Families find longer wait times for grave monuments

How supply chain delays, increased demand and labor issues are affecting the business of death
Mario Badillo uses a detail knife as he prepares a stone to be engraved while working at The Engraving House in Lithonia, Thursday, October 7, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/ Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Mario Badillo uses a detail knife as he prepares a stone to be engraved while working at The Engraving House in Lithonia, Thursday, October 7, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/ Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

The last few months have been some of the hardest that Delois Hammett has experienced as manager of Hammett Vault & Monument Co. in Carrollton.

She is a firsthand witness to the toll that COVID-19 has had on Georgia families.

The company, started by her father, has supported grieving families for 49 years, first by digging graves and making burial vaults then expanding to installing monuments.

This year, though, she and others in the death care industry have faced a perfect storm.

The labor issues, equipment shortages and increased demand that have caused supply chain issues across industries from groceries stores to car manufacturers during the coronavirus pandemic, have also led to delays in families getting headstones for their loved ones.

Hammett had to tell families that the time it takes to get a marker in place could be as long as six months, nearly double from a year ago. In other places, families have been told it could be as long as a year.

“Oh God, I hate it when it’s late,” said Hammett, who took over operation of the business 10 year ago. “Everybody is behind. Some people think when you lay them to rest that’s it. No, you need to come back and get the monument. You know that family is wanting their monument. That is the final step.”

A finished gravestone is displayed at The Engraving House in Lithonia, Thursday, October 7, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/ Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer

‘Overwhelmed with business’

In the northeast Georgia city of Elberton, workers at several of the roughly 30 active granite quarries had to go into quarantine or experienced mandatory shutdowns slowing down production. Granite is often the preferred material for monuments because of its durability.

There’s no shortage of granite in Elberton, known as the “Granite Capital of the World,” but a combination of factors across the nation and, indeed, the globe, are causing delays in getting things like monuments and spare parts for equipment.

The trucking industry, which transports consumer goods and equipment to market, is facing a shortage of drivers and the nation’s ports are gridlocked. The pandemic has also kept some workers off the job.

Granite imported from China and India, both huge players in the granite and stone markets, have slowed, placing more demand on the domestic market.

Minnesota-based 3M, one of the leading suppliers of stencil products, recently notified its customers that the company will no longer manufacture or sell sandblast stencil products, which are used for lettering on grave markers. The company is revising its business focus as it deals with higher costs and difficulty in getting materials, said a company spokeswoman.

Experts say demand for burial supplies has also been fueled by the number of deaths among aging baby boomers and people who died from COVID-19-related causes, which recently exceeded 727,000 U.S. deaths.

Watching these grim milestones have also compelled others to start making advance arrangements, further adding demand.

“It’s a perfect storm of problems,” said Mart Clamp, owner of Clamp Sandblast in Elberton, which polishes granite monuments and adds carvings and lettering.

“What’s happening right now is not only a labor shortage in our industry but a labor shortage in support industries at a time when we’re just overwhelmed with business,” said Clamp, whose father started the business in 1965 which currently has two employees.

A lot of monument companies had “older staff that did the engraving. They don’t want COVID so they didn’t go back to work, ” Clamp said.

And filling these jobs isn’t always easy. Some require training and certification which takes time.

Mario Badillo wears protective gear while using a sandblaster to carve out a message for a gravestone while working at The Engraving House in Lithonia, Thursday, October 7, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/ Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer

Clamp knows a retailer who forgot to place an order for a piece of granite that needed to be installed in 18 weeks. Now that retailer won’t be able to do so until next year.

“Monuments are done one at a time,” he said. “They’re labor intensive. You have artists, sculptors, sandblasters and engravers. They all have to come together to make a monument.”

Chris Kubas, executive vice president of the Elberton Granite Association, said the problems surfaced last spring “and we’re still trying to catch up.”

Demand, for instance is up as much as three times for retail customers which includes wholesalers, funeral homes and cemeteries.

“Our industry in Elberton is set up to supply a specific amount of granite based on manufacturing capacity and we basically got overwhelmed,” he said. It’s difficult to expand to allow for more capacity because it’s hard to get the materials and equipment to renovate or grow operations.

“We can’t just snap our fingers and increase our infrastructure,” he said. “Unfortunately we have to ride it out.”

As for a shortage of stencils, “it’s the nail in the coffin,” he said. “We have to have them.”

‘Unresolved death business’

Roshelle Darlene Hudson of Conyers lost her mother, Barbara Ann Galbert, 82, who was living with Hudson when she died on July 22 of last year.

Supply chain and labor issues along with a pandemic have caused delays in grieving families getting gravestones. Conyers resident Roshelle Darlene Hudson (far left) is shown here with her late mother, Barbara Ann Galbert (holding flowers) and two sisters in July 2020;

Credit: Contributed

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Credit: Contributed

The family ordered a headstone in August 2020 from a smaller business in Arkansas, where her mother was buried. Hudson said staffing issues and the business’ challenges of working with families remotely contributed to the delay. Eventually, they decided to contact another company and ordered a black granite headstone from Africa.

That took months as well. The company explained the delay was caused by the high volume of COVID-related deaths and pandemic-related issues that affected businesses.

Once the stone arrived in Arkansas this summer there was more waiting.

Some family members were understanding, but Hudson said it left her frustrated.

Her mother’s monument was finally installed last month, more than a year after her death.

“To me it was like unresolved death business,” said Hudson. “The headstone finalized everything. In my head things were just left undone. That’s not how my mother functioned. She was the type who liked things done in a timely fashion. We ended up being satisfied. Frustrated but satisfied.”

It’s a bittersweet time for Troy Vincent, owner of the Engraving House and Giles Marble Works in Lithonia, where increased demand has driven revenues up 35%.

Troy Vincent, founder of The Engraving House, speaks with a client during a consultation in Lithonia, Thursday, October 7, 2021. (Alyssa Pointer/ Alyssa.Pointer@ajc.com)

Credit: Alyssa Pointer

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Credit: Alyssa Pointer

“It’s impacted our families,” he said. “We’ve had to tell our customers to exercise a little more patience. We try to communicate and set expectations upfront. There’s an anxiousness. This is the final gift that they can give their loved ones. The fact that it has to be dragged out means it’s a long time you have to go through this instead of a weight being lifted off their shoulders.”

For most faiths, there is no religious pressure to erect a monument immediately after a person’s burial.

Still, most people like to have one installed within a few weeks after burial as part of the healing and closure process after a loved one’s death.

The marker “has to be there,” said Wasi Zaidi, a trustee and CEO of Janat ul Baqi-Shia Cemetery in Lilburn, who said delays have stretched months. “People come and do their prayers. If they don’t have a marker how will they know where to go?”

In the Jewish tradition there is a ceremony called the unveiling in which family and friends gather at the grave to place a permanent monument before the first year anniversary of a death, according to Rabbi Brian Glusman of the Marcus Jewish Community Center of Atlanta.

He knows of one family who won’t have a marker installed for a couple of months after the first year anniversary.

“They were sad because it’s just such a beautiful tradition. It becomes a little disappointing when families plan for the next step in the process of mourning and it doesn’t happen.”

He advises families waiting to leave stones as a monument until a marker is installed.

This aerial view of an Atlanta quarry was provided by the Elberton Granite Association. There is no shortage of granite, the material preferred by makers and sellers of headstones for its durability.

Credit: Elberton Granite Association

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Credit: Elberton Granite Association

“Rocks are permanent,” he said. “We actually use rocks as a personal monument every time we visit someone’s grave. I tell people to be patient. The idea of waiting is not a religious challenge within the Jewish tradition.”