Stone cutter Richard Brooks fashions gravestones for a living and he’s given some consideration to the monument that will one day mark his final resting place.
The new owner of Buzzi Memorials at 875 Stonington Road in Pawcatuck, Brooks imagines that his own memorial will be a work in progress, a granite grave marker that he starts to grind, cut and polish but never finishes, a statement to unending inspiration and unlimited possibilities for those who come to mourn him.
“I just think it would be a neat thing to do,” said the 40-year-old Brooks, who has just started his new business and has no intention of needing that marker anytime soon.
On a chilly weekday afternoon, Brooks is focused on the golf bag he is crafting on the side of a slab of black granite. He’s got one knee down on a scrap of carpet on the cold cement floor, balancing himself as he uses his hands and fingers to guide a pneumatic carbide-tipped chisel attached to a compressor and hose, to fashion the bag.
When finished, the stone will be for display, so shoppers have an idea of what is possible when looking for a grave marker.
He’s also fashioned a headstone with a tree growing up the side and falling over the top of it, and another to replicate a cross that hung for decades in a family’s home. His golf bag will have clubs sticking out of the top when it is finished.
For Brooks, who was raised in Waterford and trained at Grasso Technical High School as a carpenter, stone carving was an afterthought. When he realized carpentry wasn’t that satisfying for him, he worked odd jobs for a time, including at a monument company.
“I was just intrigued,” he said, of the idea of cutting stone.
Brooks uses the word “fortunate” to describe the decade-long apprenticeship he spent with Richard Comolli at Comolli Granite Co. in Westerly, a town that in its heyday employed 3,000 people quarrying, cutting, chiseling and carving the blue granite that the town was once famous for.
Now, Brooks has bought the Buzzi business started in 1933 by the late Angelo Buzzi, who carved some of the marble eagles at Pennsylvania Station in New York City. Angelo’s son, Harold, also a renowned stone cutter, would take over his father’s business in the 1940s. Harold’s sister is comedian Ruth Buzzi of “Laugh-In” fame, who grew up in the family home in Wequetequock, on the site where her father and brother ran their stone-carving business.
Several years ago Harold Buzzi shuttered the shop that Brooks ended up buying. With the acquisition, Brooks has inherited many old stones, tools, implements and other apparatus that the Buzzi father and son used, including a compressor installed in 1943, which Brooks said runs perfectly, and which he fired up to work on his granite golf bag.
“The day I first walked in here, it was like walking back in time,” said Brooks, who explained he plans to use some of the old tools as well as variations on old and new technology.
He is also keeping the name, Buzzi Memorials.
“I want to carry on the Buzzi tradition,” he said.
Brooks said people in the trade can point out work done by Angelo and Harold Buzzi. Harold Buzzi, he said, is legendary for the perfection of the letters he carved onto memorials.
“We can walk into a cemetery and point to every single one of his stones,” said Brooks. “He was well known for his craftsmanship and his lettering.”
Brooks hopes to emulate him.
“I want to tie the old and new together,” he said. “I want to tie the old way of doing things with modern technology and bring them together. I want to merge them together and create something unique.”
His associate, Doug Barnes, who meets with the customers and helps them to decide what kind of stone they want and what should be on it, called Brooks “a damn good craftsman.”
While Barnes works with the bereaved to guide them to select the right size, shape and color of a gravestone, and to write an epitaph to put on it, it is Brooks who labors to make it.
In the past, he’s worked for other monument makers, but now, with his acquisition of the business, he’s ready to build his own reputation.
About 80 percent of his business will be grave markers, but he will also craft monuments, benches, plaques and memorials that some customers come looking for. And while hard and sturdy granite is the stone he most often goes to, he also works with slate and marble.
“There are people in the industry who know my work, but not casual observers,” said Brooks. “But now, I’ll be able to build my brand and hopefully one day I will be known in the community.”
His niche, he says, will be custom-made monuments, with personal care and detail given to every individual he’s memorializing.
“What I’m doing is telling a person’s life story for future generations. These are all custom-made. There is no assembly line here,” he said. “We are really more along the lines of art. It’s where we really pride ourselves, on our art, and quality. What we do is forever.”
He bought the business last fall and spent months clearing brush from the property and readying it for customers again. Part of his plan is to open a mini museum, to display some of Angelo and Harold Buzzi’s old tools. And he’s updating the shop, where the Buzzis built their business.
“Our plan is to continue traditional-style memorials, keeping up with the craftsmanship of the past and applying today’s technology,” he said. “We will apply our personal touch to every stone we touch, from conception, to design, to installation.”
Like everything else, gravestones can be purchased online or from other retailers, but Brooks is bucking that trend.
“Personalization,” he said. “It is our 100 percent focus to make a memorial and nothing else. That’s what we do.”