There's a two-and-a-half ton granite stone sitting in Kevin Conley's office at the Barre Monument Company. Conley and the stone have a lot in common—both look as if they've been there a while, and neither is going anywhere anytime soon. A man sits across Conley's cluttered desk with a cellphone to his ear and carefully dictates the spelling of a loved one's name, and the dates of her birth and death. When the man hangs up, Conley reads it back. Four weeks later, those same words, now scribbled on a piece of notebook paper, will be chiseled in rock and legible for centuries. Kevin Conley, one of Baltimore's last tombstone carvers, will see to that.
Sitting nearby in a rocking chair is the matriarch of the Barre Monument Company, Conley's 87-year-old mother and boss, Veronica "Ronnie" Conley. It was she who walked through the door of 1630 E. Baltimore Street in 1943 as a young graduate of the Maryland Business School and ran the office, which has remained in the same location for 81 years. Her future husband, Jordon "Bud" Conley, was a monument salesman there, and together they bought the company in 1956—two years after Kevin's birth. Simply put, he was born to be a stone carver.
"The Jewish community tended to be much more aware of memorialization," he says. "My dad would set Hebrew type for a paper mock-up of a stone, to be proofread by a rabbi, before any carving would be done. I would help him. He would say, ‘Hand me an Aleph, hand me a Gimel.' I knew the Hebrew alphabet before I knew the English one." Little has changed. A Hebrew mock-up, albeit a computer-generated one, is taped to a nearby file cabinet.
As a place of business the room is well worn. It is difficult to see the knotty-pine walls for all the photos, clippings, calendars, and citations taped or nailed to them. But it is also a busy place. Chris and Arlon, Conley's occasional helpers, mingle with next-door neighbors who stop in to visit Ronnie and discuss the news of that day's paper. Conley likens the scene to Floyd's Barbershop on The Andy Griffith Show. "People were always sitting around talking and no one got a haircut."
In other respects the business has changed a great deal. Family grave plots—a prominent marker with a family name on it, surrounded by little markers with names of descendants—aren't as common as they once were. "Families weren't so mobile back then. You just don't see those big stones anymore."
By his own estimate Conley figures he has carved close to 20,000 monuments during his career. Although it's a career far from over, it is on the wane. "At one point we were doing over 500 monuments per year. Last year we did 100," he says. Cremation and ash scattering have gained popularity and burial is now one of several options. "The golden age was the mid to late '70's. The people who were dying then valued traditional, in-ground internment."
Conley's work can be seen everywhere and is 75 percent private or family jobs, 25 percent public commissions. He is still very much in demand. Recent jobs include the Police Memorial across from City Police Headquarters, a restoration project of a memorial to the founder of Gibson Island, the Walt Whitman quote on the Dupont Circle Metro Station in Washington, D.C., and a three-and-a half-month stint on the Connecticut Supreme Court Building where he hand-chiseled 600 letters. He has traveled to the northern suburbs of Boston and into the hills of South Carolina. In any week he could be working in one of Baltimore's cemeteries one day and Arlington National Cemetery the next. "A lot of what I do on those jobs is adding inscriptions to existing monuments as the spouse passes away," he says.
A lifetime dedicated to his craft gives Conley a unique view of people and how they deal with death. "Unlike a funeral home, people don't come in here in shock. Their level of comprehension is higher." For the most part anyway. Conley relates the story of a Silver Spring woman whose husband had died. "She paid for the stone in full, but didn't know what she wanted to have inscribed on it. So she would come up to the office, first stopping on Lombard Street, and bring us corned beef sandwiches. Three or four times a year she would do this . . . for six years. And always bringing corned beef sandwiches. She just couldn't come to grips with the fact that her husband was gone." The stone was finished eventually. She just needed time.
The 59-year-old Conley knows he is working in a dying art, both literally and figuratively. When his father bought the business there were 126 monument companies in Baltimore. Today there are six. And although 70- or 80-year-old stone carvers are not unheard of, he wonders about the future of the Barre Monument Company. "Neither of my daughters is interested. One swears I'm three ferrets away from an episode of ‘Hoarders.' " A few years ago he tried to recruit apprentices from MICA. It didn't end well. "What I got was a lot of ‘artists.' They would ask questions like, ‘You don't work outside all year around, do you?' Or ‘Is it always this noisy?' Or ‘How come everything takes so long?'" Incidentally, the answers to the first two questions are yes and yes. As for the last question, Conley allows himself a chuckle and a sly smile. "The reason it takes so long is because it's carved in stone."