A Dying Industry? Granite Memorial Makers Want to Avoid That

ATLANTA — A good many places in the U.S. have a piece of Elberton, Georgia – at least if those places have a cemetery. Elberton, a town about 100 miles east of Atlanta, produces two-thirds of all granite headstones in the U.S., according to Elberton Granite Association estimates. Granite is among the most popular materials for memorials.

Burial has long been the preference after death in the U.S., but a change threatens Elberton’s business. The first cremation in the U.S. took place in 1876, and by 2006 the cremation rate was 33.8 percent. In 2016, the cremation rate reached an all-time high of 50.1 percent, according to the Cremation Association of North America. By 2020, the U.S. cremation rate is projected to jump by about another 6 percent. And while memorials are sometimes created after cremation, granite markers are used far less often.

“When more people become cremated, it obviously cuts down on the need for the upright monuments that we sell,” says Chris Kubas, executive vice president of the Elberton Granite Association.

Granite is the mainstay of Elberton’s economy. The town started quarrying the stone in the 1870s, and it has buildings, signs and even a 15,000-seat high school football stadium made of granite. Kubas, sitting in the Elberton Granite Association’s building (which is, of course, made of granite), says about 2,000 people work in the industry, more than 10 percent of the population of Elbert County. The industry sells to cemeteries and funeral homes, not individual consumers.

Walker Granite Company, headed by Rose and Marty Walker, is one of about 120 granite-related businesses in Elberton. An adjacent granite manufacturing facility looms over the company’s office trailer, and trucks lug granite pieces the size of rooms.

“Obviously, it’s changing because there’s a world of cremations, and it’s taken away from our business some,” Marty Walker says.

Experts agree that more consumers are choosing cremation at least in part because of its low cost compared to traditional burial. In 2017, the national median cost of a funeral with viewing and cremation was $6,260, while the median cost for a funeral with burial was $7,360, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.

While the granite memorial industry also faces challenges that are familiar to other industries – fewer companies and more imports from overseas, especially China and India – Greg Gunter, president of Matthews Granite in Elberton, says a cultural shift has taken place over the last decade or two, making cremation more socially acceptable.

“Families are not maybe as centrally located as they once were. It used to be the family was a nucleus and they all lived in the same area, and now you’ve got kids and grandkids are spread out all over the country,” Gunter says. “If you look in Elberton here, 10 years ago even, it seemed like almost no one was doing cremation, and now if you look, both the local funeral homes have changed their names and put ‘cremation’ in (their) name.”

Cremation allows a loved one’s remains to travel anywhere, leading to a decreased need for a permanent granite marker.

Don Calhoun, president of the Funeral and Memorial Information Council and past president of the Monument Builders of North America, estimates that by 2025, the memorialization industry’s revenue will atrophy by 17 percent. Calhoun works as president of Murphy Granite Carving in Minnesota; that state, Vermont and the Elberton area are the U.S.’s three major granite-producing regions.

The number of baby boomers have offset any lessened demand for memorials due to cremation, Calhoun says.

“The burial market is still fine,” says R. Michael Eddy-Herrera, president of Matthews Cemetery Products, of which Matthews Granite in Elberton is a division. “It’s not going to grow. It’s never going away. It just appears that it’s shrinking when in reality due to the death rate, it’s still maintaining itself.”

Though the granite memorial industry has relied on burials, it is working to capture the cremation market. Rose Walker of Walker Granite Company says that starts with encouraging the memorialization of cremains.

“You may want to set mom on a shelf, but I know my children don’t necessarily care about keeping grandmama on the shelf or great-grandmama on the shelf, so we still encourage them to memorialize the life,” she says. Unlike death certificates or online documentation, a permanent marker is a physical memorial that anyone can easily access to find out when your loved one lived.

Kubas says cremation provides new market opportunities for Elberton, which has made upright monuments since 1900.

“When more people become cremated, it obviously cuts down on the need for the upright monuments that we sell,” he says. “It’s not always a negative thing. It’s an opportunity for us to be proactive and look forward and try to develop new products and services for those people that want to be cremated. It’s an opportunity to take advantage of a market that’s there that’s not existed in the past as heavily.”

Matthews Granite has a team that creates cremation gardens, some with water features. The company also sells granite benches, pedestals and bird baths that can hold cremains.

Kubas says memorial walls with a series of niches are a popular option in memorial gardens and small churches. Urns go into the niches, which are then covered with a granite slab.

Cremations can also use columbaria, a community mausoleum usually located in cemeteries. Marty Walker says works like these boost the industry but bring in less revenue than traditional, individual upright monuments.

“You’re going to get 20, 25 spaces for a lot less money than you would with 25 normal monuments,” he points out.

As it mulls cremation options, the granite memorial industry needs to think outside the cemetery. Calhoun says only 20 percent to 25 percent of cremains end up there.

“There’s many forms of memorialization happening. We’re not just saying goodbye to whoever lived on this Earth,” he says. “It’s just that it’s morphing. So the granite industry’s key is going to be how well they are adapting to that.”

Source:By Adina Solomon, Contributor |

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