By Malea Ritz
This article first appeared in the Fall 2017 issue of Massachusetts Family Business magazine.
Most people don’t spend too much time thinking about the details of a cemetery headstone for a loved one until they are faced with the solemn responsibility of doing so. It’s often a very difficult and emotionally trying time, and there are a lot of factors to consider – type of stone, shape, size, font, special effects, etc. That’s where Elizabeth Deveney of Deveney & White Memorials comes in to help.
Deveney & White has been in the business of monument making since 1946, and is in its fourth generation of family ownership at the same location in Dorchester. Of the fourth generation, it was originally Deveney’s older brother, Matt, who helped most in the business.
“He grew up setting stones in the cemetery, moving stones around the yard, kind of doing more labor type of things. And then when he was old enough, he was able to meet with families,” Deveney said.
Matt was diagnosed with terminal cancer in February 2007 and later that year passed away at age 35.
“When Matt got sick, I had been working for an advertising agency in Boston and I was working in promotional events,” Deveney said. “I came back into the family business to help out while he was sick, and then of course he passed away, and I decided to stay working in the family business – and it’s been over 10 years.”
Joining the family legacy that her great-grandfather, grandfather, father and uncle forged before her, she now runs the business with her father and mother working part-time. Deveney sees the whole process through, from concept to conception.
“I’ve had people say that they come in and they’re nervous, or they’re on edge, or they don’t know what the person would have wanted. Or there’s a whole group of a family, like there’s a dynamic happening between different siblings or aunts or whoever it is,” Deveney said. “It’s sort of helping people to stay focused on the task at hand and helping them, guiding them through the decisions.”
“It’s helping people to understand it’s going to take time, but it’s going to be a beautiful product in the end,” she said. “It’s all made by hand, which is kind of amazing today, when you think about it. These are craftsmen that have done this for generations.”
Deveney & White produces memorials in several languages, including English, Chinese and Vietnamese options.
Memorializing a Family Member
After meeting with the family and understanding their vision for a memorial, a full-size illustration is produced.
“That’s one of the things, I think, our families love because when they do get the full-size drawing, they get to see the stone before it’s carved. They can make any adjustments to it that they want,” she said.
With the approval of the family, she works with the sandblaster and stonecutter to provide the canvas for the engravers.
“It’s actually rewarding because you’re helping people at a difficult time in their lives where they’ve been faced with the worst tragedy imaginable in some cases,” Deveney said. “We’re able to provide not only a beautiful product but some kind of service for people when they’re struggling.”
The most fulfilling part, she said, is working with families that are especially specific about what they are looking for, and delivering a product that they love.
“You know, how many things can you say, ‘I’m making a product and it is literally going to be here forever. It’s never going anywhere.’ That is a lot of responsibility.”
There can be a lot of pressure when customers are purchasing a product designed to withstand the test of time, but Deveney & White is up to the task.
“There’s a way that we know exactly how to carve the lettering so that, over time, the lettering is not only going to be legible but the lettering should look like it did when we first put the stone in,” Deveney said. “If you take a stone that’s a very sparkly and has a lot of quartz in it, it’s got big, giant flecks in it that are gorgeous. But once you go to engrave some writing in there, it can be tricky because of those flecks – the same flecks that you love that made the stone sparkle – may not come out the best in terms of how we do the lettering.”
A Personal Touch
Deveney & White doesn’t just make headstones; it has also expanded its portfolio to corporate, city and institutional projects, ranging from to firefighter memorials to signs at MIT and engravings at Harvard.
The Charlestown Firefighters Memorial, a project with which her brother Matt was involved, sits on the Freedom Trail and now is the first thing tourists see at that bus stop. Another particular favorite of hers was a freestanding Celtic cross for the Charlestown Historical Society’s Irish Famine Memorial.
With the knowledge that every season is a busy season when you’re working in the memorial making business, Deveney said the constant work is worth the reward. She loves the flexibility it gives her, and doesn’t miss the long meetings of her former corporate career.
“It’s very nice to be your own boss. It’s nice to make your own decisions,” she said, adding that working with family is also rewarding.
“My parents are the best coworkers that I could possibly have,” she said. “The unique thing about our family business is that generations can clash. My parents are so supportive of any endeavor.”
When her kids were babies, she brought them to work with her, she said. Deveney was worried how the clients would take it, but it brought many of them comfort.
The long hours and hard work doesn’t stand in the way of her family life.
“My family is very much used to it now; I’d rather have this than have to be away from them,” she said.
Deveney recognizes that she works in a unique family business industry.
“In other occupations, you aren’t necessarily experiencing a person or family with heightened emotions,” she said. “There are hundreds and hundreds of families per year that we’re providing a service for, which can be hard to juggle, with all the different [hats] you need to wear. But I really enjoy it, and I’m proud of the work that we do.”
“I feel like that sets us apart in some ways, because it’s a business, but it’s personal.”
Malea Ritz is editor at The Warren Group, publisher of Massachusetts Family Business magazine. She may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.