Interview with Doug Sutphen

Veteran in memorial business, Sutphen discusses tombstone practices, & more 

by Pat Summers

An August ’17 info-gathering session with Douglas Sutphen Sr., retired superintendent of the  Princeton Cemetery and owner of Sutphen Memorials Inc., in Hopewell (www.sutphenmemorials.com), yielded useful information for people of all ages. Subjects such as pre-purchasing tombstones, when to have those markers inscribed and whether to have one stone or two for a couple’s cremains . . . all came up, drawing unequivocal responses from Sutphen.

In Q&A format, Sutphen’s points appear below, after these two wording alerts:  (1) tombstones, headstones and markers all refer to stone memorials over cemetery graves.  (2) plot and gravesite both refer to a grave – which can be either of two sizes (3’ x 9’ or 4’ x 11’), depending on the cemetery.

Q – Any advantage to buying a tombstone ahead of time?

A – More and more people are doing it.  It’s easier on a surviving spouse and any children, plus you get what you want.  After purchase, the stone would simply be installed at the grave site.  (Sutphen says he and his wife did this on reaching a certain age; right now, only their surname is inscribed.)

Q – What kind of stone is used for tombstones? 

A – 99.9% of stones are granite, which is available in various finishes and colors. Other materials can be too porous or subject to being eaten up by acid rain. The stone usually goes in the ninth foot of an eight-foot long grave site (for burial with casket).  A concrete foundation goes under the stone to keep it upright. 

Q – How about a couple’s cremains – one stone or two?

A – Normally (98%), people buy one stone for two people.  (Most cemeteries prohibit two stones in this circumstance.)  Many cemeteries now have cremation-only grave sites in a given area, with reduced costs.

Q – When should a tombstone be inscribed? 

A – After the first spouse dies, inscribe everything but the surviving spouse’s death date.  (Today, sand blasting is the usual means of “inscribing,” by the way.)  

Q – Is the inscription checked for accuracy and misspellings?

A – A drawing of the stone goes to the family for final OK.  Even then, 99% of the time, typos are not picked up.

Q – Where do concrete vaults come into this?

A – The purpose of the outer box is to keep the ground flat. Otherwise, as the body and casket gradually degrade, the earth can sink, making mowing difficult and causing a tripping hazard.  (FCA adds that there is no law that requires a vault, but each cemetery can make their own rules. They recommend you shop around to see which cemeteries require vaults and if you must purchase one, get the least expensive, often called a grave liner.) Sutphen points out that many cemeteries require vaults for cremated remains as well – much smaller, of course – maybe 12 x 12 x 12 inches. (FCA questions the motive of this requirement as cremated remains do not degrade or sink…)

Sutphen’s family lived in the Princeton Cemetery house for 100 years.  His five-generation memorial business is the oldest in Mercer County.  “They call me because I’m the one that’s been doin’ it forever,” he says.

He warns potential clients, “You’re gonna be solicited,” and other monument dealers can be unscrupulous, with all kinds of ploys, as well as inferior granite.  (“You get what you pay for.”)   Don’t include too many details in the printed obituary or on social media, he cautions, and to avoid break-ins, make sure someone’s in the home on the day of the funeral.

Sutphen’s services include grave openings for cremations and full burials in about 15 cemeteries; monuments (ordered from Vermont), from design to delivery; and cemetery-restoration work, such as cleaning, fixing, resetting and re-aligning stones.

His son, Douglas Jr., runs a parallel business, Hightstown’s A. L. Duryee Monuments a name the Sutphens retained because of its 110 years in the business.  Route 1 informally divides each company’s territory.

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