Wife’s tombstone, a labor of love

Cemeteries contain a lot of history. Jim and Marie Wisnewski have visited lots of cemeteries over the years, finding them fascinating for a number of reasons. Their own relatives repose in Holy Cross and Resurrection cemeteries in Grand Rapids, as well as Holy Trinity, Alpine and in Grand Ledge, Dorr and Lowell. They have also visited burial places around the country and in foreign lands.

They were respectful of the Native American burial grounds out west and in Alaska. They placed flowers in a small, very neat cemetery tucked behind a Polish village church. They prayed over the burial vault of Pope John Paul II in the Vatican. They set stones on the above ground crypts in Jerusalem. Walking among the rows of crosses in Normandy was a sobering, yet patriotic experience for them. Praying before the eternal flame at president John F. Kennedy’s grave in Arlington, brought memories of where they were and what they were doing as a young married couple on November 22, 1962 when they heard the news of their beloved president’s assassination.

A number of years ago, visiting one of the oldest cemeteries in Grand Rapids, the two of them came upon the monument for John Ball. It is a huge stone with BALL cut into it. It was there Marie said, “I like it! I would like a natural rock or stone for my grave. Not something all polished and shiny.”

After 53 years of marriage, Marie died suddenly on April 18, 2017 of an aneurysm and her husband Jim was determined to make her wish come true. The search for the perfect rock started here but ended 1,600 miles away in Saskatchewan, Canada. Their youngest son, Tom, was on spring bear hunting during the first week of May and started searching for a rock. Soon, his buddies and their guide were helping as well as the people in the next camp. They all wanted to help him find the best rock for his mom. After a couple of days searching and hunting, he found the perfect rock and also bagged a 275 pound black bear with bow and arrow. The bear was skinned and put in a cooler, but it took five guys to get the rock into the back of the truck.

They were a bit apprehensive about crossing the border with a boulder sticking up behind the cab of his pickup, but border patrol was more interested in seeing the bear than checking out the rock. Apparently, Canada has plenty of rocks to spare. After thirty hours of driving, the rock made it to Belmont and was offloaded and leaned against a tree. After a good power washing it looked beautiful.

This rock is quartzite, which is a metamorphosed recrystallized sandstone. Quartzite is very hard and tough, one of the toughest rocks there is. Monument companies choose marble or granite because of the even composition of the rock and can use power tools to cut into the rock. Because this rock is uneven in texture and hardness, it had to be done by hand. Using a drill and Dremel tool with diamond cutting tips, Jim painstakingly cut into the rock, compensating for the surface irregularities.

His son, Jim, was able to cut the bottom off evenly, with a concrete  saw from his work at a paving company. For the area with the dates, he consulted with Mark Bivins of Creative Concepts in Rockford and came up with separate plaques, so when his own time came, his children would only have to purchase a separate one with his date. The picture plate is ceramic and came from Patten Monument in Comstock Park. The hardest part was trying to drill holes to mount the plates. Regular concrete drills wore out, expensive diamond tipped ones had to be used, slowly and painstakingly burrowing into the rock.

A base for the stone was constructed utilizing 660 pounds of Redimix concrete with rebars projected up to receive the stone. Finally, with the help of a tractor with a lift, and lots of muscle power from their eight children, the stone was set into place.

Jim has created sculptures and paintings for Artprize, these last few years but instead of having the artwork displayed in downtown Grand Rapids this year, it is in the cemetery across from Assumption BVM church in downtown Belmont. This summer, his artwork was a labor of love for his wife, Marie.