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NEW YEAR POSES ANOTHER GRAVE CONCERN <br> ANY TOMBSTONE ETCHED WITH A '19' WILL NEED FIXING

For hundreds of Western New Yorkers, the gift of longevity will present monumental problems sometime after the stroke of midnight Friday.

They've lived longer than their pre-engraved tombstones predicted, and their extra-long lives eventually will result in grave-site repairs to etch their passing in the correct millennium.

"I expect the phone to ring off the wall after the first of the year," said Sally Rosini, manager of Gray & Trigg Monument Inc. of Niagara Falls. "When that calendar flips over, they're going to realize, 'Oh, my goodness, my headstone says I died in 19-something and now it's 2000.' "

Owners of headstones that are not Y2K-compliant can expect to have to fork over at least $100 and perhaps as much as $1,000 for the necessary alterations, engravers said.

Matt Creps, a local stone carver, also expects to get calls, but not right away.

"I don't think we'll hear much until the spring, when the snow melts and more families are out at the grave sites," he said. "That's when they'll start noticing the 19s and they'll call."

A check with several local cemeteries and monument companies found no panic among owners of precarved headstones, though nearly all have fielded calls inquiring about repair procedures.

"So far, they just want to make sure we can make the fix and they want an idea of how much it will cost," Rosini said. "Plus, they don't have to do anything about it until they die, so they've got time to think about what they want to do."

Though there are no firm numbers on how many local headstones will need the repair, it's a good bet that all cemeteries that date back 20 years or more have them.

"We know we've got a lot of them, but until we start hearing from the families, we won't have an accurate count," said Nancy Piechowicz, of Mount Calvary Cemetery, Cheektowaga.

One of the problems in obtaining a correct tally is that families sometimes neglect having death dates finished when the relative dies. So while the headstone indicates unfinished business, the person actually has died within the precarved time frame.

In other cases, a widowed spouse remarried and is now buried with a second husband or wife elsewhere.

Pre-engraving of the first two digits of death dates was standard operating procedure through the first six decades of the 20th century, when a tombstone was erected for a couple or a family. When the first family member, or spouse, was laid to rest, it was considered a matter of future convenience to precut the name, birth year and the "19" part of the death year for others who ultimately expected to be buried at the same site.

Though by the 1970s most monument makers realized their clients stood a good chance of living beyond 1999, the practice didn't end early enough for the estimated 100,000-plus Americans whose pre-engraved headstones sit atop empty graves as they celebrate 80th, 90th and in some cases 100th birthdays.

"The most common circumstance is where one spouse died prematurely," Piechowicz said. "I can imagine someone who was widowed in the 1960s when they were only middle-aged," she said. "They probably never saw themselves living to be in their late 70s or early 80s, but here they are, very much alive and well."

While what was meant to be a convenience will now require correction, it's not an impossible or terribly expensive task. The least expensive method is to use an epoxy and ground stone filler to patch in the incorrect numbers, then recarve the right ones, said Tom Koch of Stone Art Memorials in Lackawanna.

"That's a pretty good way to go, especially if it's Vermont gray granite," Koch said. "How long it will last is a question, though. It could be 75 years or 200 years."

The cost of that type of repair will vary depending on whether the dates have been carved into a "frosted" surface or a smooth, polished background. Changing dates on a polished surface will cost more because the surface of the monument will need to be repolished after the filling and recarving are complete.

Creps advocates a more extensive repair method in which the entire face of the monument is erased, then recarved and polished. In his opinion, the use of fillers will compromise the look of the headstone. The filling method can lead to uneven colorations, mismatched engraving depths and obvious shadows.

"When you've made the investment for a quality vertical slab, it makes sense to me to do this in a way that doesn't compromise the beauty of the stone," he said. "If someone asks me what I'd advise, I'd say resurface the stone, don't patch it."

Thursday: Time to party at hand.

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