A Thing of the Past: The Importance of Correct Cleaning Techniques of Tombstones
The role of a tombstone is complex. It is a final physical connection to surviving friends and family- a reminder of life and a representation of loss. An important artifact for the historian, the tombstone normally has identifying information inscribed on it. It can tell us who, what, when or where and sometimes, why. Its cultural value increases with age. The use of tombstones to mark grave sites is beginning to diminish, creating urgency for deliberate conservation efforts. Tombstones should be preserved, not only for the obvious information they provide, but also for their value as a material culture object.
There are primarily two types of cemeteries: perpetual and non-perpetual. A perpetual cemetery is usually privately owned. A portion of the money collected for a burial plot goes into a special account that accrues interest. The interest is used to ensure that the grounds and grave markers will continually be maintained. A non-perpetual cemetery is owned by an individual family, a local municipality, a church, or an organization, such as state and national veteran cemeteries. They rely on private funds, donations or tax funds to maintain the gravesites and landscape.
The tombstones in the cemeteries are usually made up from one of four kinds of stone: granite, marble, slate and sandstone. These stones are in direct contact with the ground and absorb some water from the surrounding soil. The porous nature of the stone allows air to circulate and evaporate the water. One could say that the tombstone breathes (an eerie thought), as it allows air to pass through it. The nature of the tombstone sets the stage for natural deterioration.
Normal weather occurrences such as rain, snow, ice, or wind impact the stability and inscription details of the tombstone. Vegetation growing around and on the stone often causes damage. A common problem is the attachment of lichen, fungi, or algae to the stone. These trap moisture and secrete acids. Often roots from ferns, ivy, and moss will grow into the stone (particularly on the north side of it), further destabilizing it. In addition, shifts in the ground from erosion can have a substantial impact on the degeneration of the stone.
There are man-made causes of tombstone deterioration as well. Erosion problems as a result of poor landscaping can cause a tombstone to fall over or break at the base. Pollution found in rainwater (i.e. acid rain) can do significant damage to the stone. Actions such as recording the epitaph through crayon, pencil, or wax rubbings can eventually destroy the stone. The practice of rubbings has been banned in some states and many others are now requiring a permit. Stones can erode internally, while the outside hardens because of environmental exposure thus giving the impression of a sturdy gravestone. The pressure applied during a rubbing can cause the stone to implode. Cleaning attempts can also create a dangerous environment for the tombstone. It is not uncommon to hear of someone using bleach to clean and enhance the stone. The salt from the bleach is hazardous to the stone and wears away details.
Inappropriate cleaning techniques: A power washer was used to clean this tombstone.
The top image is before and the bottom image is after.
Notice the reduction in detail in the after photo.
There are a few companies that clean gravestones, but it is a job primarily done by ancestors of the deceased. It is important to use proper techniques when cleaning a tombstone. Never use household cleaning supplies to clean a tombstone. The safest way to clean a gravestone is to keep a constant flow of water over the spot to be cleaned, using a hose, and gently scrub the stone with a soft bristle brush. If one has access to it, a D/2 Biological solution can be used. It can be a time consuming task, but is eventually effective and safe for the preservation of the stone.
Appropriate cleaning techniques: Notice the improvement in the tombstone after it had been gently cleaned with a soft bristle brush and water.
The top image is before and the bottom image is after.
During the 1970s, many cemeteries, especially perpetual cemeteries, began moving away from using upright tombstones as grave markers and instead began using flat, bronze plates. These ground-level plates granted more accessibility for grave digging equipment and allowed maintenance upkeep such as grass cutting to be easier and more cost efficient. As cemetery spaces decrease and maintenance costs increase, the use of tombstones to mark graves will continue to diminish. It is essential that the public be educated on gravestone conservation techniques and begin employing them because, eventually, tombstones may be a thing of the past.
Photo by Kristi Brantley.
Melton Caison, Jr. Location Manager of Johnson Funeral Home; Operation Manager of Rocky Mount Memorial Park, Rocky Mount, N.C., telephone call January 23, 2015
Eddie Finch, Funeral Assistant, Johnson Funeral Home, Rocky Mount, N.C., telephone call January 20, 2015.
Chris May, Funeral Service licensee, operation manager Cornerstone Funeral Home, Nashville, N.C., telephone call January 23, 2015
Chicora Foundation, Incorporated. 2008. http://www.chicora.org/conservation.html
Conneticut Gravestone Network. 2012. http://www.ctgravestones.com/Conservation/conservetopics.htm
Odgers, David. Caring for Historic Graveyard and Cemetery Monuments. 2011. Digital. https://www.english-heritage.org.uk/publications/caring-historic-graveyard-cemetery-monuments/