Richard Crites stands between two eras at Magnolia Cemetery, eyeing both.

To his left soars the historic Birt family monument guarded atop by an angel, her finely hand-sculpted face tilted heavenward, the afternoon sunlight skimming the lines of two human figures beneath her along with various wreaths, columns and other symbols.

To his right, several rows of newer rectangular gray granite markers, all of similar shape and size, stretch out before him like dominoes.

"This is what we've become, or a snapshot of it," says Crites, a man who has dedicated his adult life to the business of making monuments.

He and a chorus of craftsmen like him lament the loss of such grand artistry and storytelling as is carved into historic marble and granite markers along Magnolia's 150 acres of graves, grassy paths and water views.

From the cherub faces of lost children to stalwart soldiers defiant in death, these works of art depict the unique lives, and often tragic deaths, of those buried here.

Crites' company, the nearby E.J. McCarthy & Sons, has placed about 1,000 headstones, markers and memorials at Magnolia since its dedication in 1850. Today, he wonders if the artistry once so highly valued is dying its own slow death.

"It's just a total loss to me," Crites says.

Today's newer memorial garden-style cemeteries, with their small and often homogenous grave markers, offer people more cost-effective alternatives. But what is lost?

"It makes you look like one of 10,000 others out there," Crites says.

Throw in the tremendous increase in people who are choosing cremation (and typically not memorialized in a cemetery), and the monument industry overall is facing an uncertain future.

Even as the numbers of deaths in America likely will rise in coming years, the number of cemetery memorials is almost certain to decline, says Don Calhoun, past president of the Monument Builders of North America and board member of the Funeral and Memorial Information Council, both industry groups.

Calhoun blames a growing societal apathy toward institutions such as churches and increasingly disconnected, dispersed families.

"Our role as storytellers in stone is slowly being erased," Calhoun says.

But in an information age, when people's life stories are available virtually 24/7, does that really matter?

Set in stone

In his new book detailing Magnolia's history and artistry, College of Charleston professor Patrick Harwood argues yes.

"Victorian cemeteries like Magnolia ... ushered in a greater exhibition of spirituality and romanticism concerning death," Harwood writes in "In the Arms of Angels: Magnolia Cemetery - Charleston's Treasure of History, Mystery and Artistry."

Harwood stood one day last week before the monument to Elbert P. Jones, who died in 1852 just two years after Magnolia Cemetery opened. The Gothic Revival monument was among the first and most majestic to be erected on the grounds.

"He set the bar high for Charlestonians," Harwood says.

Four angels, one on each side, stand as eternal holy guards over Jones and his family. One holds her hands over her eyes, as if to shield the horror of the lives lost. Another grasps a cross and wreath, another holds a Bible and the fourth raises her hands to bless those who remain in this life.

Down to strands of hair, up the heights of its cathedral-style steeple, sculptors chiseled and carved the monument in fine detail, likely at the request of Jones' mourning widow, Sarah.

It all began with a meaningless slab of Italian marble.

Yet, it became a remembrance of people once vital and alive, and provides a physical tribute to their lives (and to the artists who created it).

"To think all of this was done by hand is amazing," Crites marvels.

And not cheaply.

The Elbert P. Jones monument cost about $6,500 back then, records show. Today's price tag would reach about $300,000, Crites estimates.

Perhaps 10 or 20 sculptors would work for a year or more to build a monument like it.

The angels, the steeple, the passages of scripture all mark the artistry of architect Francis D. Lee and marble worker Edwin Greble. Luckily for them, the city's other well-heeled families were determined not to be outdone.

Not forgotten

Crites has seen families drag out the memorial process for a year or longer, unable, unwilling as they are to say goodbye. Because isn't that really what grave markers do?

More personalized ones preserve people's unique qualities and what loved ones most want to remember about them.

For instance, a monument for Langdon Cheves, congressman and Speaker of the House whose Confederate officer son was killed, tells much about him (or at least the view of his loved ones):

Massiveness of intellect

Wisdom of judgment

Indomitable will

Unflagging energy ...

Cheves also was a plantation owner. His monument also describes him as an "indulgent master," leaving a bit of history for the larger community to chew on so many years later.

Meanwhile, Cheves' soaring obelisk tells Crites plenty about the craftsmen who somehow took such a tremendous chunk of marble and cut and smoothed it into long and perfect tapers.

Or, consider the memories preserved about war hero Col. William Washington through his soaring 1858 monument. It features an inverted cannon-shaped column wrapped in a thick rattlesnake. Second cousin to George Washington, he was a Revolutionary War cavalry commander, and his resting place lists the names of battles he fought in, clearly defining moments of his life and sources of pride for his family.

It stands near one of Magnolia's other largest monuments, at least in sheer square footage, erected for William Burroughs Smith, once declared the richest man in Charleston. His family's pyramid-shaped 1894 mausoleum is crafted in an Egyptian Revival style that reflects those memorializing the likes of pharaohs.

With wrought-iron doors, stained glass and an etching of the sands of time, it was crafted for a tycoon to demonstrate his wealth and prestige.

His body waited in the cemetery's receiving tomb for 31 months awaiting the monument's completion, a far cry from the rows of uniform grave markers common to many modern cemeteries today.

It's that dedication to memory - and to craftsmanship - that Crites fears losing, especially in a city whose people so value its history.

"This is the last thing people are going to do for someone," Crites says of creating monuments. "I like being part of that."

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