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On Assignment: Burns Bros. provides loved ones a lasting tribute

JERSEY CITY, N.J., JAN. 25, 2012 — A photo essay on a day in the life at Burns Bros. monument makers.

A 1992 Jersey Journal article by Sally Deering displayed in the Burns Bros.’ shop tells the story of how John first became interested in the monument business: “John remembers playing childhood games like manhunt and baseball in the (Bayview) cemetery with his brothers and the kids in the neighborhood. ‘The cemetery’s a beautiful playground when you’re a kid,’ John says. On the opposite side of the cemetery was the monument company Memorial Art Studio, and John became intrigued as he watched a workman, Joe Lupo, chisel the lettering on gravestones. So, he began carrying Lupo’s tools, which led to part-time work after school, learning the business.” The article continued, “After graduation in 1979, John went to work in North Arlington for the Albert H. Hopper monuments company. John opened his own business, Stonemasters, in Newark in 1982. When the lease expired in 1987, he and Fred opened the Tonnelle Avenue location they’re in now.” (Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal)

There are a few shops around that sell monuments, but “we’re the only monument maker in Hudson County,” John said. John estimates his business makes “a couple thousand” monuments in a year. (Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal)

Granite stones. Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal

Granite cross and angel memorials. (Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal)

Department manager Jorge Cabra, who has been working at Burns Bros. for four years now, uses a computer to design the artwork for a gravestone ordered by customers who have lost a young child. (Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal)

The finished design. (Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal)

Jorge operates a vinyl cutter used to make stencils for designs on the monuments. (Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal)

In a sandblasting booth, Julio Florat, an employee at Burns Bros. for 10 years, uses a hand-held sandblaster to carve out shallow or frosted letters on a gravestone. (Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal)

Julio holds the hose where the sand shoots out to carve the letters on a gravestone. (Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal)

Inside this sandbasting booth, shallow or frosted letters were carved out on a gravestone. (Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal)

This other sandblasting booth has a computer-controlled machine which can carve deeper letters on stone. (Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal)

Manager Jose Balcaceres uses hand tools to carve flat letters into a v-shape on a gravestone, a technique sandblasting machines can’t do. Jose has been working at Burns Bros. for 20 years, and has trained employees on every job in the shop. (Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal)

Boris Mikhailov etches a portrait by hand on a gravestone. He also etched the portrait on the gravestone at right. Boris arrived from Russia in 1992 where he was an art professor. Though etching can be done by laser, etching by hand, according to manager Jose Balcaceres, brings out the subtle characteristics of a person’s face in a portrait and requires a lot of skill. (Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal)

Marco, who has been working at Burns Bros. for only seven months, attaches vinyl stencil on a gravestone. (Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal)

Yolexis attaches the vinyl stencil on a gravestone. The areas not covered by the vinyl gets carved out. (Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal)

An overview of the shop. (Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal)

A view of the shop’s yard. (Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal)

A civic plaque ordered by the City of Jersey City for the rededication of Bayside Park. Apart from crafting gravestones for private clients, Burns Bros. also makes monuments for city’s and towns, such as the Korean War Memorial and the 9/11 memorial in Jersey City and plaques for institutions such as the one installed at the Hudson County Community College Culinary Arts Institute. (Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal)

A few times, customers ordered gravestones as spoof gifts. In Dec. 2008, an associate producer for the Howard Stern show and a friend of John Burns’, ordered a gravestone for Stern as a Secret Santa gift, which was John’s idea. Stern’s reaction? “This is the (expletive) gift I’ve ever received.” The article, which ran in The Jersey Journal, hangs in the Burns Bros. reception area. Burns Bros. has also made props for television shows like “The Sopranos,” “Dellaventura” which starred Danny Aiello, and “The Montel Williams Show.” (Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal)

Some finished and unfinished monuments in the shop’s yard. (Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal)

Jose takes care of paperwork at the front desk. (Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal)

Yolexis peels the vinyl stencil off a monument he spray-painted earlier. (Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal)

