The Daily Press

Supply chain issues causing shortage of gravestone granite

- By Jesse Bunch Pittsburgh Post-Gazette

PITTSBURGH - Internatio­nal supply chain delays may be making the grieving process even harder for people who have recently lost loved ones.

This fall, consumers have seen shortages in goods such as toilet paper, bicycles and electronic­s. And monument manufactur­ers say granite, used to make gravestone­s, has become equally as hard to obtain.

“My sales manager here, he’s fielding calls all the time nowadays — ‘Any idea when our monument’s coming in?’” said Tony Bekavac, president of Rudez Granite & Bronze in Jefferson Hills. “We try to give our best estimation of when that’s going to occur, but you know, as we have found, we can’t even predict that ... . ”

Since 1958, Rudez Granite & Bronze has specialize­d in custom gravestone­s and monuments. Mr. Bekavac said that never in the history of the business had he seen such delays.

“We’re looking at customers that have had orders with us for almost a year, and prepandemi­c, even when we were importing granite from China, we were no more than six months out turnaround time,” Mr. Bekavac said. “So that turnaround time has more than doubled.”

Mr. Bekavac is seeing delays in both foreign and domestic granite due to COVID-19. He said shutdowns and congestion at ports plus a lack of shipping containers are delaying overseas imports from countries such as China, the world’s largest granite producer.

Before the pandemic, Mr. Bekavac’s customers sometimes had their monuments in as little as six weeks. With orders now backed up to a year, a new kind of waiting game has been created.

“We’re a little different in a sense that we’re dealing with people’s cemetery memorials,” said Mr. Bekavac. “I had a broken shelf for my refrigerat­or, and I ordered it in January of this year, and I ended up getting it in August. I wasn’t mad about it, but I was frustrated — what’s taking so long? And this was for a $30 shelf in a refrigerat­or. Like I said to my sales manager recently, ‘We’re dealing with people’s memorials for their loved ones that they want to see in a cemetery that cost thousands of dollars.’ So it’s new territory for us.”

Vince Dioguardi, president of Rome Monument on Pittsburgh’s North Side, said the family-owned business is blessed to have a large inventory of granite on hand. Still, they’re feeling the ripples in the supply chain.

“If a family selects a granite that is at a quarry overseas, the whole port congestion has drasticall­y expanded lead times on material getting to us,” Mr. Dioguardi said. “Even domestic quarries, they’re having the challenges of labor shortages, truck shortages.”

A stencil problem Preparing a monument is a lengthy effort because of the design and layout process, Mr. Bekavac said. It also requires stencil, which helps manufactur­ers engrave lettering into the granite.

Like granite, stencil supply is jammed.

Rome Monument’s main stencil supplier is 3M, whose warehouses have “completely dried up,” said Mr. Dioguardi, who added that his company had to ration stencil to take care of families that ordered even before shortages became an issue.

“There’s just no inventory,” he said. “My assumption is that a lot of the stencil is made overseas and not made domestical­ly, which is unfortunat­e. That has caused those delays in getting stencil in the warehouses that can then be sold to a monument manufactur­er like myself.”

According to Anna Nagurney, a supply chain expert, many of these issues originate in China. Ms. Nagurney is a professor in the department of Operations and Informatio­n Management at University of Massachuse­tts Amherst.

She said China’s zero-COVID policy means manufactur­ing hubs like factories, mines and ports are shut down for mandatory testing if workers there test positive for COVID-19.

“That’s been a major issue in China, because they’re so careful,” Ms. Nagurney said. “They’re so risk averse.

“That makes it really problemati­c, with any kind of product,” she added. “They’ve had some manufactur­ing plants shut down for quite a while.”

Contributi­ng to the backlog, Ms. Nagurney said Chinese factories that build shipping containers were shut down last year and did not build enough containers to meet this year’s demand.

Ships that do have containers are backed up in places like the Port of Shanghai, she explained, with quarantine and required COVID testing for workers delaying the unloading process.

The California ports of Los Angeles and Long Beach, which handle 40% of the United States’ containeri­zed imports, were open 24/ 7 in October to clear the backlog. But even so, Ms. Nagurney said a domestic shortage of workers is leaving containers on ships.

While large retailers like Amazon and Walmart have used their capital to hire their own cargo ships and beat delays ahead of the holidays, small businesses like monument manufactur­ers are left at the mercy of the supply chain.

“Small businesses are feeling it really terribly; I’m really, really worried about that,”

Ms. Nagurney said. “The price of containers has gone way up, almost 10 times since last year. So for small businesses, it’s terrible.”

At Rudez Granite & Bronze, Mr. Bekavac said that’s meant price increases on some monuments.

For families waiting on monuments, Mr. Bekavac says, “We’re just looking for patience and understand­ing as we’re trying to do everything that we can to get these memorials in in a timely fashion.”

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