KUALA SELANGOR: Kuah Leong Chuan has been making headstones for 40 years, but for the past decade, his clients have mostly been Muslims.
The 63-year-old, who comes from a family of carvers, can even carve onto headstones in Jawi (an Arabic alphabet or writing system used for Malay or related languages).
“I learned to write in Jawi from my customers,” Kuah told Bernama when met here, recently.
Kuah is a fifth-generation carver. His ancestors had migrated from China in the late 1800s to trade. As carvers, they used their skills to carve statues of Buddha and at Buddhist places of worship.
A family trade
Kuah learned the technique of carving on headstones from his late father. He was in his early 20s at the time. During his 40 years in the trade, he has carved on headstones for the Chinese and Indians as well.
However, demands from non-Muslim customers have dwindled over the years as many of such services have been taken over by burial homes.
He has a makeshift ‘workshop’ under a tree in an old town in Kuala Selangor, near Bukit Melawati. This is where he goes to cut down the granite-like slabs collected to make headstones.
The slabs are obtained from a dense thicket near the workshop. Kuah lives not far away from the location and cycles from his home to the workshop daily, working from 8am to 6pm.
Unlike many other headstone carvers who use machines to carve onto headstones, Kuah engraves on granite by hand – a skill that is quite a rarity these days.
Making a headstone
The first process of making a headstone involves cutting the granite-like slabs that he had collected.
“There is a particular method to chiselling down rocks, just like there is a method to opening a durian,” he said.
The slabs are cut using a diamond-tip chisel and measured into the sizes requested by customers. If the customer requests it, the stones would then be engraved on and polished.
The next process involves carving down the requested information onto the headstone in Jawi.
This work is done in another workshop and could take up an hour per headstone. Kuah is a detail-oriented person and as such, prefers to do things by hand instead of relying on a machine.
A small headstone measuring two feet could take three days to complete while larger ones could take up to three weeks. The prices range from RM150 to RM700.
His customers are from all over Malaysia. He says that Indonesian workers in the country have also employed his headstone-making services.
Interestingly, Kuah is wary of the do’s and don’ts of writing on a Muslim gravestone. He knows that Quranic verses should not be carved onto them as there was a possibility that visitors to gravesites might step across them or even sit on them. He therefore refuses to entertain such requests.
Families of the deceased have also asked him to carve the word bismillah (in the name of Allah) onto headstones but Kuah firmly rejects their requests as he does not want to bear any blame for committing a disrespectful act in the future.
“Furthermore, your religion (Islam) says that headstones are just to mark the grave and should not be anything fancy,” he told this writer, revealing the depth of his knowledge on the matter.
He says that granite headstones tend to remain firmly in the soil due to its rough surface.
Limestone headstones, on the other hand, could easily topple over due to its smooth surface.
Kuah is possibly the last of granite headstone carvers in Malaysia to engrave by hand.
“Youths today prefer to sit in air-conditioned shops and watch television shows,” he said, when asked if anyone would be taking over his business when the time comes. However, he adds, he is open to taking on apprentices. — Bernama