Memorial masonry: An increase in mortality nobody is celebrating

More deaths usually mean more headstones sold but nobody is celebrating this year's increase in mortality and it might not even mean more memorials are sold.

The UK’s long-term lower mortality rate has not been great news for memorial masons but nobody wanted it to end like this.

When the number of people dying weekly is more than twice what would normally be expected, as it was for a couple of weeks in April, the death care industry is clearly a key sector.

Funeral directors have been busy and memorial masons have been required to move memorials, where necessary, to allow for burials.

However, some cemetery authorities (but not all) have banned the installation of memorials in response to the coronavirus pandemic requirement for as much isolation as possible to avoid the spread of Covid-19. Some have refused to allow mourners in for burials or cremations, although others have allowed them in while insisting they keep 2m apart.

Retail memorial masons have had to close their showrooms and many have also stopped producing and installing any memorials, sometimes to the irritation of customers who had expected them to have been installed.

The wholesalers have also generally stopped production and furloughed workshop and other employees, operating with a skeleton office staff to answer enquiries.

The Bank of England predicts the UK economy (as measured by GDP) will shrink by about 30% as a result of the lock-down, but presents an optimistic scenario of it returning to its pre-coronavirus level sometime next year. In America, Jerome Powell, the Chairman of the Federal Reserve (the American equivalent of the Bank of England), also predicts an economic fall of as much as 30% and says the downturn might last until late 2021 with a full rebound not possible until a vaccine is found.

A 30% fall in GDP (gross domestic product) is huge. The Bank of England says there has only ever been a fall of that magnitude in the UK once before – it was as a result of the Great Frost of 1709. For comparison, the crash of 2008 saw a fall of just less than 6.5% in the UK.

However, while nobody is crowing about it, the coronavirus has increased the death rate for the first third of this year by 20% above the five-year average. And people are still dying, although the weekly toll is falling.

More than 90% of those who have died were over 65 with at least one pre-existing medical condition. Some of them will have taken out insurance or made other arrangements for their funerals. Even if they haven’t, many families will want a memorial to commemorate those who have died. Graeme Robertson of wholesaler Robertson Memorials in Aberdeen says: “We stopped work with a good order book and I think the bounce back will be quite healthy.”

Pictured below. One of the new ‘Traditional’ collection of memorials developed by wholesaler Robertson Memorials. They can be used as a stand alone lawn memorial or as a kerb set. Pictured here is the ‘Hewitt’ design. It is made in Bohus Pink granite from Sweden and has a rustic margin as ornamentation.

In May 2016 Robertson’s was part of a consortium that opened a new, private crematorium in Banchory, near Aberdeen. There are memorials there that Robertson’s has supplied, although Graeme says it is a small addition to the stone business. It has had additional business during the pandemic because it has allowed mourners into memorial services, whereas the council crematorium has not.

Robertson’s has furloughed more than 80% of its staff, although some of the office staff are still working at home. The company has started using online conferencing facilities such as Zoom to communicate and Graeme is not ruling out its continued use once the pandemic is over, especially for contacting Stewart Gibson, the Retail Director based in London.

During the lock-down, which continued in Scotland after it had been eased in England, Robertson’s has been working on new designs of memorials, updating some of its most popular as well as developing innovative new designs to enthuse the market. It has also worked on becoming listed on the Ethical Stone Register. “I think it’s important to say we have signed up to it,” says Graeme.

Simon Bellamy, MD of George Willcox Granite in Evesham, Worcestershire, says: "Contrary to popular belief, the memorial industry is affected [by Covid-19] in the same way as most other industries. As a memorial wholesaler we have seen a 30%-plus reduction in sales, which is grievous to our business model of high-volume low margin.

"There is hope that pent-up demand, as lockdown is eased, will play a part in mitigating this situation in the short term at least.

"The consumerist economy dictates that we need to purchase a wide range of products for economic recovery and hopefully memorials will be on the consumer's 'must have' list.

Over the medium term our ‘new normal’ in relation to order volumes is unknowable. However we need to be optimistic that it can return at least close to recent historic levels.

