Last month Ursula Sarsfield was meeting a customer in Vauxhall in North Liverpool. She was astonished to be introduced to the clients neighbour who told Ursula she remembered her grandfather James, a monumental mason who founded Sarsfield Memorials in 1947.
The lady recalled how as a child seventy years ago James Sarsfield would drive her and her friends around the block in his car, she had really happy memories of a great man, who she recalled was ‘dead posh but lovely’. For Ursula, who now heads Liverpool’s longest running family run masons, it was a special moment to hear such memories from someone who remembered her grandfather so well. It also got her thinking about how different the working day was of a mason back then compared to now.
One of the biggest differences is how contact is made with customers nowadays. Back in James’s day, there was no internet and very few people had telephones. As such much more business was done face to face or by letter. Nowadays Ursula will always seek to meet the customer face to face to have that personal touch, but after that initial meeting much work is done by phone or email and queries can be resolved a lot more quickly than seventy years ago when letters took a day or two to arrive. Both Ursula and her grandfather have one thing in common when dealing with customers and that is the ability to empathise with, sympathise with and understand their wishes at such a difficult time.
Ursula and James both sought to provide a memorial that would be a lasting tribute to customers loved ones. Seventy years apart though the types of memorial differ in part due to changing perceptions of death and cemeteries. Whereas James was providing much more solemn headstones which were often carved marble, Ursula is mainly using polished granite and the memorial wording is not as formal, also providing images and photoplaques especially for children and babies memorials. The relaxation of cemetery rules and a move towards feelings that memorials are where life should be commemorated rather than death be mourned is in part behind this.
Seventy years ago advertisements were placed in newspapers to attract customer, whereas nowadays the internet is the primary advertising tool for Sarsfield’s as well as recommendations. The world wide web has also allowed Ursula to attract customers from all over the world, with many getting in touch from places such as Australia and Canada asking for restoration or renewal of ancestors headstones. One thing that has not changed however, is the number of customers who come through personal recommendation due to the high quality of service we have always striven to achieve.
When it comes to actually shaping the memorial, there are huge differences nowadays to when James started the company. Memorials where all hand carved James’ son Terry (Ursula’s father) had to serve an apprenticeship at Carrara in Italy before he joined the family business. There, at the home of the famous Carrara marble, he studied all aspects of stonemasonry and traditional carving. Today there are more advanced cutting techniques and laser etching, which didn’t come into being for the memorial business until the 1990s. There are occasions though with certain materials and matching additional inscriptions where only the hand carved method can be used and it remains a skill that Sarsfield’s still use today when required.
When comparing the running of Sarsfield Memorials today to how her grandfather would have done seventy years ago, Ursula sees many changes but many similarities. One of the big advances is from using a horse and cart to transport the memorials to the cemetery. Sarsfield’s now use a motorised van and the Health and Safety of both the mason and fixing of memorials is paramount. Sarsfield’s believe in keeping traditional standards around so they still offer raised lead letters, hand cut letters to more modern sandblasted letters. Ursula is proud to be running Liverpool’s oldest family run monumental mason business and wonders if any of today’s customers will remember her in seventy years?