Brice Stump: Tombstone tales from landmark shop

Looking very much like a coffin of old, stone cutter Justin “Smoothie” Moreau looks through the small window of the sandblast hood he must wear when adding details to a monument.

Bats, Jack o’ lanterns, witches and frightened black cats with deserted derelict mansions and tombstones are the stuff of haunted Halloween.

Silhouetted tombstones of old, tall, leaning, broken and cracked tablets with arched tops and chunky stones topped with tilting statues, have become iconic images of a ghostly, moonlit night.

Those were the standard graveyard images of a century, yet times have changed in tombstones styles and sizes. It’s all come down to fashion and money.

At least one monument dealer on the internet noted: “Most people don’t spend more than $5,000 to $10,000 for a cemetery monument in the USA unless they are ultra-wealthy.”

Elaborate stones are now out of reach for most customers. Replacing the fancy stones, of the early 1900s, can easily cost $200,000 and more.

The trend now, said Samuel “S.J” Disharoon, 80, owner of Salisbury Monument in Salisbury, is for smaller, thinner granite markers with customers wanting custom-cut stones highlighting their individual tastes.  

Stock stone designs of the past — featuring stylized flowers, intricate borders, leaves and ribbons, bows and hearts has been replaced with  increasingly popular designs etched and cut into the granite’s surface.

Any design, any photograph, basically anything, Disharoon said, can now be copied and “cut in stone,” except copyrighted or trademarked art without the owner’s permission.

“Even if someone wanted Mickey Mouse, or a Harley Davidson trademark or a product logo on the tombstone, the customer must have permission before we accept the job,” he said.

Another increasingly popular element to stone design is the customer’s request to add color. A special paint is applied by hand to bring a “back and white” stone scene into full color. 

It is the only monument business in Wicomico County that still offers on-site stone cutting as it has for decades.

Works of art

From here, in the 1900s when the place was home to Thomas Truitt’s monument business, came tombstones that were hand-carved works of art, and, in the fashion of the day, were made of marble.

Easy to carve and easy to wear away, marble soon took a fast backseat to granite, the rock that would last for ages.

Hard granite is much more difficult to carve by hand, said Disharoon, thus the decorative bells and whistle embellishments of marble tombstones quickly disappeared as granite gained favor.

Special custom work, like etching the surface with portraits and picturesque scenes, buildings, cars and the like is now handled by machine in Elberton, Ga., the major national quarry source for monument wholesalers. Custom sculpture work, by hand, is also done there.

Salisbury Monument’s Samuel “S.J.” Disharoon steadies a monument being leveled as his grandson, Justin “Smoothie” Moreau, uses a cart to move the stone. Disharoon’s granddaughter, Kristine Burbage, and his great-granddaughter, Riley Causey, and wife, Wanda, watch.

If you can afford to be extravagant, and want the Hope Diamond of the top granite stone in the world for yourself, or your pet, what do you get? The creme-de-la-creme stone color for granite monuments is Blue Pearl.

“Rare Blue Pearl granite, the best that only comes from Norway,” Disharoon said. 

The coveted stone that comes in varying shades of blue has hints of silver in it. “If a monument of gray granite costs $5,000, the same size stone in Blue Pearl will run about $20,000.”

Even you really want to make a statement in the cemetery, opting for a mausoleum and choosing Blue Pearl is the way to go.

“Today the cost of a two-tier gray granite mausoleum is about $60,000. So expect to pay $240,000 for the same thing in Blue Pearl. It’s rare and it’s pricey, ” he said. Discriminating funerary taste comes with a breath-taking price tag.

The monument of choice today is affordable granite, Disharoon said, not necessarily “designer” stone colors.

For years the familiar “modern” chunky tombstone with its  “serpentine top” or curved top came into fashion in the 1950s, and though it lacked artistic character, and routinely featured just names and dates, it was a fashion style that lasted decades.

Today the emphasis is on thinner stones, often only two-thirds the size of those preferred just 20 years ago. Granite weighs in at 120 pounds a cubic foot, so the thinner smaller stones weigh less and cost less.

The custom now is personalized style, not traditional size and weight. In the yard of the shop are examples of the popular shapes, colors and sizes appealing to today’s customers.

The tiny, aging shop, the larger part of which was once a girl’s school on Gay Street, has been a landmark business on the corner of West Isabella and Mill streets for almost a century. Hundreds of motorists pass by site each day.

Being a small, family-owned business, the shop relies almost solely on a time-tested formula for success — word-of-mouth advertising. Yet the business does have a Facebook page and a website is in the making.

“We have been dealing with generations of the same families Everybody around knows us, so we don’t even advertise anymore,” Disharoon said. 

“It has been a family operation since 1957. I was 17 when my father bought the business from Russell Lawson, Truitt’s son-in-law. I think Truitt was here about 1910,” he said.

