Civil Liberties

Grave Problem


Computer-related Year 2000 problems are partly related to a lack of planning: Early programmers didn't foresee that their products would be in use at the turn of the century. But cemeteries across America are grappling with their own low-tech Y2K problem, one stemming from too much planning–and a failure to appreciate massive and continuing increases in life expectancies. On as many as 500,000 headstones around the country, a death date beginning with 19 has already been set in stone for folks who remain very much alive.

Through the 1960s, it was common practice to pre-carve headstones for couples who made advance purchases of grave monuments. For others, when the first spouse died, engravers would add the known information for the second spouse as well, including the birth year and the first two digits of the death year–inevitably assumed to be sometime in the 20th century.

"When we had this done in the 1950s, I said to the man who did the stone, `What if I don't die in 19-something?'" 82-year-old Jesse Stibitz recently told the Los Angeles Times. "And he looked at me and said, `You will.'" But both Stibitz and his 84-year-old wife are still alive, and likely to remain so into the new millennium.

Solutions include filling the 19 with epoxy and re-carving 20, resurfacing the entire stone, or replacing the stone altogether. The costs can range from $150 to $1,200 or more. Who pays? Where the individual requested the early cut, she'll be liable. In other cases, the seller will have to pick up the tab.

The headstone problem isn't without precedent. "In some old cemeteries," the International Cemetery and Funeral Association's Bob Fell told the Orlando Sentinel, "you can find somebody who was born in 1810 and died in 1805."

But the cemetery screwup has been greatly exacerbated by the fact that people live much longer lives due to advances in nutrition, medicine, and wealth. At birth, a person born in 1900 could expect to live 47 years; for 1999 newborns, the figure is over 77.