Jose, left, and Yolexis gently moves a partially-finished monument. (Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal)

Jorge takes a picture of a gravestone which he will download on the computer to aid him in properly designing the text that will be engraved on the stone. (Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal)

Jorge measures a stone to aid him in properly designing the text that will be engraved on it. (Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal)

Jorge with a finished printed design and the vinyl stencil letterings ready to be placed on a stone. But first, the customer has to give final approval before the text is carved in stone to make sure everything is correct. (Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal)

As he sits down to lunch with Jose, left, and Joe Cerone, John checks The Jersey Journal’s obituary page. “It’s good this week,” he said, “not a lot of cremations.” Later, a discussion ensued between John and Jose on whether or not the practice of recycling cemetery plots should be adopted in the U.S. as in Europe and some other countries. (Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal)

A gravestone shaped as a lighthouse has arrived. At left is the design for the artwork. (Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal)

John works on paying the bills in his upstairs office. John Burns said that his company is the “only monument maker in Hudson County” but through the years, his company’s sales, which rely on in-ground burials, have been negatively impacted by the rise in cremations and community mausoleums which can house thousands of the deceased. “But we try to keep visible in the community,” he said, which helps to keep business flowing in. “We have a solid network with funeral directors.” But it’s not all just profits for John. “People have always been good to me,” he said, “so I try to help out people in need whenever there is an opportunity.” He recalls an incident where a man drowned his two daughters in a bathtub in Montclair and then hung himself. The wife had little means to pay for the burials so Burns Bros. donated the gravestones which cost over $5,000. (Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal)

Standing on a forklift, maintenance engineer Joe Cerone replaces a worn-out wheel on the overhead hoist used to carry and move the heavy stones around in the shop, as John, left, and Jose, look on. (Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal)

John drives through Holy Cross Cemetery on his way to his sales office–the Albert H. Hopper Monuments–in North Arlington. (Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal)

Along the way, John comes across one of his subcontractors, Frank Mangano, of The Stoneworkers, carving a second inscription to a gravestone at the Holy Cross Cemetery. John said he and Frank have known each other since they were teenagers when John worked part-time after school at the Memorial Arts Studio near Bayview Cemetery in Jersey City, which was owned by Frank’s father. It was at that studio, which was right across from where he lived on Cator Avenue near Bayview Cemetery, where John first learned about the monument business and inspired him to pursue it as his career. (Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal)

At Holy Cross Cemetery in North Arlington, John Burns stops at a plot with a newly-installed gravestone made by Burns Bros. for a young man who passed away. John said that the most challenging thing about his business is “dealing with families who lost a young person in their life. Everybody has to bury their parents sometime, but to lose a child is an unnatural thing.” (Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal)

The Albert H. Hopper Monuments at 329 Ridge Rd. in North Arlington, the sales office for Burns Bros. (Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal)

John conducts business over the phone at the sales office as a sales associate takes care of customers, at right. (Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal)

Bernadette Finelli looks for a key to one of the mausoleums at Holy Cross Cemetery where a body will be laid in a few days. (Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal)

John inspects one of the mausoleums at Holy Cross Cemetery in North Arlington where a body will be laid to rest in a few days. Right after graduating from high school, John Burns started working for Albert H. Hopper Monuments in North Arlington which has been in operation since 1882. John bought Hopper Monuments in 2006 and along with the business, he inherited the mausoleums the company built for its clients. “About 75 percent of mausoleums in North Arlington were built by Hopper,” John said. He said he kept the name Hopper instead of changing it to Burns Bros. because “it’s an established name with a good reputation.” (Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal)

At Holy Cross Cemetery, John looks for monuments his company made. “We put more stones here than anybody else,” he said. When asked what he finds fulfilling about his line of work, he replied, “We are creating something that’s going to be here forever. Long after I’m dead and buried, monuments are still going to be here.” (Reena Rose Sibayan/The Jersey Journal)

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