Crafting and installing monuments is an emotionally demanding business, particularly for those with a deep sense of empathy. However, it’s that very compassion that attracts many customers, who seek understanding and comfort during their time of grief.

Sona Khanum Gadzhieva, CEO of Remembrance Headstones 

shares her experiences navigating this challenging industry, managing competition, and finding balance to prevent emotional burnout while providing solace and support to her clients.

family 1

— Sona, your family business is over 60 years old! Tell us, who is the founder and why was this direction chosen?

— My father, Gadzhimir Aslan, started this business in Makhachkala, Republic of Dagestan (USSR, now Russia) more than 60 years ago. He joined a monument-making workshop, which was part of a funeral bureau, as a loader. Over time, seeing his hard work and responsibility, he was appointed workshop manager. To create quality portraits and inscriptions, my father completed a correspondence course at the Leningrad Art Institute and learned polishing directly in the workshop from experienced masters. When the director of that workshop retired, he left my father in charge.

— You have worked and still work in many countries. How did you manage this? And who is currently involved in this business?

— There were four of us siblings; I have two brothers and a sister. My brothers always helped our father. Unfortunately, one is no longer with us, and the other is very ill now. After marriage, my sister’s and my husbands also became interested in this business and continued it in Azerbaijan, where we moved from Dagestan. Later, my sister’s family moved to Ukraine and started supplying stone to us in Azerbaijan. Life circumstances forced my family to move to Switzerland, where we lived for 10 years, and then to America. We’ve been in the States since 2019.

Currently, my family, my sister’s husband’s family, and fortunately, we’ve found partners here in America, which includes two to three families, are involved in the business. We have a great, very friendly team, and although this is a new business for them, our friends quickly learned it and found it to their liking.

— Have your American partners accepted the principles that your family has established over many years?

— Yes, they have, and this is very important to us because we don’t sell houses or cars. In our business, a very delicate approach is required: we are dealing with people’s grief. Therefore, we strive to maintain the principles that originated from my father: compassion, respect, and empathy towards clients. Empathy and understanding of each person’s emotions are necessary. Some people, a little calmer, order a monument 2-3 years after a loved one’s death, while many come in pain, not yet recovered from the loss, and they don’t always know what they want, which portrait to choose, or what inscription. In search of the best, they get confused and often change their decisions.

There was a case when a close friend of my father tragically lost his young daughter, who was 18 years old. She was a soloist in a national ensemble of Dagestan. There were many photos of her in national costumes and other outfits. The relatives couldn’t decide on the choice. When my father completed the order, the family decided to change the photo several times. And this process either requires a new monument or polishing the existing one, which is not an easy task. I saw my father’s compassion in how patiently and understandingly he handled this order. Without saying a word, he changed the photo as many times as they asked.

— What was the biggest challenge after moving to America, and how did you overcome it?

— Competition. In America, there are families who have been in this industry for 100 years, in the fourth or fifth generation. We analyzed everything and realized we could keep prices much lower than our competitors, plus we have a flexible interest-free payment system. There was a case here in the States when we understood that a family had financial difficulties but wanted to give their mother a decent burial. We offered them an installment plan. The clients were very surprised and grateful.

We also have experience in taking pre-need orders for monuments. This later eases the decision-making for their children and grandchildren. We keep contracts and documentation. The deceased’s relatives make the decisions, and we handle the monument installation.

Additionally, we have short production times with excellent quality. In America, an order takes a year to a year and a half. Our maximum is six months, including stone delivery. We currently deliver stone from Ukraine and plan to include India and China.

An extraordinary offer: a QR code on the monument, where all the photos of the deceased provided by the relatives will be stored. We also offer to shoot a video where loved ones can talk about the deceased, interesting moments from their life, and memories. The information will be stored in a program and “embedded” in the QR code. At any time, relatives or those passing by the monument can watch a short film about the deceased.

— Can you guarantee that the memory of a loved one will be preserved and maintained? If something happens to the monument, will you help?

— Absolutely. We guarantee that we are here, nearby, and will always come to help: fix, correct, and never lose touch with clients. There have been cases where someone poured acid on a monument, and we had to polish it anew. There are also different nuances, like when the ground is wet, the monument can sink, and since we charge for installation, we are responsible and do not take additional money from the client.

— In America, unlike Europe, large monuments are not as common. More often, small stones are placed. How do you find your clients?

— Here, there are not only small gravestones; there are large stones, slabs, and monuments of different sizes and designs. It all depends on the rules and laws of the cemetery.

Moreover, we are attentive to the peculiarities of different cultures and religions. We have monuments for Christians, Muslims, and Jews. We never worked with cremation before, but now we actively do and will not refuse if someone comes and orders an urn.

— Sona, do you offer monuments from different materials based on ready-made sketches, or can clients come with their own design?

— We make products from granite and marble of different colors. In our showrooms and on our website, there are enough sketches of various designs, but you can come with your own design; we are flexible to accommodate any customer.

— Can you order a sculpture from you?

— We do not have sculptures directly in stock. But we have professional partners who do this, so we can fulfill such an order. For example, for my husband’s mother, we made a sculpture, and a master in Azerbaijan crafted it, so it’s not a problem.

— What are your plans for the future?

— We want to open 100 locations in different states within five years. We already have them in Texas, Oklahoma, and California, and we plan to expand to other states.

— Sona, you face pain and grief every day. How do you manage to maintain your vitality?

— It’s very hard; you go through everything yourself, especially when young people die. Family, children, love, and gratitude for each day you are alive and healthy help keep the balance.

— How many children do you have, and will they continue the family business?

— I have six children. Unfortunately, one daughter is in heaven; she was very young, but we always say six because she is with us. My eldest son is twenty-four, and my youngest is only two years old. My older son and daughter help my husband and me a lot. If they decide to continue working in this business, we will be happy. If not, it’s their choice, which we will respect.