"The challenges are many. Numerous quarries are shut down, some may never re-open. Factories have resumed production albeit with vastly reduced capacity. I anticipate that India’s infrastructure will continue to be seriously affected in all areas well into June and, like ourselves, with social distancing restrictions in place productivity levels will be compromised for some time to come.

"The financial effect of this will be devastating to many factories, which could ultimately impinge on the industry as a whole. Shipping lines, which were already unreliable before the Covid-19 pandemic, are now unpredictable, as they will cancel a shipment with very little notice, causing further delays.

"Costs will be rising on all these fronts and the pound continues to lose value against most other currencies.

"Thanks to government interventions, the potentially more calamitous situation has been avoided.  We are now starting to function in a limited way, obviously following government guidelines on physical distancing and so on.

"We are expediting our order backlog to keep our customers, who are now re-opening, serviced. This presents us with both difficulties and frustration in that we are operating with limited resources and a yard that looks like the Manhattan skyline, thanks to nearly 30 containers arriving in the past 10 weeks.

"Another dilemma for most companies is that the disruption of order continuity will mean a relatively low requirement after the backlog of orders has been delivered, making managing cashflow and human resource an ongoing challenge.

"Wishing not to dwell on the negatives, a forced restructure can be a time to innovate and improve process and Willcox is already actively engaging in just such a method of adaptation.

"Willcox group continues to invest in software development and we anticipate having something to show from this endeavour by the end of the year – a product that will help more businesses in this industry to move forward into the digital age.

"We have a more focused team, with staff giving a 100% effort in the unprecedented situation we find ourselves.

"As a company and an industry we need to embrace available technology and be more agile with flexibility to react to future requirements, similar events and the changing environment."

Pictured below. Memorial wholesalers spend a lot of time and money on catalogues, as demonstrated by the latest one from Odlings shown here. It also takes time for catalogues to penetrate the retail market. As wholesalers like to have new collections to show at exhibitions, they decided en masse not to exhibit at the two-yearly NAMM Tradex exhibition last year. But most say they intend to be back next year with their new ranges.

Odlings, with its bases in Hull and Bristol, is another memorial wholesaler with most of its staff on furlough. Director Duncan Reynolds says the company will return to work when memorial retailers are open again, which will not happen until burial and cremation authorities once again allow masons to install memorials in their grounds.

“It’s going to be a balancing act,” says Duncan. “My staff are aching to come back to work and they’re worried whether there will be anything to come back to. But I can’t imagine there will be nothing to come back to. Yes, people are likely to have lost some income but they won’t have spent so much on holidays and leisure activities such as eating out. A family might have more to spend on a memorial.”

He says he is optimistic about the recovery and thinks when work does resume at Odlings it will be relatively easy to maintain social distancing among the 65 people the company employs, even if it means running two shifts. He is confident that Odlings will be celebrating its 150th anniversary next year in grand style and anticipates that will include attending next year’s NAMM Tradex memorial exhibition at Warwickshire Event Centre near Leamington Spa.

The stand alone exhibition for memorial masons was started in 2015. It has been held every other year since then, although the wholesalers say that is too frequent. They like to create new collections and produce new catalogues for exhibitions and say they  only want to exhibit if they have something new to show. So last year NAMM (National Association of Memorial Masons) went ahead with the show but the wholesalers boycotted it. However, the leading wholesalers plan to return with their new collections next year.

Tradex 16-17 September 2021

The show is usually held in June, but next year has been put back to September to give the organisers and exhibitors more time to prepare for it. The price of stands has been held at the same rate as it was for last year’s exhibition and NAMM says: “Tradex 2021 will be a great opportunity to re-group and re-charge our industry and promote our craft.”

To help its members survive the pandemic NAMM has produced a risk assessment containing general guidance with additional guidance in relation to Covid-19.

It also has a ‘working protocols’ document that gives guidance on basic safe working practices in relation to Covid-19. It can be signed by a company’s management and displayed in premises to show procedures are being implemented to provide a safe working environment.

Peter Hayman, the NAMM Technical Advisor, says NAMM has maintained continuous contact with its members during the coronavirus restrictions, providing up to date information on developments and government guidelines, which it will continue to do until the emergency is over.

