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Grave Matters 

Work: Tony Socinski

Some of the Socinskis are six feet under - beautiful tombstones created by the family's own artisans, that is. Generations are in graves adorned with markers. Theirs is a heritage that dates back to the late 1800s, when the patriarch, Antoni, emigrated from Poland and found work in the marble quarries of Rutland. Antoni is long gone, but those hardscrabble roots are a source of pride for his grandson, Tony Socinski. The 68-year-old former teacher, who has been in the "memorial" end of the business for almost four decades, can be found at Densmore Monuments on Shelburne Road in South Burlington.

Today, Tony manages the office and the sales effort. His son Francis, 35, handles the cutting, etching and sandblasting chores with a partner named Mike Richburg. Since 1980, Densmore has also turned out stone signage and home furnishings - desks, tables, sinks, countertops - but about two-thirds of the firm's customers are seeking lasting reliquaries to honor their dead.

In the showroom, which boasts samples of stone with names like Jet Mist, Sahara Beige, Impala Black, Baltic Brown, Indian Juparana and Italian Carrara, the Socinskis display what Tony has dubbed "our love letters." This fan mail, dating back to the early 1970s, generally thanks the company for their reliable products and compassion in a time of grief. Brochures suggest decorative tombstone designs: deer, a boat, an equestrian atop a horse, a flower basket, a covered bridge, the Last Supper.

In front of the building, several upright markers in different hues demonstrate the standard shapes, from circles to rectangles to religious crosses. Out back in the cluttered stoneyard and adjacent workshop, the younger Socinski and Richburg ply their trade. On a crisp October afternoon, Francis is working on a dual memorial for an elderly couple who are thinking ahead. The picture they've chosen for their eternal resting place is an RV riding into the sunset, accompanied by the words "On the Road Again."

SEVEN DAYS: Well, the most obvious question has got to be: Why do the Socinskis have a business called Densmore?

Tony Socinski: In 1966 I started Artistic Memorials. In 1978 I bought Densmore, a Williston Road company that went back to the early 1900s and was originally in Jericho. When I merged the two in 1983, it made sense to use Densmore, which had more name recognition.

SD: Did your father and grandfather expect you would follow them into the stone game?

TS: No. I started in the quarries, but they wanted bigger and better things for me, because it was so labor-intensive. So I went to the University of Vermont - class of '57 - and then joined the military for lack of anything else to do. After that, I taught history and languages at junior and senior high schools in Addison County for 10 years. At first I was running Artistic Memorials on the side, but went full-time in 1970. I wanted to work for myself.

SD: Was it a foregone conclusion that your son would continue in the family tradition?

Francis Socinski: Not really. I attended Vermont Technical College and got involved with computers, but I fell back into this. I felt it was something I do fairly well.

SD: Has it been a father-to-son learning experience?

TS: He pretty much picked things up on his own. I didn't ever really know stone cutting as well as my father or my grandfather. And at one time, we employed half a dozen people here.

SD: Francis, do you make a headstone from start to finish?

FS: My wife Laura does the drawings on tracing paper. I add the lettering. On some projects, we transfer everything onto a rubber stencil with mineral spirits.

SD: Why rubber?

TS: That exposes the part you're working on and protects the rest of the stone if it's being sandblasted. Engraving is done either by sandblasting or with a carving tool, which doesn't require the rubber mat. Fine, delicate etching is done freehand or with a diamond-point tool that goes right through the tracing paper.

SD: Do you carve the stone's general shape?

TS: We did until our cutter retired about 10 years ago. It's also - I shouldn't say this, I guess - a dead art. Everything's become more mechanized. We get most of the domestic [pre-shaped] stones from Barre; others are imported from China or India nowadays.

SD: Do people ask for customized work?

FS: About 90 percent choose what's on display. It's not too often they ask for something done from scratch.

SD: What are the options when they do personalize a memorial?

FS: They might want a photo of their loved one on the stone. And special wording.

TS: We've done some pretty outrageous pieces. About 20 or 25 years ago, one gal wanted only: "Hello dere, Dolores." No dates. That was something she always said, I guess. That struck me as weird. She was maybe 50 and got that for herself. It's what we call a "pre-need" order by people who are still living, versus an "at-need."

SD: Is there any one order you consider your masterpiece?

TS: We did a "Barre blue-gray" granite mausoleum with six crypts inside it about 10 years ago in Rotterdam, New York. It took several months. The thing has stained glass and bronze doors. In today's terms, it would cost $100,000. That was our crowning glory.

SD: You go to the grave sites?

TS: We install our stones, mostly by putting in a concrete footing so they don't fall over.

SD: Does dealing with death ever become too grim?

TS: Well, occasionally people break down and we express our feelings of sympathy, but that's somewhat unusual. It's not too depressing, though. This is a necessary service we're providing. As I go around to cemeteries, I see work by my father and grandfather at graves of our own relatives. My grandparents are buried in West Rutland with a stone my father made.

SD: What's the upside?

FS: It makes you feel good, like you're doing something worthwhile.

SD: Is this a profession with longevity?

TS: There'll always be a need for what we do. The cavedwellers drew on walls. Mankind has always worked with stone.

SD: Some of the samples sound so exotic - Indian Juparana, for example. Which are the most popular materials?TS: The blue-gray granite from Barre. Other people prefer marble; Danby has snow-white, Rochester and Whitingham have the greenish kind.

SD: Is Vermont stone in great demand here?

TS: Yes. And we get orders from as far away as Hawaii and Alaska, from people who've moved out of state. Vermonters all want a piece of the rock.

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