It’s estimated that to replace this hand-carved, Celtic-style, marble cross at Parson’s Cemetery in Salisbury would cost about $200,000. The early 1900s monument is a key example of the stone sculpture’s work at the cemetery, and is admired by Carol Smith, a volunteer member of the Parsons Cemetery Advisory Committee.

Then, as now, the business is still in the family. Wife, Wanda, manages the office and record keeping along with granddaughter, Kristine Burbage.

Disharoon relies on his grandson, Justin “Smoothie” Moreau, to do the stone cutting work in the shop. Gone are the days of using sand or crushed walnut shells to eat away stone during the cutting process. 

Moreau, 23 adds dates and letters to monuments shipped from Georgia with an automated pressurized air blaster uses silicone carbide to cut letters dates and some decorative elements in granite.

It is slow business, as the jet of air mixed with the carbide eats into the stone about an eighth of an inch about every 15 minutes.

The process comes with a bit of a paradox. The letters to be cut into the stone are first outlined onto a sheet of special rubber. Carefully the defined letters and numbers are removed individually with a knife, and the prepared sheet glued onto the smooth face of the stone.

The abrasive carbide is forced through a hose and nozzle under pressure that moves 160 cubic feet of air a minute, and the exposed stone through the sheet is slowly eaten away. Yet the rubber remains intact and won’t allow the abrasive to mar the protected surface.

“The silicone bounces right off the rubber, but the nozzle has to keep moving or the moving abrasive will eat right through it,” Disharoon said

It is stone choice, size and style that determines price. “We don’t charge for lettering or dating on the face of the stone,” Disharoon said. “I think we are one of the few companies who don’t charge. I know we are ‘old school,’ but that’s just who we are.”

It does seem that about everyone of mature age knows Disharoon and his business. He’s the “go-to” man when folks want history on family stones or the “old days” history of the tombstones business.

 “Tombstone business is hard work. I’ve done enough work in my life here to kill four people,” he said.

“He has,” said wife, Wanda, nodding her head. “That’s the truth.  Even when I first met him, I said, ‘This is the hardest working man I ever met in my life.’ ”

Tough work, indeed, When he first started, stones were moved through graveyards and around a maze of tombstones by rollers and a handcart. With s stone weighing almost 2,800 pounds, soggy soil meant for a formidable nightmare project as the handcart wheels sank making pushing the laden cart much more difficult. 

Now, the dealer relies on a mechanized custom trailer. “ I bought one 10 years ago and it cost us $26,000 then. But it does the job. You can’t find people today willing to do the backbreaking work we did years ago. When I was growing up it was brute strength and awkwardness. That’s just the way it was then.”

Keith Ball, the  “monument setter,” uses the custom-design piece of equipment to place a tombstone at the grave.

Working in a graveyard to “set a stone” is tricky business. There’s  always the risk of tripping, hitting your head on a stone, or stumbling over markers and breaking a bone. And, as Disharoon learned years ago, there the ghoulish experience of falling — up to your elbows  — into a collapsing grave.

There’s also opportunity for serious injury. 

“Years ago we use to slide monuments down a board off the truck. One day the monument was on the board and something dropped off the truck under the board so Igot down — thank goodness — on my hands and knees to look for it. The board slipped off the truck and it and the 900-pound monument fell partly on my back. The way it fell, I was able to roll it off. But I’ve had a bad back every since.”

Potential physical injuries aren’t confined just to graveyard work.

Sometimes families can get into heated arguments over tombstone design, wording and cost-sharing issues.

“I had two ladies wrestling here in front of the shop. There was five or six family members who showed up to buy a stone. I think they only had $1,200 and one of the women wanted something changed and another wanted something different and began arguing,” Disharoon explained.

 “Next thing I know they are fist fighting and then wrestling. I had to jump in and stop them, yelling ‘Ladies! Ladies! You can’t do this here,’ ” he said with laughter.

“Another time I was putting out a stone in a graveyard in Virginia and about 10 family members were there watching me to the job. Next thing I know, a fight broke out and two people started fighting right there in the cemetery. Duking it out, I tell ya.. I said, ‘See you all later,’ and left. They were still fighting when I pulled out.” 

To settle family squabbles, some tombstones are sometimes vandalized by family.

“I got a call from a lady in Delaware who told me a guy in the family was upset and had defaced the tombstone stone. I went over to fix it and someone had squeezed something, like epoxy or cement, into the lettering. I couldn’t get it to budge. Never did find out what the substance was. The stone had to be replaced.”

Sometimes bitter divorced couples want their names off a stone and take it upon themselves to use a hammer to get the job done.

“Hard to beat up granite,” Disharoon said. It’s also hard to be discreet and quiet while whacking stone with steel. 

Tombstone insurance, he said, is usually available through a homeowners policy.

As your community newspaper, we are committed to making Salisbury a better place. You can help support our mission by making a voluntary contribution to the newspaper.