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Memorial Masonry : A matter of life and death

19 March 2012
A photograph from the MAB photographic competition last year. The graph shows the number of deaths in the past decade (source: UK National Statistics)

Just before the economy took a dive, so did the number of deaths in the UK, delivering a double whammy to the memorial masonry side of the industry. But on the bright side…

Memorial masonry is a dying business, according to the old pun, which masons are only half joking when they repeat. Certainly the last few years have not been easy.
Anyone in the death care industry can only be busy if people are dying and the post World War II baby boomers who will, inevitably, one day provide a boost to the industry are currently enjoying impressive longevity, as the graph below indicates.
According to the government figures, in 2004 the number of deaths in the UK fell below 600,000 for the first time since 1957 – and it has not risen back above that level since. In 2009 the number of deaths was at its lowest point since 1930.
There is another similarity with the 1930s provided by the banking crisis. The fall in the number of deaths has coincided with an economic downturn of the same proportions as that of 80 years ago, giving memorial masons a double whammy: not only is the number of memorials being sold under pressure but so is the price that people can afford to pay for them.
Yet, all things considered, the sector has not fared as badly as might have been expected – certainly not as badly as the kitchen worktop sector that a fair number of memorial masons expanded into during the boom years.
The population of the UK has grown in the decade to 2010 by more than 3million. A rise in the birth rate has accounted for some of that but immigration has also played its part – and immigrants, especially the more religiously devout, are often keen on stone memorials, which has provided a sliver of light in the gloom.
Neither does there seem to have been a big shift in the way bodies are being disposed of. Cremation seems to be increasing a little, presumably because it is less expensive than burial, but is not much above the 70% or so it has been for many years. And the majority of those who are buried still have a stone memorial erected to mark the grave. There has been an increase in the number of woodland burial sites but they are still used for only a small number of funerals.
The memorial masonry sector, meanwhile, is showing continuing signs of greater co-operation and less inclination towards internecine wars, as NSS reported at the time of the two-yearly National Funeral Exhibition at Stoneleigh Park, Coventry, last June (see NSS June 2011). The exhibition will be back at Stoneleigh Park 7-9 June next year.
The NAMM Register of Qualified Memorial Fixers (RQMF) and the independent British Register of Accredited Memorial Masons (BRAMM) that was originally created by NAMM to oversee fixing standards in the industry now accept each other and compete to train and accredit memorial masons.
Having a register of accredited memorial fixers has benefitted memorial masons by enabling them to demonstrate they can fix memorials safely and so can work in any cemetery without having to comply with the diverse set of standards that can be imposed by different authorities.
The cemetery authorities have benefited because it makes it easy for them to identify those masons who have trained to fix memorials. It means the authorities don’t have to worry about the standard of fixing.
And the public have benefited because their memorials are fixed safely and do not have to be knocked over or tied to stakes by concerned cemetery authorities.
There is also another benefit for memorial masons – they can end up with a nationally recognised qualification.
NAMM, the National Association of Memorial Masons, had its training accepted by City & Guilds in 2010. It currently has two C&Gs, one for fixing lawn and monolith memorials and one for the safe inspection and assessment of memorials. Two more are currently making their way through the C&G accreditation process (one for lettering and one for cemetery authority staff). NAMM will be meeting with C&G on 29 March at the NAMM headquarters in Rugby to progress these.
NAMM has also for some years aspired to offer a Diploma in Memorial Masonry and the Executive Committee was having a progress meeting this month (February) about that. It will be a NAMM Diploma, possibly awarded in connection with a university. Some of the elements contributing to it (memorial fixing, for example) will be City & Guilds accredited.
From April, the rival register of BRAMM will also offer a nationally recognised qualification for its training. It has been working with the Open College Network to get its training accredited under the Qualification Credit Framework (QCF), which covers qualifications such as NVQs and includes exams taken by school children. Everyone who gains an accredited qualification is given a unique number and all their qualifications throughout their life are added to their record.
