After almost a century in eclipse, epitaphs are making a comeback
When immigrant stonemason Vincel Arnet started work at Lockridge Monuments in Ypsilanti in 1887, most Washtenaw County gravestones were made of limestone sent by wagon from Bedford, Indiana. The soft stone was easily carved, and a trip to any of the area's older cemeteries reveals wonderful examples of monuments decorated with symbolic pictures, such as lambs for dead children, weeping willows signifying sadness, or tree stumps marking people who died in the prime of life. Some include epitaphs, often long ones; like James Warble's 1861 stone in Stony Creek Cemetery in Augusta Township:
Sleep on dear Father
Thy toils and cares are o'er
It was God that called thee home
Where we shall meet to part no more
Even the simpler stones often include information such as the place of death, close relatives, or the deceased's age down to the day.
Unfortunately, these beautiful stones are prey to the elements; the wear over the years makes the engravings harder to discern. Vincel Arnet arrived from Pilsen, Bohemia, at the end of an era. In 1889, granite, a harder, much longer-lasting stone, began to be mined in Barre, Vermont, and later in St. Cloud, Minnesota, and Elberton, Georgia. Previously the only granite available was from Scotland, and shipping costs made it too expensive for general use.
Larry Arnet, Vincel's great-grandson and the owner of Arnet's Monuments on Jackson Road, has become an expert in gravestones, both from his own involvement in the industry and from listening to stories about his family's eighty-five-year-old business. People readily switched to granite for its durability, he says, although it had the drawback of being much more expensive to engrave since it was so hard. Arnet estimates that engraving limestone was about 7 percent of the final cost of the stone, while engraving granite reached about 25 percent. The expense meant that people not only stopped putting symbolic pictures and extra information on gravestones, but sometimes even reduced the engraving to the name and the years of birth and death, omitting the day and the month.
The advent of the automobile and the subsequent scattering of families around the county also affected the burial business. In the nineteenth century, people would buy cemetery lots in groups of eight, twelve, or even sixteen, intending that the mortal remains of the entire family would lie together. Often they identified the area with a big central monument bearing the family name, which they surrounded with smaller stones for each family member.. But as this century progressed and families dispersed, people switched to buying only one or two lots at a time.
The Arnet Monument Company (originally Zachmann and Arnet - Gus Zachmann was a partner for a few years) opened during the switch from limestone to granite and shortly before the rise of the automobile. Founder Joseph L. Arnet, Vincel's son and Larry's grandfather, followed his father and trained to be a stonemason, apprenticing in Flint. In 1904, at the age of twenty-five, he started his own business in Ann Arbor, using the $25 insurance proceeds he received when his father died. His first shop was simply an open lot on the corner of Main and Ann, most recently the site of the Salvation Army Store and now a temporary county park. Says Larry Arnet, "In those days they worked outside. They didn't feel they had to have air conditioning in the summer and heating in the winter."
According to family stories, there were six monument companies in Ann Arbor when Joseph Arnet started in business. After two years there were only two, the other four having joined Arnet. The business was given a good start when it received as its third commission a $5,000 stone - 200 times the $25 average at the time. An unmarried schoolteacher died without heirs and, not wanting her money to go to the state, designated that her entire estate be used for a burial stone. Arnet spent a year carving an 8 by 10 foot monument and decorating it with acanthus leaves. (It's in York Cemetery, at the corner of Platt and Judd roads in York Township.)
In 1917 Joseph Arnet finally gave his workers a break from Michigan's inclement climate by moving to an inside location at 208 West Huron, most recently the Whiffletree Restaurant. Up until the restaurant's 1988 fire, Larry Arnet says, it was still possible to see the beams that had held the chain falls used to lift stone in his grandfather's day.
Joseph's son, Frederick, began working in the family business after graduating from the U-M in 1931 with a degree in architecture. He took over completely in 1937 after Joseph suffered a debilitating stroke. Under Frederick's leadership, the company branched into producing architectural features, such as stone facings and copings around walls, a natural outgrowth of his architectural training.
In need of more space for the expanding business that Frederick was bringing in, Arnet's moved in 1933 to 924-936 North Main, the building that now houses Robey Tire.
Larry Arnet grew up in the business, watching his father and grandfather work at the various locations and helping when he was old enough. But when he came of age, he had doubts about whether he wanted to follow the course laid out for him. Frederick Arnet, thinking he would need to sell the business, attempted to shrink it to a manageable size. He moved it in 1960 to a smaller location, 218 Chapin, across from West Park, now the New Hope Baptist Church. But Larry relented and took over the business in 1965. Following the trend of heavy industries leaving downtown for cheaper, more accessible space on the edge of town, he moved Arnet's to its present location at 4495 Jackson Road in 1970. He has since been joined in the business by his son Steve, daughter Carol Bondie, and son-in-law Jim Moomey.
Larry Arnet is a warm jovial man, and it's obvious that his original reluctance has turned into an enormous enthusiasm for the profession. Although he admits the trend is to spend less on funerals and gravestones, Larry Arnet says there is also increased awareness of the importance of formally recognizing a loved one's death and of the comfort that comes from knowing where the physical remains lie. He says a rise in family feeling among young people has led to an increase in requests for memorials with special carvings, symbols, and epitaphs.
Fortunately, technical improvements in the industry now allow more designs and information to be put on granite stones, despite their hardness, at a reasonable cost. Computer-generated stencils are used for sandblasting, and skilled artisans can etch the designs into the stone with a vibrating diamond-tipped pen.
Larry Arnet has worked on unusual gravestones, including those for stunt pilot William Barber and his wife, Elaine, which when viewed together form an airplane, and a monument that resembles a space capsule. Erected at the Jackson Space Center, it honors Roger Chafee and Gregory Jarvis, the two Michigan astronauts who died in the line of duty.
[Photo caption from original print edition]: After three moves, current owner Larry Arnet (in suit) carries on the monument trade with son-in-law Jim Moomey, son Steve, and daughter Caryl Bondie.
[Photo caption from original print edition]: From 1904 to 1917, founder Joseph Arnet (in vest) and his crew worked outdoors at the corner of Main and Ann.