In some ways, the methods John Warner uses to handcraft tombstones at Peconic Monument Works in Riverhead haven’t changed much since the business was founded in 1842. A third-generation stone carver, Mr. Warner dexterously engraves memorials that range, in his words, “from markers to mausoleums.” He learned by watching his father, Hollis.
“I’d walk over here after school and spend the afternoon in the shop doing homework,” he said.
Soon, he was learning the trade like those before him: tracing letters and numbers onto a sheet of rubber, cutting them out carefully with an X-Acto knife, laying the stencil onto the stone and using a pneumatic hammer to chisel away.
The basic elements remain the same: etched names, birth and death dates, an epitaph.
But since joining the family business with his wife, Ashley, full time in 2014 after moving from Florida, the 29-year-old is now tasked with issues few could have predicted in 1842, when brothers Frank and Lester Hill started the business, or in 1982, when Mr. Warner’s grandfather bought the Griffing Avenue shop from Russ and Bob Moore.
“We’re still a little bit old-fashioned,” Mr. Warner said from his workshop, featuring tools from the 1940s and ’50s. Slowly, he’s making strides to bring modern efficiency to a centuries-old trade, now using computer drafting software and sandblasting techniques to speed the process.
As attitudes about end-of-life traditions change, the couple is rising to the challenges.
According to a 2018 report from the National Funeral Directors Association, the cremation rate is projected to be 53.5 percent this year. 2016 marked the first year the national cremation rate reached 50 percent, according to the organization.
“[People who opt for cremation] usually won’t get anything cut in stone,” Mr. Warner said. But he and other carvers still encourage the physicality of a memorial.
“It’s a deeply personal, very customizable thing,” he said, toggling through fonts on his computer last week. “We try to really craft something that’s more like a tribute to their life, rather than just a marker showing where they’re buried,” he said.
It’s not all religious symbols like rosary beads and crucifixes.
“Every once in awhile someone wants to put a sports team symbol [on the stone],” Mr. Warner said.
Ashley, 30, can recall some unique designs. “We do tractors a lot,” she said, reflecting the East End’s farming community.
Some other distinctive engravings: a hunter pointing his gun at the sky, a Chevy logo, a sailboat owned by a husband and wife.
Pet monuments are also a growing part of the industry. “You’d be surprised at what some people get for their pets. But it’s just like another member of the family,” Mr. Warner said.
Ms. Warner, who holds a degree in small business management, said she never envisioned running a business in this industry, but thrives on personal relationships that are built. “A lot of our meeting was learning about her life with her husband: where they lived, what they liked to do together,” she said, recounting a recent meeting with a widow. “It’s a lot of learning about the person and being a listening ear.”
In between sharing memories and snapshots, Ms. Warner walks clients through types of stones, shapes and colors which can all vary depending on cemetery regulations.
Marble, Mr. Warner said, was the standard for centuries since it’s a soft, easily-carved stone. But it’s susceptible to erosion and weathering.
Now, they use almost exclusively gray granite sourced from a quarry in Barre, Vt. Their work spans all of Long Island, and besides gravestones, the father-son team of Hollis and John is currently at work on a 9/11 steel memorial and a memorial plaque for fallen K-9 dogs for the Suffolk County Police Department.
The 19th-century Griffing Avenue building still boasts original wood floors in the workshop, and the Warners are taking care to make updates while preserving the historical charm. To date, they have completed some structural work on the foundation and remodeled the front office, which now feels bright, modern and airy. Adjacent to the office, they hope to create a showroom, to help clients visualize their options.
From Ms. Warner’s office, you can hear her husband carving outside. She pauses to listen, and reflects on the brevity of life. Though young, they discuss their plans. They both like the Sound Avenue Cemetery in Northville, agreeing on its beauty.
“We’re thoughtful about what we want our stone to be. We go back and forth,” Ms. Warner said. One thing’s for sure: it will be handcrafted by John.
“From the moment I met [John], I saw it was something he was so passionate about. I never understood why until I came up here,” she said. “We get to be a part of someone’s mourning process. It’s hard, and I hear a lot of sad things, but there are also happy moments. That’s really special.”
Photo caption: Peconic Monument Works on Griffing Avenue in Riverhead has been in business since 1842. John Warner (pictured) runs the business with his wife, Ashley, and his father, Hollis. (Tara Smith photo)