Owner of memorial firm comforts grief-stricken

January 04, 1993|By Lorraine Mirabella | Lorraine Mirabella,Staff Writer

"How do you stand it?" Robert A. Silkworth is asked about a job connected to sadness, grief and death.

The 43-year-old owner of a company that sells cemetery gravestones relects a minute, then answers, "Sometimes you help people more than you think."

Mr. Silkworth, owner of the nearly 90-year-old Upton R. Standiford & Son company in Brooklyn Park, recalls the time a widower in his 50s sat in the Ritchie Highway office after choosing a memorial stone for his wife.

Mr. Silkworth has seen only a few customers become emotional while making their selections. This man was one of them.

"He was despondent," Mr. Silkworth says. "He sat in the chair, and he just wanted to talk. He said, 'I don't know what to do with myself. I go to the mall and watch the people because I have a hard time being alone.' "

Later, Mr. Silkworth wrote the customer a letter about coping. The man's gratitude prompted the businessman to copy the letter and give one to each new customer.

"Learn to live again and to laugh again and to love again," he wrote. "This is what life is all about."

Mr. Silkworth has dealt with grieving families since 1964, when, as a high school student, he began working for former owner Charles A. Standiford. Mr. Standiford had inherited the business from his father, Upton R. Standiford, who started the company in 1905 in Baltimore. Standiford & Son moved in 1941 to Brooklyn Park, opposite Cedar Hill Cemetery.

When the younger Mr. Standiford retired in 1973, he and his wife, who had no children, left the company to Mr. Silkworth. The Standifords attached two conditions: Keep the Standiford name and continue treating customers as honestly as they believed they had done.

Mr. Silkworth's efforts to carry on in the tradition have led him on a crusade over the past few years to give families what he calls "the right to choose," and at the same time keep himself in business.

As one of about a half-dozen "old-time" Baltimore companies that sells granite or bronze grave markers or memorials -- usually manufactured in either Vermont or Georgia -- he feels that cemeteries have increasingly tried to squeeze dealers like him out of business. In some cases, he says, they have stopped him from coming into a cemetery to install grave markers.

Cemeteries often lead families to believe they must purchase memorials and concrete foundations from the cemetery, he says. Even if they purchase a memorial from another company, families are sometimes told, they must still pay the cemetery from $100 to $500 for installation alone.

"They're dealing with people who are up in years, who are quite vulnerable to being influenced," he says. "I just think that's wrong."

Mr. Silkworth's company charges no more than $100 for installation, he says. Memorials range from a couple hundred dollars to several thousand.

Several years ago, Mr. Silkworth filed an antitrust lawsuit against five local cemeteries to protect his right to install memorials. Of those five, only two still refuse memorial companies the right to install. The suit is still pending in the state Court of Appeals,

Mr. Silkworth hopes his challenges, through litigation and written appeals to cemeteries, will keep his business going while giving families more options.

"People have a right to make a choice," he says.

"This is the U.S.A. You should be able to do that."

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