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Tombstone 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 quarry in Vermont, from a flatbed truck in the Bronx.

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

When the guillotine power-slices through each slab with 300 tons of pressure, it sounds like an S.U.V. hitting a brick wall. Afterward, the work becomes more delicate: Each mini slab is chiseled, polished, stacked, tagged and finally stenciled and sandblasted, with a loving commemoration of a parent, grandparent, spouse, son or daughter.

On this morning, dozens of stacks of blank headstones were piled 12 and higher. Wire baskets on shelves in a nearby corner overflowed with order forms and sketches for each customized design.

“We probably have over 800 orders, it’s so depressing,” said Don DeNigris, a third-generation co-owner of the company, which was founded in 1905 by his grandfather. “We don’t even count them anymore.” Mr. DeNigris added that they probably wouldn’t complete all of the orders until the end of the year, explaining that demand had been up by “30 or 40 percent” over the past two years.

The memorial industry has been hugely disrupted because of Covid-related demand, supply-chain issues and labor shortages.

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

The supply chain problems were exacerbated last fall when the 3M Company announced it would no longer make the spools of a rubber-based adhesive stencil that can withstand the force of sandblasting, something that monument companies depend on. 3M attributed the decision to “severely constrained raw material availability, exponentially increasing costs and strategic business focus,” according to a letter sent to its clients. In New York City, a monument production hub less than a century ago — where now only a few straggling businesses remain, including just two full-service companies — this was not good news.

“The main hit was the rubber stencil because you can’t do anything without that,” said Adam Sprung, a fourth-generation owner of Sprung Monuments, which opened in Williamsburg, Brooklyn, in 1905 and moved its manufacturing to North Lindenhurst, Long Island, in 1955. “We had enough that we never had to shut down, but it’s like your last drink, you kind of nurse it.”

Mr. Sprung and Mr. DeNigris joined the industrywide scramble to find other sources for stencils. Smaller companies made them, but the supply wasn’t as dependable. Some companies decided to import stencil products from China, but that comes with its own sets of drawbacks, like shipping costs, transportation holdups and tariffs.

Back in the Bronx on that December morning, Evan DeNigris, Mr. DeNigris’s nephew, was at his usual perch in the stenciling room, a space set off from the industrial workshop. But the door did little to muffle the clanging of workers chiseling granite and the boom of the guillotine. He was hunched over a gray slab, carefully plucking Chinese characters for a headstone from one of the sought-after rubber sheets with a tool akin to an X-acto knife, preparing it for the sandblasting room.

With all the carving instruments, measuring tools and sketches, it had the appearance of a sculptor’s studio. “If sand hits under the stencil a little, it’ll compromise the polish,” the younger DeNigris explained, showing how meticulously the characters have to be cut out.

Such a scene has become a rarity around the city, where there used to be many small monument workshops and dealerships, with a concentration on Manhattan’s Lower East Side.

Murray Silver, the former owner of Silver Monument Works, the last business of its kind to leave the Lower East Side when it relocated to Woodside, Queens, about eight years ago, said his and other gravestone businesses used to cater to the neighborhood’s large Jewish population. His father had started the company in the 1940s. “There were 18 or 19 dealers, it was like how there was a candy store on every corner,” he said of the industry’s heyday in New York. “But the world changes, little by little.”

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

In Brooklyn and Staten Island, another company, Supreme Monuments, still has a presence, but largely in the form of showrooms. From the 1950s through the mid-1990s, Supreme did its manufacturing at the Brooklyn location. Over time, however, rising rents, increased urban density and escalating fees for trucks in the city posed challenges. For almost 30 years, Supreme has contracted out its production to Rock of Ages, the quarry in Vermont.

“We still have equipment and we can do some rush jobs in Staten Island, but we focus our resources on installing the work and on-site lettering on memorials at cemeteries,” said Joe Cassara, a fourth-generation co-owner. In addition to the transportation and supply issues, he attributed delays to staff being out sick and difficulty finding new workers, many of whose skill is highly specialized. “These days, people are used to ordering something and it’s there the next day. You can’t do that with our product. It’s an old-world craft.”

It’s also a profession that hinges on raw emotions. For people seeking closure, customer service requires a distinct sensitivity.

“If you’re buying a Bentley for a quarter-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 comforting and conversation, consoling and education,” he continued. “Our hands are tied, that’s where we are. It has to be explained the right way. And this is not a New York City problem, it’s not a state problem. It’s a world problem.”

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