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Stonemason creates tombstone for author Philip Roth

August 13, 2018 GMT

GOSHEN, Conn. (AP) — Russ Murdock sits in his workshop, chiseling letters onto a large craggy boulder.

The words read “Philip Roth 1933 2018.”

Murdock is creating the gravestone for the noted award-winning American author who died in May. While a somber undertaking, Murdock is pleased he was asked by the man who penned such classics as “Goodbye Columbus” and “Portnoy’s Complaint” to perform the final task.

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The two met in 1999 when Roth called Murdock to build some stone walls on his land in Warren. “I was astonished when I realized who I was talking to,” said Murdock, who is a voracious reader and had read several of Roth’s books. “I never realized he lived close by.” That encounter led to the stonemason becoming the caretaker of the property and the two becoming friends.

About 10 years ago, Roth approached him, asking, “Would you have any objection to doing my tombstone?” He appeared to have developed an obsession about dying, Murdock said, agreeing to the request. It’s the first he’s ever done.

Roth wanted the stone to be fashioned after the gravestone for French philosopher, writer and journalist Albert Camus, which was a simple epitaph on a boulder. Murdock has a photo of that stone beside him as he works.

“Roth was adamant that he wanted only the name and two dates on his,” Murdock said.

Roth also wanted a rock found on his property to be used.

“The house was more important to him than his Manhattan apartment. The studio there was where he did all his writing,” Murdock said. “Unfortunately, we never did decide on which stone before he died, so two of his friends and I walked the land and chose this one.”

Murdock began creating the gravestone on June 14, just weeks after Roth’s death on May 22. “It’s been more difficult than I thought it would be because of the various minerals, like quartz, iron and others that are in the stone,” he said. “The density is different in different areas.”

Keeping with a more informal approach to the project, Murdock didn’t use a straight-lined Roman design. “I wanted it to look like I dipped my finger in black paint to make the letters.” He described how he used black electrical tape to lay out the lettering to achieve precise spacing. Without utilizing any power tools, he continues to gingerly carve out particles of stone from the letters with the chisel and hammer, causing soft flakes of dust to accumulate. He said he loves the sound of the chisel hitting the stone.

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While the tombstone is nearly complete, he acknowledged, “It’s like a painting. You never know when it’s done. But at some point you have to stop.”

Murdock, who was very impressed with Roth’s talent and the following and impact he had all over the world, said he was a very funny man and a good friend. The dark humor found in his books could also be found in the man.

He would often come to dinner and was a guest at Russ and Wendy Murdock’s annual pig roast. He was down-to-earth and some guests didn’t even realize who they were talking to, Murdock said, adding he could be invisible in plain sight.

“Often when I sit here, I think about what is a guy like me doing a tombstone for a guy like that? It’s very humbling and sad. I enjoy doing what I’m doing, but not the reason I’m doing it.”

When done, the stone will be placed on Roth’s grave at a private site in upstate New York.

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Online: https://bit.ly/2MLouuh

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Information from: Republican-American, http://www.rep-am.com