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The Y2K Cemetery Glitch
By Marisa Helms
August 26, 1999

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Discussions about Y2K are everywhere. The talk ranges from big fears like airplanes falling from the sky, to the inevitable irritations we're bound to experience if the power goes out or there are fewer choices at the grocery story for a few days.

But for some people, there's something else to worry about; pre-engraved cemetery markers. People who already purchased and engraved their headstones, thinking they'd die before the rollover to 2000, may have a consumer headache in their future.

GRAVESTONES ARE IMPORTANT MARKERS of personal history. Someday they'll remind the world, or at least your little corner of it, that you were here, that you existed. But some gravestones make the assumption that the person who'll one day lay under the stone will die this century. But as we move into a new millennium, people are living longer, and those stones pre-engraved with 19s on the death date are starting to look like expensive antiques.

Hastings resident Jan Burr attended a gathering of Catholic Aid volunteers at Saint John's University recently, and was musing about this low-tech millennial bug.

Burr: It's really a new issue. It's a good thought. I go out to the cemetery once in a while to see my loved ones. And I see all these with all the 19s. And they're all kicking yet!
Though for the last few years, the practice of pre-engraving a '19' on gravestones has gone out of favor, Burr is wondering if she and her husband should do anything with their cemetery plans before the calendar year changes over.
Burr:: We've got our plots, but would we wait now to do our monument? I mean, we got our plots 'cause they were gonna go up, so we thought, well we'll get 'em. But I'd like to get the monument soon.
Burr and her husband can go ahead and get their monument, but holding off on any engraving is probably a good idea.

Sitting next to her, Norbert Portner from New Ulm says he worked for a monument company for about 30 years. He says he's already seen what it takes to fix the problem.

Portner: It's very hard to do. You have to cut back the granite where that 19 is, and cut it back far enough so you can put 2000 in there or 2001, whatever year the person'll die. It almost spoils the monument and in a lot of cases, they've replaced the whole monument; it's very expensive of course, but they've done it.
At this point, the Y2K headstone problem is tough to quantify, and how the problem will be handled is unclear.
Bill Carlin: I think some people will get upset. Who'll they'll get upset with, I don't know.
Saint Cloud funeral director Bill Carlin says he's not sure yet what he'll do if someone comes to him asking for help to change their stone, because changing it will cost money. He says the reason people pre-engraved in the first place was as a way to save money.
Carlin: What some people who are buying stones in the past may have thought, is right now it may cost me $5 a number to have the one-nine put on there, so that's only $10. Twenty years down the road it may cost me $50 a letter, and I want to just do it now while it's cheaper.
While those thrifty, forward-thinking consumers may not have expected to live to see the 21st century, many will. So they or their family are going to have to change the monument's death date. There are several options, from grinding off the old numbers to filling in the surface and re-engraving.

Carlin says an average cost today to engrave the four digits of a death date is about $70, not including the extra cost of making the correction. But Carlin says the best, most permanent - though admittedly most expensive - way to fix that stone is to re-create it entirely. But an upright granite headstone could have an average cost of $2,000 to $3,000.

So who's going to pay? The coming of the millennium is no one's "fault." Carlin says while he thinks it's unreasonable for consumers to pay the entire cost to fix the problem, it's also unreasonable to expect companies to pay. He says the funeral industry is a business and a gravestone is a product just like any other.

Carlin: If you bought a car, for example, and it came with the hubcaps that you ordered, and five years down the road you decided the hubcaps were the wrong style for the car, you've got to pay for the new hubcaps.
The decision about how to handle Y2K gravestone claims will be settled once the issue starts playing out over the next few years. Regardless of the outcome, it will cost someone something, to make sure the date of death on cemetery gravestones shows the right century.