While most of the attention on the "Year 2000 problem" has been focused on computers, a decidedly low-tech cousin is looming.
Untold thousands of tombstones and monuments will have to be repaired or even replaced if some senior citizens live into the new century.That's because many widows and widowers bought double monuments when their spouses died years ago. To save a little money, most tombstones of the era were inscribed with the survivor's name, birth year and the first two digits, "19," of their "death year."
"To save a dollar or two at the time, they told the cutter to 'go ahead, I'm not going to live that long,"' said Jack Troth, president of Schum Monuments of Dale, Ind. "Now here we are in 1998 and they are still here."
Charles Scherer, owner of Majestic Monuments in Evansville, said the problem tombstones are common in his area.
"I am going to say we probably have 2,000 or 3,000 stones like that," he said. "I'm going to run into the same problem with my own mother."
Scherer's mom is 88, but his father died 25 years ago. She had a tombstone pre-engraved with 19 as the first two digits of her death year.
"We stopped putting the 19 on them about 12 years ago," he said.
Some monuments can be repaired; those with indented numerals are the easiest. A monument worker can lay the stone flat and insert stone powder and epoxy and fill the old date. Such repairs probably will cost a few hundred dollars.
But those with raised lettering or with hard-to-find granite might be facing a complete replacement of the monument, with costs potentially running to thousands of dollars.
Troth said the industry is experimenting with various methods to repair monuments, but the worry is the repair won't be as durable as the rest of the stone.
"I am hoping the industry on a national level comes up with a good way to do it," he said. "I just don't know what it's going to be."
Greg Patzer, director of the Monument Builders of North America, a trade group based in suburban Chicago, said he expects repairs on recessed-lettered tombstones to be pretty effective and long-lasting.
Those with raised letters, though, will have to consider a total stone replacement.
"I think the industry recognized this coming on years ago and I don't feel it's going to be a big problem," he said.