Headstone engravers struggle to keep up with demand

One morning in December, a crew of men unloaded 8,400 pounds of granite from Rock of Ages, a Vermont quarry, from a flatbed truck in the Bronx.

The seven slabs were 14 feet by 5 and 8 inches thick. At the end of the week, the workers of Domenick DeNigris Monuments and mausoleumsa facility over 40,000 square feet in Morris Park, would split them into smaller pieces using a 10-foot-tall contraption called the guillotine.

When the guillotine cuts through each slab with 300 tons of pressure, it feels like an SUV hitting a brick wall. Then the work becomes more delicate: each mini slab is chiseled, polished, stacked, labeled and finally stenciled and sanded, with a loving commemoration of a parent, grandparent, spouse, son or daughter.

This morning, dozens of piles of blank headstones were stacked 12 and more. Wire baskets on shelves in a nearby corner were overflowing with order forms and sketches for each custom design.

“We probably have over 800 orders, it’s so depressing,” said Don DeNigris, third-generation co-owner of the company, founded in 1905 by his grandfather. “We don’t even count them anymore. Mr DeNigris added that they were unlikely to complete all orders before the end of the year, explaining that demand had increased by “30 or 40 per cent” over the past two years.

The memorial industry has been extremely disrupted due to Covid-related demand, supply chain issues and labor shortages.

At DeNigris, the backlog was triggered in April 2020 when monument makers were closed for a few weeks because they were not originally considered “essential services”. A few weeks later, that changed when the New York State Monument Builders Association appealed the decision. But the stacking of orders had already begun.

Supply chain issues were exacerbated last fall when 3M announced it would no longer manufacture the spools of a rubber-based adhesive stencil capable of withstanding the force of sandblasting, which manufacturers depend on. monument companies. 3M attributed the decision to “very limited raw material availability, exponentially rising costs, and strategic business focus,” according to a letter sent to customers. In New York City, a center of monument production less than a century ago — where only a few struggling businesses remain, including only two full-service companies — that wasn’t good news.

“The biggest hit has been the rubber stencil, because you can’t do anything without it,” said Adam Sprung, fourth-generation owner of Sprung Monumentswhich opened in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 1905 and moved its manufacturing in North Lindenhurst, Long Island, in 1955. “We had enough that we never had to close, but it’s like your last drink, you sort of nurse it.”

Mr. Sprung and Mr. DeNigris have joined the industry-wide rush to find other sources of stencils. Smaller companies made them, but the supply was not as reliable. Some companies have decided to import stencil products from China, but this comes with its own drawbacks, such as shipping costs, transport delays and tariffs.

Back in the Bronx that December morning, Evan DeNigris, Mr. DeNigris’ nephew, was at his usual perch in the stencil room, a space separate from the industrial shop. But the door did little to drown out the tinkle of the workmen cutting the granite and the rumble of the guillotine. He was hunched over a gray slab, carefully picking up the Chinese characters for a tombstone from one of the wanted rubber sheets with an X-acto knife-like tool, preparing him for the blasting room.

With all the sculpting instruments, measuring tools and sketches, it looked like a sculptor’s workshop. “If the sand hits a little under the stencil, it will compromise the polish,” explained young DeNigris, showing how meticulously the figures must be cut.

Such a scene has become rare in the city, where there were once many small workshops and monument dealers, with a concentration on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Murray Silver, the former owner of Silver Monument Works, the last such business to leave the Lower East Side when it moved to Woodside, Queens, about eight years ago, said his business and d Other tombstone businesses served the neighborhood’s tall Jews. population. His father had started the business in the 1940s. “There were 18 or 19 dealers, it was like there was a candy store on every corner,” he said of the heyday of the industry in New York. “But the world is changing, little by little.”

In 2015, Memorial Granite, a manufacturing plant located a few blocks from Silver Monument Works in Queens, acquired it. Aside from DeNigris, Memorial is the only other company that manufactures its monuments in all five boroughs.

In Brooklyn and Staten Island, another company, Supreme Monuments, still has a presence, but mostly in the form of showrooms. From the 1950s through the mid-1990s, Supreme did its manufacturing at the Brooklyn site. Over time, however, rising rents, increasing urban density, and escalating truck fees in the city have posed challenges. For nearly 30 years, Supreme has outsourced its production to Rock of Ages, the Vermont quarry.

“We still have equipment and we can do urgent work on Staten Island, but we are focusing our resources on installing work and on-site lettering on cemetery memorials,” said fourth-generation co-owner Joe Cassara. . In addition to transportation and supply issues, he attributed the delays to staff being ill and the difficulty of finding new workers, many of whom have highly specialized skills. “Nowadays people are used to ordering something and it’s there the next day. You cannot do that with our product. It’s an old-world craft.

It is also a job that revolves around raw emotions. For people looking for closure, customer service requires a distinct sensibility.

“If you buy a Bentley for a quarter of a million dollars and they don’t have a part, you wait a year,” Mr. DeNigris said. “If someone has to wait a year to get a stone, it takes a lot of reassurance and conversation, consolation and education,” he continued. “Our hands are tied, that’s where we are. You have to explain it the right way. And it’s not a New York problem, it’s not a state problem. It’s a global problem.

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