BRAMM’s Installation of Lawn Memorials training that leads to the BRAMM Fixer Licence will be a Level 2 course worth three credits on the QCF, which is computerised and can be checked on the internet to verify the qualifications of applicants when they apply for jobs, for example.
BRAMM is already working on a second QCF qualification to cover more advanced fixing – such as kerb sets and multi-component structures like crosses. It hopes to introduce that in about a year.
The point of it all, says BRAMM chairman Ian Hale, is to ensure memorial masons get the best deal they can and do not have to face a diversity of what can be ill-informed and pointless rules imposed by cemetery and burial authorities.
The registers are one of the industry’s success stories. They have been widely used by the trade. NAMM’s RQMF has 400 fixers on it and 1,166 memorial companies. BRAMM, which has been going longer than NAMM’s register, has nearly 500 fixer masons on it. And more cemeteries are adopting the registers as a qualification system to allow masons to fix memorials all the time.
Underpinning memorial safety is the British Standard (BS 8415), currently undergoing the lengthy process of being revised. The committee making the revisions was meeting again on 21 February, when it was hoped final decisions could be reached so the new standard can be published.
Another of NAMM’s initiatives that seemed to develop a life of its own was MAB, which now stands for the Memorial Awareness Board. It was set up to promote stone memorialisation for the benefit of the entire industry (the latest initiatives are reported on page 29).
MAB is financed by a levy of 1% charged on the price of memorials. It is a voluntary contribution made by the retailers to wholesalers, but they can opt out of if they want to and many do. It relies on the wholesalers to collect the levy to keep administration costs down, but not all of them collect it.
Recent Presidents of NAMM have been more enthusiastic about MAB and the current President, Roger Wilcock from
St Leonards-on-Sea company Arthur C Towner, often attends MAB executive meetings. He is keen on co-operation within the industry and is also looking for more co-operation with Stone Federation Great Britain on issues of interest to all masons – such as health & safety and possibly Europe.
Some of the wholesalers who do collect the levy are disappointed there is not more support for MAB, both from wholesalers and from retailers who do not pay the levy. Some believe NAMM should actively encourage its members to pay the levy to support MAB.
Some also believe retailers should show more support for British wholesalers, especially when both are members of NAMM, although they would not express it so bluntly. And retailers might retort that wholesalers could support them by not selling finished memorials directly to funeral directors or cemeteries.
The vast majority of the memorial industry is selling imported memorials from China and India because the price difference between the imports and those made in this country made it impossible to buck the trend once the imports had started. But no more memorials are being sold. Some argue that fewer memorials would have been sold if the price had not dropped, others that the same number of memorials are sold now as before the price fall, so all the lower price has done is make the sector as a whole worth less.
The wholesalers do try to address that by adding value with new designs and decorations and the public certainly are getting more memorial for their money than they used to.
A new element to marketing memorials is the internet – and the market is currently awash with re-launched websites, including those from MAB and NAMM. The web is now seen as an integral part of the marketing mix, along with catalogues and retail showrooms. Perhaps, like catalogues, new websites will be published every few years in future.
Most companies say only a small number of enquiries come via the internet and only a proportion of those are actually converted to sales. Some believe most of the customers they do get through their websites would have found them anyway.
The latest bit of high technology that goes one stage beyond photoplaques and photoetching on to granite is the QR (quick response) code (see the picture under the bench on the left) that has started appearing all over the place, including some of the memorials from wholesalers A&J Robertson (Granite) in Aberdeen.
The codes are sold as Memorial Tags, which are stuck to memorials, benches, or anything else and are linked to a website containing pictures and videos of the deceased person. When someone with a smartphone or tablet scans the QR code they see the pictures.
There is a Bronze, Silver and Gold service that costs up to £100. The bereaved upload material to the website themselves – because, as Graeme Robertson says, the sort of people who want to do this are likely to be able to cope with uploading whatever they want to include.