Peter told NSS: “As the NAMM full time Technical Advisor I have been working from home, being kept  busy with paperwork, calls and emails from the public, masons and burial authorities, many of which have been in relation to Covid-19 and requests for work related guidance.”

He said that although England was out of step with Scotland and Northern Ireland as far as the lock-down was concerned,  eventually everyone would return to work, “and when we do, according to the scientists, we will be working alongside the threat of Covid-19 for many months or possibly years to come – and if no vaccine is found, then perhaps even permanently.

“This is a stark realisation and a fact that we must all absorb, contend with and prepare for in our own way as best we possibly can.”

The NAMM  guidance for memorial masons says when working in burial grounds a risk assessment incorporating Covid-19 safe working practices should be completed and given to the burial authority, preferably by email – in fact, as much contact as possible with the burial authorities should be by email and phone, with cemetery fees paid by BACS or credit / debit card if possible.

In line with government guidelines, NAMM says travel to cemeteries by installers should be in separate vehicles if possible. If masons must travel together in the same vehicle they should wear disposable gloves, face masks and coveralls.

A 2m personal space distance should be maintained with anyone encountered, and although safe manual handling might require getting closer to a workmate, the procedure must be planned to ensure safe operation.

Equipment must be cleaned, including interiors of vehicles, door handles, work surfaces and materials. Work clothes and coveralls must be cleaned daily, with used workwear safely bagged at the end of each day ready for cleaning.

Keeping people separated in workshops might, says NAMM, involve staggered breaks or separate rest areas for employees.

Office staff should work at home if possible and if it is not possible they must be kept separate from members of the public and each other, with anything used by more than one person cleaned after each use. Personal protective equipment, including masks and gloves, should be available.

Customer-facing staff should see customers by arrangement only, one at a time. They should wear disposable gloves and have a mask and googles available. If documents must be signed, they should be laid out on a separate desk along with disposable gloves and a pen ready for the customer’s use, with a lidded bin for safe disposal of used items.

Signed documents should be placed in a sturdy envelope and file, while pens should be cleaned and desks wiped. Door handles and areas touched by visitors should be sanitised once the customer has left.

In whatever capacity anyone is working, they should wash or sanitise their hands frequently and anyone with any cold or flu-like symptoms should self-isolate at home for two weeks.

Peter Hayman says: “Before a return to work it is critical that all employees feel safe and convinced that any additional risk presented by Covid-19 is recognised and that correct safe working procedures and guidance is provided and put into action.

“Employers have a duty of care not only to their own staff but also to their customers and any individuals their employees may interact with during the course of their work. Duty of care is enforceable and Health & Safety Executive (HSE) Inspectors will be visiting places of work to ensure correct procedures are in place.

“If any employee considers their health, or the health of others, is at risk due to a lack of safe working procedures they should not be afraid to report the matter to their employer or organisations such as a trade association or local authority.

“For those memorial masons preparing for a return to work, or those already working, albeit perhaps in a reduced capacity, structured and correct safe working procedures must be in place. Apart from being a legal requirement this also gives assurance to employees, customers and other organisations or trades who interact with memorial masons during the course of their work, such as burial authorities and funeral directors, who also have a duty of care towards their own staff.

“As Memorial masons  we work among local communities and provide skills and unique services that are of a positive social benefit. Memorialisation of all types is a recognised part of the bereavement healing process.”

The Lettering Arts Trust, which helps the bereaved source memorials by artist lettercutters, makes the same point. It says it expects the coronovirus pandemic and restrictions placed on the number of people allowed to attend a funeral will give memorials a more important role to play in the bereavement process.

Clients who commission a bespoke memorial from the Lettering Arts Trust can expect to be involved in the development of the design of the memorial in conjunction with the artist, taking time to talk about the person they have lost.

That, says the Lettering Arts Trust, can be a consoling experience in itself – watching as the memorial develops and is carved in the artist’s studio; perhaps attending the installation of the memorial in the cemetery.

And when self-isolation and social distancing measures are relaxed, family and friends will be able to gather at the side of the grave, perhaps for a blessing as a slightly different way of celebrating a life and mourning a death.

