Barre marble cutters prepare headstones for soldiers

05/30/05 12:00AM By Lynne McCrea
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(Host) Memorial Day evokes the image of Arlington National Cemetery, with its rows of plain white headstones that stretch as far as the eye can see. Roughly 3,500 new markers are added to the burial ground every year. Those gravestones are being made by just a handful of young marble cutters in Barre.

VPR's Lynne McCrea has this report.

(McCrea) Inside a cavernous granite shed in Barre, a small slab of white marble moves along a conveyor belt. The top of the stone is gently rounded and it has the distinctive look of all the headstones at Arlington National Cemetery.

(Martell) "They're actually thirteen inches wide, four inches thick and forty-two inches high. And when they go to the veterans' cemetery the bottom eighteen inches of the marker is buried in the ground."

(McCrea) Jeff Martell is the president of Granite Industries of Vermont. His factory is the soul supplier of grave markers for Arlington. It also serves several other national cemeteries. Martell says that these days, most of the markers they make are for World War II veterans. But every week his crew turns out a handful of headstones bearing the words: "Operation Iraqi Freedom" This one on the conveyor belt is for a soldier who was born in: July, 1986, and died in April, 2005.

(Despault) " It's definitely harder seeing the Iraqi stones come through a lot of these people are my age or younger. And I'm only twenty-four years old. It just really hits home, you know? Yeah it really hits home. These people had a lot of life ahead of them but they lost it in war."

(McCrea) Jared Despault is one of five men who work on the production line. They're all in their twenties. And today they're all covered with a fine white dust.

Huge diamond saws cut blocks of stone. James Pisano takes a stenciled sheet with letters cut out and carefully lines it up with the front of a headstone. Then he glues and pounds it into place.

(Pisano) " Make sure all the air is out from underneath the letters. Otherwise, the centers of the letters will pop when we send it to the sandblasters."

(McCrea) Next, Jared Despault moves the stone into a sand blast machine. It etches the letters into the stone. Despault then touches up the letters by hand.

(Despault) "What I'm specifically looking for is the letter depth to make sure I'm cutting the letters to the right depth. If it's too shallow, it won't look right in the cemetery. We just make sure to do a good job on the stones, basically."

(McCrea) The work is both physical, and painstaking. Government regulations say measurements can't be off by more than a 32nd of an inch. Ben Smith sands the marker. He looks for any imperfections beginning with the stone itself, which has to be the whitest marble.

(Smith) Pretty much the stone that we need to use is the best would be pure white with just a very little color in it, meaning all the letters will show up better with no black or brown in the background. No cracks no pits. Tip top shape."

(McCrea) These stone cutters can sound matter-of-fact about their work. But they are keenly aware of the significance of each marker.

(Smith) "We just try to do the best we can do with each monument for the soldiers. These people's families go to the cemeteries. And actually, from what I've been told, they hug and they cry on the stones. So you gotta take a lot of pride in what you're doing."

(McCrea)A radio is usually on while the stone cutters work. They listen to country music, Rush Limbaugh, and the latest news from Iraq. The war has been deeply felt in Vermont. But Jared Despault says he doesn't dwell on the politics of the conflict.

(Despault) You know, I'm just doing my job basically. I don't get too mixed up in the politics of it. I don't watch the news enough to say if, you know, what's going on is right or wrong. All's I know is that I'm an American and I support my country.

(McCrea) Making headstones for Arlington National Cemetery has become an important 'niche market' for granite industries. It has given the company regular business at a time when others in the local industry are struggling. But company president, Jeff Martell, says making the soldiers monuments is more than just business.

(Martell) "I've been to Arlington myself, and it's pretty moving to see families - wives, children at the headstone. And um, going through the cemetery and seeing the work that you do in place and the amount of people that go through there it has an impact. I'm actually kind of proud of being a part of history, and honoring the veterans".

(McCrea) At day's end, the small white headstone belonging to a soldier named 'Sam' gets finely sanded, boxed and shipped out. Then Granite Industries of Vermont grows quiet until tomorrow, when there will be another 90 grave markers to make.

For Vermont Public Radio, I'm Lynne McCrea.
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