Year 2000 Problem Will Live On Even Longer in Cemeteries
There it is in the lower right hand corner of a headstone in Hope Cemetery. The number “19" standing alone.
“That could be a problem,” said Charles Day, a sandblaster who spends much of his time during the warm months adding dates to headstones in Vermont cemeteries.
There has been plenty of talk about the problems of computers that will reset their dates when the calendar hits 2000. But what about gravestones?
Scattered throughout cemeteries across the country are headstones that have already had the first two digits of the year of death, “19,” set in stone. The headstones await the arrival of the forward-thinking people who had their stones engraved before their deaths.
But in the end, those folks might be outdone by their own foresight and longevity.
Day pointed to the headstone of a still-living woman born in 1904. The “19" waits for the digits to make up the year of her death.
“There is no good way out,” he said.
Actuarial tables give the 94-year-old woman a 62.5% chance of still being alive on Jan. 1, 2000. The stone already bears the name of someone who was born in 1900 and died in 1961. Presumably, the stone was erected in the early 1960s.
“I don’t know that that far back people were thinking that far ahead,” Day said.
The old adage that something cast in stone can’t be changed isn’t true for granite cutters. There are a variety of techniques that can be used to correct the year 2000 problem.
Day said he would grind up some granite and make a paste using clear epoxy that would be put into the hole. Once the mixture dried it would be sanded smooth and then the new numbers sandblasted in.
Jeff Kuhn of Kuhn Memorials in South Hero said he would favor chiseling out the entire date and replacing it with a granite plate with the new date.
No matter which technique is used, it will leave a scar or a tiny shadow that will show, especially when the stone is wet. And no one knows how the repairs will look after three or four centuries of exposure.
In addition, the repairs can double the cost of carving the numbers on the headstone, although removing the 19 and adding all four numbers should cost less than $200, Kuhn and Day said.
But fixing the problem is more complicated than just filling in one number and then adding another.
A 20 requires more space on the headstone than a 19. So when the headstone was designed, the dates were centered using the smaller space.
Raised letter dates, used more commonly earlier in the century, will be even harder to correct.
Still, it hardly rivals the problems of businesses and government agencies whose computers are on a course to reset their dates to 1900 at the turn of the century. Government agencies are predicting the cost of fixing the millennium bug will cost U.S. businesses approximately $50 billion.
But unlike computers, headstones are designed to last forever.
It’s common in Vermont cemeteries for couples, and even whole families, to be buried side by side, with many sharing single headstones. Some have their names and dates of birth chiseled into the stone when they buy the marker. The dates of their death are added later.
Kuhn estimates that about 1% of the headstones in all cemeteries have the problem.
Louis LaCroix, a monument salesman for Rock of Ages Corp., recalled that in the mid-1970s, he frequently had to persuade people not to etch a 19 into the stone.
“It doesn’t cost much more to put four numbers on instead of two,” he said.