 

The picture on the right is one of the entries in the photographic competition run last year by the Memorial Awareness Board (MAB), established in 1984 to promote awareness of memorialisation issues in the UK. Sponsored by StoneGuard Memorial Stone Insurance, the competition was open to everyone. Its aim: to help raise the image and profile of stone memorialisation. 
Entries have to include two photographs, one entitled ‘then’ and the other ‘now’. The winning pair are the top two on the left. They were taken by Dave Cook from London who received the £1,000 first prize in November. The other two were runners up taken by Nigel Crump from Buckinghamshire, who received a £50 photobox voucher.
The competition will be held again this year and will be launched in March.
MAB is also using the centenary of the sinking of the Titanic as an innovative way of highlighting the importance of memorials this year. It is tracing memorials erected to the passengers and crew who died when the ship sunk after hitting an iceberg on her maiden voyage. The aim is to emphasise the importance of memorials not just to aid the grieving process of the current generation but also to leave an historical reference point for future generations.
Another major plank of the MAB campaign this year is a new website, currently under construction. You can see it at www.memorialawarenessboard.com. And the now annual autumn conference will once again be staged in November, at the Houses of Parliament.
The MAB executive was holding its first meeting of 2012 this month to flesh out the strategy for the rest of the year.

Wholesaler George Willcox Granite Ltd has gone further than most in using the internet for its business. Memorial Masons can already place their orders entirely through the website (www.willcoxgranite.co.uk) and the wholesaler will be further expanding the services on the site during 2012.
George Willcox Granite says the site has already been extremely successful, with many masons making full use of the ordering facilities it offers. This year it will be enhanced to allow customers to order an even wider range of decorations that can be added to memorials to increase the value of the final sale and help increase profitability for memorial masons.
A good example is a range of resin rose and other flower ornaments for fixing to the face of headstones.
The finished effect of these gives an appearance similar to carved black granite, with an antique highlighted finish that many masons will already be familiar with. The pictures above and below show both a carved memorial and a resin rose, produced in a similar style to each other.
Also available for ordering on the website will be a range of granite and glass chippings, including a brand new range of glass beads for memorial kerbset infills that have already provoked great interest.
Willcox will also be rolling out other improvements to the website. These include showing stock levels of each memorial. Ordering memorials that are immediately available will make delivery even speedier. Willcox say these memorials will be priced at an advantageous rate.
Most importantly, it will be introducing enhanced information on the progress of a customer’s order. This will include dates of production, shipping and arrival for imported orders and expected delivery dates for the finished memorial.

Wholesaler George Willcox Granite Ltd has gone further than most in using the internet for its business. Memorial Masons can already place their orders entirely through the website (www.willcoxgranite.co.uk) and the wholesaler will be further expanding the services on the site during 2012.
George Willcox Granite says the site has already been extremely successful, with many masons making full use of the ordering facilities it offers. This year it will be enhanced to allow customers to order an even wider range of decorations that can be added to memorials to increase the value of the final sale and help increase profitability for memorial masons.
A good example is a range of resin rose and other flower ornaments for fixing to the face of headstones.
The finished effect of these gives an appearance similar to carved black granite, with an antique highlighted finish that many masons will already be familiar with. The pictures above and below show both a carved memorial and a resin rose, produced in a similar style to each other.
Also available for ordering on the website will be a range of granite and glass chippings, including a brand new range of glass beads for memorial kerbset infills that have already provoked great interest.
Willcox will also be rolling out other improvements to the website. These include showing stock levels of each memorial. Ordering memorials that are immediately available will make delivery even speedier. Willcox say these memorials will be priced at an advantageous rate.
Most importantly, it will be introducing enhanced information on the progress of a customer’s order. This will include dates of production, shipping and arrival for imported orders and expected delivery dates for the finished memorial.

 

 

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