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Grave Markers Used for Landscaping : He Gives Tombstones New Lease on Life

Times Staff Writer

Picking out the right tombstone for your front yard isn’t easy, Dix Roper has learned.

Especially when it’s a second-hand tombstone with someone else’s name on it.

The federal government dug up the first marker he planted.

The second one was removed at the request of the person whose name it bore.

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Roper, 46, a retired investment adviser, hopes that his third gravestone will be the charm.

“I think they are great for landscaping,” said Roper, sitting in his house in West Los Angeles the other day, under a lobster mounted on the kitchen wall.

“I don’t think tombstones have a gloomy mystique at all. And they’re easy to take care of. You don’t have to trim them or fertilize them or water them. They don’t rust, either.”

He admitted, however, that the world is not in complete unanimity with his position.

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“One guy walking by told me it was ‘ridiculous, impudent and unsuitable,’ ” Roper recalled. “I wrote that down so I wouldn’t forget it. A lady across the street said we were making a mockery of death.”

“But we have a 75-year-old neighbor up the street who thinks it’s very funny,” added Roper’s wife, Dee. “And our daughter and her friends like it too.”

Roper suspects that it may have been a fellow resident on Wellesley Avenue who tipped off federal authorities about his first tombstone.

“We bought it at a swap meet in Saugus for $30,” Roper said. “It was beautiful polished marble. But it was white, and that apparently means it’s a government marker. It was from the Spanish-American war. That was another reason we bought it--because it was very historical.

“Anyway, one day this car drives up, and a couple of FBI agents from over at the Federal Building (in West Los Angeles) get out. They called up on their radio and checked it (the tombstone) out. And then they had two workers come out and pick it up. They had a little trouble getting it into their truck. Tombstones are very heavy.”

Roper bought his second gravestone from an unlikely source, a sports car accessory shop in Santa Monica.

The shop owner’s wife runs a tombstone-ordering business on the side, and the store keeps samples on hand--stones that were rejected by customers because of errors etched into the granite.

Roper took a discarded stone home and placed it atop his vacant burial mound. But the original buyer, who had purchased it after his wife’s death, drove by a week later and saw it.

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“Someone must have told him about it,” Roper said. “I mean, what’s the likelihood he’s going to drive by? But he was real nice. He said, ‘That’s my gravestone.’ So we took it back (to the sports car shop) and traded it in for another one.”

Roper confessed that one of the reasons he’s displaying a tombstone is to see how people will react.

Not Like in a Movie

“A lot of cars stop in the middle of the street to look at it,” Dee said. “The other day a guy stopped while I was digging around the base with a shovel. I was just sort of neatening things up. You know, it isn’t like in a movie where you see someone quietly digging in the middle of the night. You can’t dig quietly around a tombstone.

“Of course,” Roper added, “we can do this here because California is known for being bizarre. We probably wouldn’t be as comfortable doing it in the South . . . or Midwest or Northeast or anywhere else.”

At one point during the Ropers’ conversation, the mailman arrived at their door. “You didn’t step on my grave, did you?” Roper asked.

“No,” the mailman said with a smile. Turning toward the marker, he asked, “Who’s in there?”

“No one,” Roper said. “We have an opening.”

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