Marking the passage of time – More people are opting for imported memorial headstones over traditional American markers

May 20, 2009

By Seth Daniel

It’s a world of imports these days, from baby bottles to every last piece of clothing. Most of the items consumers use these days come from overseas.

And now, imported goods have extended beyond the grave, as more and more artistic headstone memorials are being crafted by the hands of talented Chinese sculptors and shipped to American graveyards.

For the skeptics, it’s just another industry taken away from America, but for the average consumer, it means a much more beautiful memorial at a much more affordable price to mark the life of their loved ones.

This weekend, as people flock to cemeteries for Memorial Day, they might just see a few more sculpted stones, instead of the flat granite markers that have dominated the industry for the last 30 years.

David DeFillippo of Woodlawn Memorials stands next to an imported headstone from China. The carved angel headstone can be bought for a fraction of the price of American stones. As the quality has improved, DeFillippo said many customers are looking seriously at imports.

David DeFillippo of Woodlawn Memorials stands next to an imported headstone from China. The carved angel headstone can be bought for a fraction of the price of American stones. As the quality has improved, DeFillippo said many customers are looking seriously at imports.

David DeFillippo of Woodlawn Memorials has been on the frontlines of this transformation and said that it has been driven mostly by price.

“We have a carved double angel memorial that we offer now that is imported from China,” said DeFillippo. “In 25 years, we never sold anything like that because the cost was ridiculous, but we’ve sold 10 of them in the last year because of imports. I can sell an imported double angel memorial for under $4,000 retail. The same thing made in America would cost me $12,000 wholesale. It’s really back to the days when people came in and asked if something was possible, and we would tell them that if they can think it, we can create it.”

DeFillippo said that his shop still performs all of the added value to the stones, including carving out low relief sculptures and lettering.

He also said that most of his business is still predominantly American made markers – most of which are produced in the headstone capital of America, Barre, Vermont – but more and more people are realizing they can get a more elaborate import for less than a plain, American made stone.

“Up to the 1960s, people were placing carved headstones frequently, but then in the 1970s, 1980s and 1990s, it went back to the flat markers, mostly due to cost,” said DeFillippo. “Now it’s not far-fetched for someone to come in with a vision of something like a carved soccer ball or whatever and we can make it happen for an affordable price.”

He added that the quality might actually be better than American-produced headstones.

“You really can’t beat the sculpting,” he said. “It’s not like a knockoff. I might get tarred and feathered for saying this, but, in fact, a lot of the Chinese sculptors are better than the Americans. They put details like fingernails and strands of hair. They were taught using different hand tools instead of a pneumatic chisel.”

One of the largest Chinese headstone importers in America who supplies many of the local memorial companies is Paul Dernavich, an independent wholesale granite importer.

Dernavich said the import market began several years ago when they started importing granite from India. Many of the producers in Canada and Vermont filed lawsuits alleging illegal business practices, and after many millions of dollars, they won the case and blocked those imports.

However, it opened up the Chinese market completely, where there was already a thousand-year sculpting tradition in place. Now, in China’s sculpting region, there are stones from all over the world just waiting for one of the thousands of sculptors to work on them.

Even Italian marble is carved in China, then shipped elsewhere.

Initially, there were some snafus – such as Chinese sculptors producing statues of Jesus with an Asian face – but those have been corrected and consumers have noticed.

Dernavich said two factors have influenced the boom in headstone imports – the cheap price of labor in China and the dwindling numbers of sculptors in America.

“The trend is going towards imports for two reasons; first, there are no workers left in this country to do this work,” said Dernavich. “In Vermont, there are only a half-dozen sculptors left to do that work. In China, you have hundreds or thousands. Second, almost every granite available in the world is in China, so they can do the work there with their lower labor rates.”

Contrary to logic, the work in China actually gets to the customer faster and cheaper than an American product from Vermont, despite the long boat ride.

He said what would take six months in America can be had at one’s doorstep in eight weeks from China.

“It’s a global economy, and there’s just so much more available for people to choose from,” he said. “Like everything else, it’s here to stay. Twenty years ago, you had a gray granite block, or green and pink granite. Now, it’s just up to your imagination what you want. What you want, they’ll do. In this country, I don’t know where we would even start to get these things done.”

DeFillippo said it has also changed his business model locally. Since he has a showroom, lower prices for elaborate stones have allowed him to keep more inventory on the floor.

“Now, we can stock more of these things because they sell,” he said. “They’re not as much of an investment.”

It has also changed the way they do business, and DeFillippo said he has watched businesses that resisted the imports suffer. Now, even the staunchest critics have found that they have to offer imports from China to survive.

“To be competitive, you have to carry it,” he said. “You can take the moral high ground and say you won’t carry an import, but people will go around the corner and buy it from someone else…Eventually, it became not whether you like it or not, but what were you going to do about it. You have to adapt, change or die.”

And these days, dying has become a little more affordable, thanks to the global economy.

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