When there can be a full return to work for memorial masons will depend on the type of business they operate and even which region of the UK they operate in.

Each business must consider and evaluate its own position in regard to how the current guidance relates to it and its ability and/or desire to return to work and in what capacity, says NAMM’s Peter Hayman. “There is little point memorial masons contemplating going back to work if they cannot enter burial grounds to fix memorials.” 

He concludes: “The National Association of Memorial Masons is the only trade association representing skilled memorial masons and is dedicated to promoting and preserving the memorial masonry craft. Associated businesses such as memorial wholesalers and consumable suppliers to the trade also rely on the continued viability of memorial masons and are all integral to the memorialisation family that NAMM strives to support.” 

In figures

Weekly deathsBefore Covid-19

Death and death rates historically

The graph at the top above shows the weekly number of deaths in England & Wales registered with the General Register Office. They are provisional figures because some deaths are not registered immediately for various reasons, although most are registered within five days.

The increase in the number of deaths when Covid-19 started taking its toll is striking. Until then, the number of deaths this year was below the five-year average, in spite of a slightly higher post-Christmas and New Year spike. The number of deaths recorded during the holiday period is always low and always followed by a spike afterwards.

Following that, the number of deaths this year fell below the five-year average and by the end of February was about 4% down. And the long-term figures (above) show a decline in the number of deaths last year. The figures for 2019 are provisional but are unlikely to exceed 600,000, which they had in three of the four previous years.

The weekly figures (top graph) are for England & Wales because Scotland and Northern Ireland register their deaths separately and in a different way, and take longer to make them public. At the time of going to press, Scotland had reported 2,053 deaths of hospital patients who tested Covid-19 positive and Northern Ireland had recorded 469, compared with more than 35,000 in England & Wales. Not all the increase in deaths above the five-year average since the pandemic reached the UK have been attributed to Covid-19.

More than 90% of Covid-19 deaths were of people over 65 years old, and 65% were over 80. More than 90% of the people who died had at least one pre-existing medical condition, often diabetes.


Cemetery of the Year Award to go ahead but details remain fluid

The Cemetery of the Year Award 2020 is going ahead as planned at the moment as the competition is completed online and all correspondence (copy of the entry form and individual scores) are submitted and returned to the entrant digitally.

The deadline for completed online entry forms is 31 July. The best entries will receive notification in writing that they have reached the finals. An adjudicator will then visit each short-listed burial ground for the final assessment.

There are four categories:

  • Large Burial Grounds above 10,000 graves
  • Small/Medium Burial Grounds up to 10,000 graves
  • Parish, Town and Community Councils
  • Natural Burial Ground

The Cemetery of the Year Award winners will be announced at the ICCM conference in September, presuming it goes ahead.

The Gold Award Winning Cemetery in each category will receive £1,000 prize money as well as a ‘Cemetery of the Year 2020’ framed Gold Certificate along with a CYA press release that can be used to promote their work and achievements. Runners up will receive a ‘Cemetery of the Year 2020’ framed Silver Award Certificate.

Adjudication of the short-listed entries is normally carried out in August. It is hoped to stick to that schedule, but it might have to change in line with government guidelines.

As the Cemeteries are currently under considerable pressure and the government advice regarding the Covid-19 pandemic is fluid, the competition closing date might change and the presentations will work around whether or not the ICCM Conference goes ahead. Burial authorities will be kept informed with the help of the organisations that are supporting and endorsing the Cemetery of the Year Awards 2020.

The Cemetery of the Year Award was revived in 2018 after an eight year break and the organisers feel it is important for the competition to go ahead because cemeteries make improvements based on best practice feedback on their Awards entries.

The competition has a positive effect in the industry by creating an information source of best practice in burial grounds from leading industry organisations, allowing entrants to develop their cemeteries, improve standards and create environments and services that are safer, more user friendly and compliant with legislation.

The Cemetery of the Year Award 2020 is supported and endorsed by: British Register of Accredited Memorial Masons (BRAMM), Memorial Awareness Board (MAB), Institute of Cemetery and Crematorium Management (ICCM), The Federation of Burial and Cremation Authorities (FBCA), The Society of Local Council Clerks (SLCC).