BARRE, Vt. — Giuliano Cecchinelli, a beret and a beard framing his expressive face, drove a chisel into Barre Gray granite as he shaped a religious sculpture for a large cemetery monument. Dust puffed from the stone, a floodlight illuminated the work, and Cecchinelli, 77, hammered away with a skill he has honed since boyhood in Italy.
Cecchinelli is busy these days, as is everyone at Buttura & Gherardi Granite Artisans, one of about 20 manufacturers of headstones and other memorials in and near this city of 9,000, which styles itself the “granite center of the world.”
Diamond-tipped saws cut granite 24/7, truckloads stacked with monuments leave its warren of buildings every day, and cubbyholes overflow with orders.
“The monument business is bigger than it’s ever been,” said Mark Gherardi, the company president.
The pandemic’s staggering death toll, now approaching 700,000 nationwide, is only part of the reason for the rising demand. It’s also driven by baby boomers who are looking ahead, ordering monuments, and deciding how they and their families will be commemorated after death, Gherardi said.
“We all kind of thought that the baby boomers would be cremating and not memorializing,” Gherardi said. “But when COVID hit, they seem to have said, ‘I need to take care of this. I don’t want to leave this to my kids.’”
Buttura & Gherardi’s orders and shipments have risen 55 percent this year when compared with this date in 2020, then the company’s best year ever, Gherardi added. The increase translates into 7,000 more orders in 2021, many with multiple items, for at least 10,000 more families, he said.
“It took us months to understand that this is real, this is happening,” said Gherardi, who is president of the Barre Granite Association and the Manufacturers Division of the Monument Builders of North America. Industry leaders now believe that the surge in demand could last three to five years, he said.
Nearby, at the Rock of Ages quarries and manufacturing plant, chief operating officer Rob Boulanger said that demand for its memorials, depending on the type, has increased between 25 and 40 percent this year over 2019, before the coronavirus skewed planning and expectations.
“I think what the pandemic has done is make a lot of people realize that we’re not immortal,” said Boulanger, standing atop one of the company’s massive granite quarries, the largest of its kind in the world. “We’re finding that even if someone wants to be cremated, they still want to be memorialized.”
The surge has come as something of a surprise for an industry that had thought baby boomers were moving away from traditional monuments.
“All of us were worried about what cremation meant for our industry,” said Paige Gherardi Lamthi, vice president of the company that her father heads.
“But when things were taken away during COVID, and we weren’t able to go to services, and you couldn’t gather together, you could still go to the resting place,” she said. “That was an important option.”
The unexpected demand has led to robust hiring, plans for expansion, and an invitation for sandblasters, sculptors, and other employees to work as many hours as they can handle at companies such as Buttura & Gherardi.
“They can come in whenever they want,” Mark Gherardi said. “We don’t have a materials issue; what we have is a bunch of orders.”
As he walked the floor, Gherardi pointed out a 96-niche columbarium, which will store urns containing ashes. He gestured toward a piece headed to Wyoming, and then passed markers to be shipped to Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain.
“They like nice stuff in that cemetery,” Gherardi said.
For parts of the industry, the nationwide demand has led to a backlog of work and delivery delays. In Barre, monument companies are recalculating their business models to ramp up production and minimize delays, said Doug Grahn, executive director of the Barre Granite Association.
“For the short term, this large increase in demand has definitely created longer lead times. Quality is our No. 1 priority,” Grahn said.
Meanwhile, he said, association members “are investing in leading-edge technology, hiring new manufacturing employees for all stages of the production process, as well as designers, office staff, and apprentices to learn from skilled craftspeople.”
One of those craftsmen is Stanislaw Lutostanski, 71, a native of Poland who was sculpting a life-size statue of the Virgin Mary inside Rock of Ages, which dates to 1885. Wearing a mask, ear protectors, and oversize gloves, Lutostanski worked the bottom of the nearly completed statue, which had been raised above his head on a wooden platform.
“I love the work,” Lutostanski said. “If I didn’t love it, I would have quit a long time ago.”
The facility is a mixture of the timeless and the new, the ancient art of stonework combined with computer-guided machinery that can slice and shape blocks of Barre granite, even adding pre-programmed curves and contours to meet exacting specifications.
Mausoleums are manufactured at Rock of Ages, too, as well as granite bases for business-related purposes. Overall, memorials remain firmly at the core of its operations in Barre and account for about 80 percent of business.
“This has a lot of meaning to people, a lot more than we know,” Boulanger said. “It’s not a sneaker. It’s not a materialistic item like a couch.”
Also in demand is Barre Gray granite itself, a rock that retained its popularity after the famed Quincy quarries began to wane. Generations of quarrymen, stonecutters, sandblasters, and sculptors have made the industry a family affair in Barre, a central Vermont city next to the capital of Montpelier.
Steve Rivard of Barre is part of that deeply held tradition. A 52-year-old sandblaster at Buttura & Gherardi, Rivard began work directly out of high school, following the footsteps of forefathers who moved to New England from Quebec.
“It’s a Barre, Vermont, thing,” Rivard said, bending over an inscription on a gravestone. “Whoever works in this industry here, you take pride in it.”
Gherardi also has a long connection to the craft. His grandfather immigrated to Quincy from Italy when he was 9 to join relatives in stonework there and later followed the work to Vermont.
“Quincy was the place, and then there was Barre,” Gherardi said, pacing among a cluster of company buildings, some of them more than a century old, where unassuming exteriors mask a beehive of activity within.
His daughter now represents a fourth generation in the Barre business. Perhaps one or both of her two children will make up the fifth, she said with a smile.
“This is what our town is known for,” she said.
Brian MacQuarrie can be reached at email@example.com.