A Family Future Set in Stone

by Amy Chovan

Now in its fourth generation, the family-owned Abel Vault & Monument creates granite memorials of your loved ones.

Bernard Abel followed his father’s footsteps into the burial vault business after working for him in the 1920s. Upon winning a $5,000 baseball pool in 1933, Bernard bought some land and all of the equipment he would need to start his own vault business. Ten years later, when a local buyer couldn’t afford a shipment of monuments sent from a Vermont distributor, he saw an opportunity to expand the business, and purchased the monuments. At that time, the company took Abel Vault & Monument as its name.

The work he did for his father helped Bernard Abel become proficient at crafting the concrete burial vaults required by most cemeteries. Meant to keep decomposition to a minimum, these vaults go into the ground and house the caskets, ensuring the lay of the land isn’t disturbed. Abel Vault & Monument sells its vaults to funeral directors, who then sell them to their clients.

Unlike the burial vaults, its monuments are sold directly to customers. From design to completion, the company works with families to create granite memorials of their loved ones. Understanding the value of family, Abel employees take pride in easing the process during what is a difficult time for most of their customers. In addition to several family members who work for the company, about 10 other employees help keep the business running.

Growing the Business
Bernard Abel’s stepson, Thom Matheney began working for the family business back in 1947 while still in high school. Now retired, he brought all three of his children—Tom Matheney, Steve Matheney and Debbie Tarkin—into the shop when they were young, and they grew up in the business. “It’s all we know,” Debbie explained. All three got started with the family business as soon as they were eligible for work permits, and the same is true of many of their own children, the fourth generation to be involved.

While many of his family-owned competitors folded over time due to a lack of interest from the next generation, Thom felt fortunate that all of his children were interested in joining his family’s business. In 1957, the company opened a second plant in Canton, where all of its concrete products, such as burial vaults, parking logs and steps, are made. In 1968, Abel Vault & Monument installed the very first crematory in the area at its Pekin location. A third location, devoted solely to monument sales, opened in Peoria in 2001.

Although many family-owned monument companies have gone out of business, Abel Vault & Monument still has plenty of competition. In addition to a handful of local monument companies that continue to thrive, funeral homes and cemeteries have begun selling monuments and markers as another way to bring in revenue. But those places typically can’t match Abel’s individualized craftsmanship. “The funeral homes and cemeteries are [buying and] selling…a finished product,” explained Debbie, “whereas our product…once [the stone] comes here, we do our own work here. You don’t have as many businesses that actually do that.”

Design in Granite
Abel Vault & Monument does its custom work at the Pekin facility, ensuring its customers get personalized stones that reveal exactly how they’d like to be remembered. Lacking the capabilities to cut and polish granite on-site, the company buys plain granite monuments in a variety of colors from worldwide distributors. It can take up to four months to get a piece of granite in, said Tom, but after that, it only takes the company about three weeks to get it lettered and set in place in the cemetery. “It takes a little longer now since 9-11,” added Debbie, noting the impact of increased security at U.S. ports.

During the design process, the company takes ideas from the customer and draws up a rough design. The customer then returns to proof the design and make any desired changes before anything is set in stone. That, said Tom, is one advantage of buying from a company that does its own work on-site. At Abel, customers can speak directly with the people who are designing and creating the monuments, simplifying the process for all. When a monument is finished, Abel’s team handles its placement in the cemetery.

Today’s monuments tend to be more personalized than in the past. “They used to only put your name and your dates on a stone,” said Debbie, but now, they often include the names of the deceased’s children and or etchings that illustrate their interests. For example, the monument of a Chicago Bears fan might display an etching of the team logo, or an avid hiker’s monument might contain an etched scene of a wooded path.

All of the monuments at Abel Vault & Monument are made of granite. Although it’s possible to make them out of marble, most cemeteries around here won’t allow them to be installed. “You have to sell what [the cemeteries] require,” noted Debbie. “A lot of cemeteries don’t want the marble because it deteriorates.”

“Once marble is exposed to earth’s atmosphere, it will start to deteriorate in eight or 10 years,” added Thom. “It takes a million years, at least, to start to deteriorate granite.” Another drawback is the price—marble is quite a bit more expensive than granite, according to Tom.

Some cemeteries won’t permit monuments of any kind, allowing only flat, bronze markers, which Abel Vault & Monument also makes. “We didn’t used to,” said Thom, explaining that there was once a nationwide monopoly on bronze markers. At the end of World War II, he said, one Massachusetts company held a surplus of bronze, which it unloaded by starting up cemeteries across the nation that required uniform bronze markers and selling them door to door. The company’s salesmen assured customers that its markers were cheaper than monuments due to their smaller size and simpler nature, but once the monopoly was broken, Thom said his company began selling the exact same markers for less than half the cost.

In addition to the monuments, markers and other concrete products they produce, Abel Vault & Monument has also sold granite signs, garden rocks and pet burial markers. As part of beautification efforts, many towns have replaced their metal welcome signs with more attractive granite ones. The company has designed and created such signs for Pekin, Canton and Tremont.

As the family looks to the future, it seems as though a fourth generation is poised to take over the company someday. But if you ask the third generation, you’ll get a variety of answers, ranging from a definite “yeah” to a more circumspect “who knows?” And in the end, the last response rings truest of all: “Only time will tell.” iBi


Source URL: https://www.peoriamagazines.com/ibi/2011/aug/family-future-set-stone