Volume XIX, Number 18
July 22 - 29, 1993

By Bill Kirk

What do you want on your tombstone? If you could write your own epitaph and pick your own grave marker, what would you say and in what language? What color would your monument be and how large?

These are the very questions that the owners of the Ruhkala Monument Company ask of their clients every day. And in their workshop at 10th Street and Broadway, they have been sandblasting and polishing 300 - 400 monuments and markers for Sacramento's late, lamented residents every year for the past 40 years.

In business since 1953, the company's roots go back to the Rocklin stone quarries in the early 1890s when monuments and markers were still known as tombstones and when a hand-chiseled name in granite was frequently the sum total of a person's life and times.

"Fundamentally, although the processes have changed to keep pace with modern technology, we are still in the business of providing memories of a person's passing," says Royce Ann Ruhkala Burks, the daughter of company founder, Roy Ruhkala.

She notes that their busiest times are around the Christmas and Memorial Day holidays "when families gather, taking time to remember the passing of relatives and friends."

During our visit at her Broadway office, Burks invites us into the adjacent production building where her two employees, Cindy Rains and Jorge Tostado, are surrounded with the clutter of their labors in various stages of completion. Rains, who does almost all the specialized lettering and artwork, is busy at a slanted countertop which runs the length of both sides of the workroom. She is putting the finishing touches on a master drawing which will decorate someone's headstone.

Rains, who has been with the company for over seven years, says she has had to specialize her artwork in recent years. "Our monuments reflect a growing ethnic and religious diversity in our community," she says. "We now do Chinese characters and Hebrew script as well as Russian Orthodox lettering."

Even the most common lettering is painstakingly hand-drawn before the templates are precisely cut, again by hand. Burks notes, however, that when the artwork is completed, the client is asked to inspect and approve the lettering and art. "Nothing goes into final cutting unless the customer is satisfied with our artwork," says Burks. The templates are then applied to the pre-polished and unmarked granite surface, checked against the master drawing for accuracy, then sandblasted by Tostado.

While securely applying the ornate template design on the polished granite surface, Tostado explains that all of the old hand cutting and carving has been replaced by sand blasting. "We cover the granite with thick, hand-cut rubber templates. This both exposes the parts of the polished granite surface which we want to be cut and protects the surface areas which we don't want to cut," he says.

Next he rolls the granite slab into place; face up inside the sandblasting chamber, which is about five feet long, four feet high and three feet deep. Peering through a large glass viewing window in the side of the chamber, he carefully controls the blasting process inside by manipulating two hoses with nozzles through which the sand will pass under high pressure.

During the next 20 - 30 minutes, Tostado slowly and methodically directs the sand spray with a craftsman's precision as a fine layer of sand dust settles around his feet, coating everything in the immediate vicinity of the blaster.

Although the critical sand-blasting phase is completed in a matter of minutes, it is the culmination of several weeks of labor intensive effort. According to Burks, from the time an order is taken until the monument or marker is set in the ground usually takes six to eight weeks. "So we are constantly busy with some part of the production process for any number of projects," she says.

Besides the obvious differences in size between monuments and markers, what is it that sets them apart? According to Burks, it is the practical aspects of how each is set in the ground as well as cost that make the difference. "Markers are set level with the surface for ease of care and grass mowing," she tells us. Monuments, on the other hand, are upright, requiring more work to maintain the surrounding grass. They are often much more elaborately designed. So although a 12-inch by 24-inch marker with standard lettering and no artwork will cost between $300 and $350 plus a setting fee, a monument can cost from several hundreds to several thousands of dollars more.

How large a slab of granite can the Broadway shop handle? According to Burks, if the stone can fit into this sandblaster, her staff can handle the job here in town. "The larger pieces go to our Rocklin shop for sandblasting or we will include sandblasting as part of a special order directly from the originating quarry where the pieces are cut and polished," she said.

Although Burks told us that the company still uses granite from the Rocklin quarry, her family sold its quarry interests about ten years ago. Most of their granite these days actually comes from out of state or even from overseas. "We get North American Pink granite from Canada; Georgia Gray from Elberta, Georgia; Mountain Red from Texas and Blue Pearly from Norway," says Burks. For example, the granite used in the Vietnam Memorials, both in Sacramento and in Washington, D.C., is called Deep Black from India, a major supplier of monument granite.

Having already been in the business of making monuments and markers for four decades in Sacramento, the Ruhkala Monument Company is itself a well-known landmark in the river city. Its display models stand guard like silent sentries in the yard facing the city cemetery across the street, where Roy Ruhkala occasionally leads historic tours.

When asked about the prospects for the future, Burks remarks, "We will probably be in business as long as there are people and the granite to create memorials to their passing." She notes with considerable pride, for example, that the monument dedicated during the July 4 memorial service for B.T. Collins was produced by her Ruhkala operation in Sacramento. Clearly the future for this family of artisans appears rock solid.

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Copyright © 1993 by the Suttertown News and 2002-2015 by billkirkwrites. All rights reserved