyright rules sometimes prevent John from putting pictures of particular cars and motorbikes on headstones. “There's lot of bureaucracy even in the gravestone world,” he says.

John's had all types of requests - there have been the funny ones, clever ones, weird ones and sad ones. John is usually producing stones for people left behind, rather than at the request of the dead person. Some of the memorials reflect a way of life, like the scene John created for someone who loved the outdoors on a headstone of a man sitting under a gumtree, with an Akubra hat, work boots and a billy on the boil. “That's how they were remembered,” he says. Others are a bit quirkier, like the lady who loved cattle and got a cattle prod carved into her headstone.

Some people (but not many) do engage John's services while they're still alive, just to make sure they'll be memorialised the way the want.

One of John's customers was a man originally from Italy, a country where large and ornate crypts are a popular choice if you can afford it, rather than simple headstones. This customer had lost contact with his family so he decided to supervise the job himself - a proper crypt at Tuncurry cemetery. It was an unusual situation for John - because most people don't get their stone done before they're dead, it's a profession without a lot of customer feedback. Luckily for John that bloke “seemed pretty happy”.

But it's not all gentle reminders of lives lived fully and ended well. As John puts it, “There's always some sad things.”

Sometimes people want this sadness reflected in the epitaphs John carves. He recalls the family of a young girl from Forster, who simply wanted the word “Murder” put on the headstone. The young girl had gone to Sydney to work, and had struck up a friendship with a man who ended up killing her.

Another young girl's family asked for John to carve “Brutally murdered” on her headstone. “They weren't pulling any punches,” he says. These stories aren't attractive, but John has a job to do. Being able to deal even with these jobs as a professional has helped him stay in the business.

And, approached with a level head, this is the fascinating part of his job. He is constantly surrounded by these tragedies and wants to help families as best he can. “You look at it as producing something that people want, and it will show your workmanship for years and years to come. If you do a crook job, it's there to haunt you.” And although he doesn't personally regard the artistic side of the work as a major form of self-expression, it does help make things interesting too. “It would drive me mad to work in a car assembly line,” he reckons.

An additional part of John's work is restoring some of the War Memorials around the country, and it's a job that has given him a keen interest in what they represent. “In some towns it's quite amazing - whole families we carved onto the memorials. Two or three from the one family that didn't return.” Being constantly aware of sacrifice and death has allowed him to connect with the people he works for in a way that allows them to be as comfortable as they can be.

That kind of sensitivity and respect is something that he sees diminishing within the funerary industry. In the past, families would approach John's company when the time was right, but now companies have started calling the families of those whose names have appeared in the obituaries.

“Originally people would approach you. Now it's become so Americanised that within a couple of weeks of a funeral some of these places are telemarketing. To me that shows no ethics,” says John. “I feel it's become, in some cases, a dirty business.”

But for the man who loves his work so much, there is one customer he wouldn't work for - himself. John shoots back a straight “No” when I ask if he would do his own gravestone. He adds, “I'd be very choosy who I got to do it though.”