DENNIS TOWNSHIP — When he’s working in a cemetery, Zeth Matalucci likes to take the time to walk through the old sections to admire the ornate designs on white marble stones.

Gravestone artwork is one of the longest lasting types that exist, etched into thick headstones designed to last hundreds of years.

The 32-year-old Matalucci, who lives in the South Dennis section of Dennis Township, picked up the memorial-making trade from the now-defunct Bayshore Monument Co. started by his grandfather, the late John R. Lewis.

“I worked for my grandfather as a kid, and I always loved carving stone,” he said. “The monument shop was in my grandparents’ backyard. My mom worked there. We were there all the time as kids. By hanging around all the time, you pick things up here and there, and that’s how it got started.”

From there, Matalucci’s career as a gravestone etcher took a side turn. Matalucci took a job with the U.S. Secret Service and worked in Washington, D.C., for three years, he said. The family dissolved the Bayshore Monument Co. on Route 47 in Dennis Township.

Meanwhile, Matalucci, who is married with two young children, said he grew tired of the hectic work schedule at the Secret Service and the long daily commute.

“My grandfather passed away when I was gone (in 2004). The opportunity arose for me to come back. I bought his house from the estate and I decided to open my own monument company,” he said.

In 2007, Matalucci opened A. Matalucci & Sons in the Clermont section of Dennis Township. For the purpose of appearing first in alphabetically ordered listings, he used his middle initial, A. for Anthony.

The business makes grave markers, monuments and plaques. Etchings range from simple names and dates to elaborate designs.

Using Photoshop, he recently designed a beach scene complete with dune fencing, fishing rod and umbrella. The design was then laser etched onto the monument.

Prices for memorials start at about $500. He recently sold a 33,000-pound, 10-foot tall one for $86,000, he said.

Meanwhile, the cemetery business as a whole has been changing, with the economy favoring cremations rather than burials, according to research firm IBIS World.

The national cremation rate in 2010 was nearly 41 percent, compared to 26 percent in 2000 and 17 percent in 1990, according to the National Funeral Directors Association.

Despite these trends, Matalucci said, business has not been affected.

“I’ve sold the largest stones in the past two years that my grandfather ever sold throughout his whole career. Cremations are becoming more popular, but people are still putting memorials in the ground as a place for them to go to remember,” he said. “Cremation really hasn’t affected us too much. I think the industry is fairly strong right now despite the economy.”

The company also did some public projects in Sea Isle City, including creating the plaques for the Fish Alley monument to the city’s historic fishing industry.

Chiseling is an exacting process, and one that cannot involve erasers in case of mistakes. Proofreading names, birthdates and dates of death becomes all the more important in a world of stone.

“My mom gave me a good tip when she was in the monument business. She said when you’re proofing the monument, read the contract upside down. That really makes you check each individual letter and number,” he said.

Despite a rigorous proofing process, sometimes mistakes can happen, including one Matalucci recently corrected on a headstone his grandfather carved 31 years ago.

“My grandfather sold a stone in ’81. The other family member just passed away and when my grandfather did the stone he put a (T instead of an I). The family just realized it 31 years later and asked what we could do,” he said.

Matalucci said he was able to correct the longstanding typo, and subsequently got more business from the family as a result.

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