After resetting the 500-pound piece of marble that forms the top of the Saunders cemetery monument on its base in Brookfield Township Cemetery, Jim DeChristefero of Niles Monument used a butter knife to cut off excess setting compound that forms a barrier to keep water from getting between the stones.
“It’s so worn, it’s sharp like a razor,” he said of the knife.
The knife once belonged to his grandfather, Steve Mariola, who started teaching DeChristefero the cemetery monument setting business when DeChristefero, now 67, was 14. Many of DeChristefero’s tools were once Mariola’s.
“I don’t know what I would do if I lost these bars,” he said of the steel bars he uses as levers.
DeChristefero and his son-in-law, Chris Chieffo, spent a lot of time at Brookfield Township Cemetery over the summer, ostensibly to repair the monuments that were damaged in the Father’s Day 2019 tornado. But, they did much more.
“We bid 18” monument fixes, Chieffo said. “We did about 45.”
They reattached spires that blew off from some of the tallest monuments in the cemetery, and straightened other monuments – often by placing agricultural slag under them – that were in danger of toppling in the next swift wind.
“No sense putting it back up when it’s cattywampus,” said DeChristefero, who reset 500 monuments in Niles Cemetery after the May 31, 1985, tornado. “It’s just gonna slide back off again.”
There are plenty more monuments that need attention in the cemetery, but DeChristefero had work to do other places.
“I’d like to do a lot more, but we’d be here a long time,” he said.
Now in the business for more than 50 years, DeChristefero said he enjoyed the work more when he was in his 30s, a reference to dealing with such heavy stones. Yet, he recalls a lesson from his grandfather.
“He taught me to lift them with your head, not your back,” DeChristefero said.
This is where DeChristefero excels, his son-in-law said. DeChristefero is known by the family as “MacGyver,” a reference to the television character who can make elaborate machines out of spare and repurposed parts.
“Jim’s a smart guy, very inventive,” Chieffo said.
DeChristefero said he had to build a “contraption” that he attached to a fork lift so he could lift, move and set in place a tall spire in Brookfield cemetery that had been blown down. In working on the Saunders monument, he only had a small backhoe to use for lifting, and it did not reach very high. He had to try a number of scenarios – bucket on, bucket off, lift with straps, lift with bars – until he found the right combination to place the top stone on the pedestal.
“It’s fun figuring out how to put them back up,” he said.