Fifty or 60 years ago, a stroll through most American cemeteries would have revealed a conventional tombstone formula — a stone tablet bearing a name, dates of birth and death, and perhaps an epitaph.
But according to monument builders, those old conventions no longer apply.
“Monuments are becoming more and more personalized every year,” said Mike Brannon, president and owner of Novak & Brannon Monuments in Marion and Brannon Monument Co. in Dubuque. “The monuments are as unique as the person they are memorializing.”
One of the biggest game-changers has been technology, added Mark Haight, owner of Iowa Valley Monument in Cedar Rapids. “It gives people the ability to design and create their own custom monuments.”
Hearts and pianos
With the use of modern technology, monuments can be shaped into almost any form imaginable — hearts, shamrocks or, in the case of one of Brannon’s customers, even a grand piano. In addition, computer-aided design tools and developments in sand blasting, laser etching and hand etching now allow intricate designs to be carved into the stone — which means even standard shapes can be customized.
“Real detailed portrait etchings are very popular today,” Brannon said.
“We’re seeing lots of farms, motorcycles, mountain scenes — anything that gives people a feel for who you were,” Haight said.
A larger selection of granite — the most popular material used for monuments because of to its durability — also has changed the landscape of cemeteries.
Tombstones once were limited to the materials available in nearby quarries. But increased globalization has brought new strains and colors of granite to the monument market.
Phil Michel, owner of Memorials by Michel in Solon, said his company offers granite in 30 different colors. Although black is a popular choice because it allows for the most detailed etching, some customers are opting to go with a favorite color in lieu of artwork.
“Using a different color gives people another way to personalize a monument,” Michel said. “Not everyone wants their picture on a stone.”
More is better
While some people may eschew elaborate artwork, most are requesting information beyond the deceased’s name and dates of birth and death. With a growing interest in genealogy, it has become common to see maiden names, wedding dates, and children’s names recorded.
“We believe the more information the better,” Haight said, noting it is now standard practice at his company to list “parents of …” free of charge.
That up to 40 percent of their customers are shopping for their own memorials also has increased customization.
Michel expects to see an uptick in such planning as more baby boomers are confronted with making arrangements for their parents.
“People will see how difficult it is to go through that and want to spare their own children,” he said. “They can choose what they want to spend and go from there.”
While it sometimes is said that the funeral business is recession-proof, local monument builders reported varying effects from the recent economic downturn. On the one hand, Haight and Brannon saw little effect beyond some scaling back of size and overall cost.
“In general, it’s important enough for people to get what they want,” Brannon said.
However, Michel, whose company specializes in custom, hand-carved monuments, noted that, “When times are tough and people have to make a choice between a new refrigerator and a monument, they are going to buy the refrigerator. Our product could be put aside.”
One factor that undoubtedly will alter the future of the monument business is cremation. According to the Cremation Association of North America, in 2006, 23.4 percent of all deaths in Iowa resulted in cremation.
By 2011, that figure had grown to 32.6 percent, and cremation is projected to occur in more than 40 percent of Iowa deaths by 2016.
Local monument builders already have seen some effects of the cremation upswing. Brannon said monument designs are becoming more vertical as couples opt to have their cremated remains buried together in a single lot with a double monument.
Michel said columbariums, or vaults with niches to hold urns, are gaining popularity.
Also becoming more common are non-traditional memorials, such as a bench or landscape boulder with a bronze plaque placed in a favorite park or other meaningful location.
Regardless of the manner of burial or disposal, Michel is optimistic that people will continue to erect monuments to memorialize their loved ones.
“People still need to have a place to go to honor the person,” he said, “and they will want a more permanent record of the person there.”