Sigrid Herr thinks a lot about death — and that's a good thing.
The Oakland mother and artist makes hand-sculpted grave markers, something rather rare in an industry in which memorials are mass-produced with generic messages. Herr realized this in 2008 when she couldn't find an appropriate marker for her mother-in-law, a woman who was dear to her heart.
"Everything we saw was very bland. Nothing seemed to be beautiful enough for her," said Herr. So she sketched out a design and started sculpting. The process, she found, turned into a spiritual journey.
"By celebrating life with art," Herr said, "we honor our loved ones and provide a lasting thing of beauty to comfort and welcome us every time we visit the grave."
Herr calls her business The Art of Remembering, and the name describes the process perfectly. Her creations begin with the discovery process, learning about the person to be memorialized. "I try to get to know the person, who they were, what position they had in the family, what they loved."
Then she sketches out a design, checking first with the cemetery for any restrictions. From there, Herr sculpts the marker in clay and takes it to Artworks Foundry in Berkeley where they make a mold and cast a wax positive before casting in bronze. The last step is applying a beautiful patina.
For many people, picking a memorial is something they do for a loved one who has already died. But in the case of Herr's
"Mom ended up finding a quote that said 'Loving somebody means being willing to get old together,' " said Herr. "That was their marriage. She took care of him for seven years during his illness."
In a sunny corner of Herr's Oakland home, she sits quietly at her drawing board. Her studio is a showroom of markers she's made for family and friends, as well as the beginnings of some newly-ordered memorials and a plaque for a reading room. A book nearby details some of her designs — borders featuring everything from delicate florals to strong geometrics and a variety of custom finishes. Her goal is to make the process of choosing a memorial as painless as possible; realizing that death often reminds us of our own mortality.
"It has significance for me because I'm getting older and I think about how I want to be remembered," said Herr, who is 59. " Usually we are so removed. We don't want to go there."