NEWPORT, R.I. (AP) – John Larkum leans over a slab of slate, striking his metal chisel with a brass-capped mallet. Tinny pings ring out as he sinks his tool into the soft, inky stone, then blows away the fine dust.

Larkum’s work is part of a painstaking process at the John Stevens Shop to create lasting tributes to lives well-lived – hand-crafted tombstones and memorials that can cost thousands of dollars. Even in a recession, some customers are shirking mass-produced markers for themselves or family members in favor of intricate, hand-carved headstones they believe offer a more elegant final resting place – and a more inviting spot to visit.

“It’s not a time in your life when you’re looking to negotiate nickels and dimes,” said John Sullivan, a 52-year-old attorney who bought a hand-carved tombstone after learning his father had terminal bladder cancer last year.

Sullivan sold his dad’s used 1997 Mercedes Benz and put the $5,000 aside for a white marble tombstone with a Celtic cross that he ordered from a Vermont craftsman.

While a few hand-carved slabs sell for less than $1,000, most start at $3,500 and can cost tens of thousands of dollars, depending on the artist, the size of the memorial, the stone, the amount of decorative work and the extent of the inscriptions.

Mainstream memorial companies have their share of clients who want special designs or upper-crust customers who spend millions on family mausoleums. But the hand-carvers are a special breed of tombstone craftsmen.

In the United States, a dozen or fewer remain. Most are concentrated in New England, though a couple cluster around granite-rich Elberton, Ga., and a few others are in western and mid-western states.

“It is a little shop dedicated to the perfection of a very specific craft,” said Nick Benson, a third-generation carver and owner of The John Stevens shop, which has weathered each of the nation’s financial downturns since opening in 1705. “I’m not really relying on mass sales in order to keep the place going.”

The industry trade group, Monument Builders of North America, does not track sales of grave markers and memorials, and a spokesman said the hand-carving craftsmen are too few in numbers to track.

Many supplement their business with large-scale architectural projects that enable them to stay afloat even if one or two clients cancel orders for grave markers.

Benson’s architectural projects have included designing and carving all lettering for the national World War II Memorial in Washington, D.C. His father created letterforms for the John F. Kennedy Memorial at Arlington Cemetery and the National Gallery of Art.

It’s that kind of artistry and refinement that clients say they can’t find at mainstream memorial dealers.

Karin Sprague, who can charge $50,000 for tombstones with extensive carving at her shop in Scituate, R.I., said her ultimate goal is to forge a client’s grief into a fitting remembrance.

She spent six hours in her first face-to-face meeting with 40-year-old Jackie Finken, whose husband, Lt. Col. Paul Finken, was killed in November 2006 by a roadside bomb in Baghdad while deployed with the U.S. Army to train Iraqi troops.

Paul Finken’s slate marker, placed in Earling, Iowa, in early November, is carved with two hands clasped together and suspended in air. The words “Honorable, Humorous, Loving, UNFORGETTABLE” are on one side.

Hidden on the marker are three tiny carved sunflower seeds, one for each of the couple’s young daughters.

“She wrapped her arms around us and walked us through a year of grief,” Finken said of Sprague. “And we’re left with this beautiful, beautiful piece of artwork that I think symbolizes him well.”

For that, she said, price never even entered into the equation. She has not revealed to anyone how much the tombstone cost.

“I can’t put a price tag on my husband,” she said. “One way to look at it is, it’s a lifetime of birthdays and Christmases and things we’ll never have together. It was my last gift to my husband, and I wanted it done right.”

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