An Error Set in Stone
An Error Set in Stone—at the Cemetery
A Family Gets to the Bottom of a Slip-Up, and Learns They Aren’t Alone
By Kathleen A. Hughes
Oct. 12, 2014 505 p.m. ET
“There’s been a bit of family drama,” my brother Doug warned as I was packing an overnight bag to head to my father’s burial service in West Chester, Pa.
“They got the name wrong on Dad’s gravestone.” “How could that possibly have happened?” I asked, incredulous.
“I don’t know, but I’m driving to the cemetery right now to take a look. I’ll send you a picture in a few minutes,” Doug said.
Sure enough, my phone soon flashed a picture of the error—set in stone:
HUGHES 1930 JAMES A., JR. 2013 AKA JAMES GLEASON
1942 MADELEINE M.
The first two lines and the last line were fine. My father, a former sales manager for a chemical company, was born James Aloysius Hughes Jr. in 1930, and he died suddenly from lung disease last December at age 83. He married Madeleine 29 years ago, and she plans to be buried next to him.
It was the third line, the AKA, that was the problem.
M Instead of “James Gleason” it was supposed to say “James Gregory,” the name my father adopted, after converting to Catholicism, in honor of his priest, Msgr. Gregory J. Parlante at St. Cornelius Catholic Church in Chadds Ford, Pa. And that made the mistake even weirder.
Finding the Humor
My father, the funniest and most supportive person I have ever known, was a self- proclaimed agnostic for most of his life, until our stepmother persuaded him to attend services with her at St. Cornelius. He was immediately taken with Msgr. Parlante, who shared the same hearty sense of humor.
While our father had told us five years ago that he planned to convert to Catholicism, my brother and I were surprised to learn during his funeral service in January that he had taken the name James Gregory after being baptized. Msgr. Parlante delivered a jovial account of his endless theological debates with James Gregory.
We waited five months to bury Dad’s ashes, since the Pennsylvania ground seemed too frozen in January and that allowed time for the granite gravestone to be created in Vermont and delivered—just in time for the burial ceremony.
About 20 close friends and family members gathered on that brilliantly sunny morning on the green grass of Birmingham-Lafayette Cemetery in West Chester.
“What’s up with Gleason?” my cousin asked in a hushed tone.
I walked over to check in with Msgr. Parlante, who was preparing to deliver the service. “How did this happen?” I asked. “Gleason?”
“Yes, and awaaay we go!” he laughed heartily, using the comedian Jackie Gleason’s trademark line. Msgr. Parlante confided, remarkably, that his own family’s gravestone in Resurrection Cemetery in Bensalem, Pa., has errors, too.
A Common Problem
So how often do these grave errors occur and why?
Engraving a tombstone, meant to last for an eternity, hardly seems like the right moment to skip double-checking the facts.
Robert Fells, executive director of the International Cemetery, Cremation and Funeral Association in Sterling, Va., says he doesn’t know of anyone tracking the number of grave errors, or even, for that matter, the total number of gravestones and cemeteries in the U.S. That said, he estimates there are about 75,000 to 100,000 cemeteries.
We do have an idea of how much of a problem gravestone errors have been for veterans. Three years ago, a government report showed that thousands of gravestones in Arlington National Cemetery might have errors. A spokeswoman for the cemetery says they are in the process of correcting 4,125 grave markers—out of about 280,000 at the site—marred by mistakes including typos, misspellings and incorrect facts.
Gravestone makers say families are often at fault. While many companies send proofs to customers before setting a name in stone, stressed and often aging family members don’t always catch the errors. Small mistakes, one letter or number, can often be patched and redone with barely a trace. But with big errors, the engraver usually has to start over.
“This has been one of our worst years for families not catching typos,” says D.J. Bott, a co- owner of Bott & Sons Monument Co. in Brigham City, Utah. So far this year, he says, they have created about 225 gravestones and had to correct about 19 of them.
“Sometimes folks get confused,” he says. “They don’t remember the exact date someone died.” A common mistake is to look at the funeral program and use the burial date instead of the date of death.
Taking the Blame
In our case, one thing was clear: The error wasn’t the fault of my stepmother’s handwriting. Right before the burial service began, she unfolded the original yellow order form from Chardy Memorials in Kennett Square, Pa. It clearly said, “AKA James Gregory.”
Instead of a proof, however, she said she received a notice that the stone had been set in place. Tearfully, she had gone to the cemetery alone to take a peek—and confronted “Gleason.”
“I didn’t know whether to laugh or cry,” she recalls. She finally looked up at the sky and laughed. “I can’t wait to see what you had in mind with this,” she said out loud.
While my stepmother’s faith seems to have trumped her shock, I decided to track down the person who came up with “Gleason.” How do you accidentally engrave a tombstone with an entirely different name?
I called Chardy Memorials and spoke with Kenneth Roberts, the owner and grandson of the founder.
“It was my fault,” Mr. Roberts said apologetically. “I placed the order with the manufacturer as ‘AKA James Gregory,’ the way it was supposed to be, but when it came back as a proof, I missed it.”
Mr. Roberts said he has been in this business for 45 years and has had only one other correction, 37 years ago, when a date of Aug. 30 inadvertently became Aug. 31. He called the family to double-check, and since they were in a hurry, he read it to them over the phone, accidentally reading it as Aug. 30.
“We always guarantee our work,” he added. He noted that James Gleason was the name of a well-known actor who made films from the ’20s through the ’50s, but he doubts the young graphic designer who worked on the stone knew of him. And he declined to let me speak with her directly.
“I don’t make mistakes very often,” said Mr. Roberts with a sigh. But, he added, “I’m human.” (He did quietly replace the stone in August.)
Inspiration for a Toast
No harm done, really. The burial service went well. My stepmother carried the beige urn containing my father’s ashes to a pedestal next to the gravestone, and Msgr. Parlante blessed the urn with holy water. I read a poem, “To Laugh Often and Much,” incorrectly attributing it to Ralph Waldo Emerson, as many people do online. (Should have double-checked. The poem seems to have a long and convoluted history, making the authorship unclear.)
After the ceremony, we gathered for lunch in a nearby Italian restaurant and raised our glasses in a hearty toast to my father: “To Gleason!”
He would have laughed.
Ms. Hughes is a writer in California and New York. She can be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.
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