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Grave Cleaning 101

November 20, 2009

My time in the Heritage Resources Program at NSU has introduced me to an activity that I enjoy very much: cleaning gravestones. What began as a class assignment has evolved into a full-fledged project thesis, for which I am putting together an information booklet of cemetery preservation recommendations. Cemeteries are an extremely important element of our cultural heritage. Many of them are sacred spaces with religious meaning for large numbers of people. Some people like to say that cemeteries are not for the dead, but for the living.

Grave Cleaning Pic -- Natchitoches Times, 10/9/2009
Natchitoches Times Photo of Me Cleaning the Infant Grave of Joseph Williams

Cemeteries also act as outdoor museums that provide information to scholars from several fields. Historians can trace the development of the surrounding area by looking at names, dates, and inscribed biographies. Genealogists can trace family lines through generations buried near one another. Demographers gain data on births, deaths, life expectancies, infant mortality, and family size. Sociologists can learn about gender relations, family traditions, and attitudes towards death.

Markers in cemeteries face a variety of threats, including weathering, vandalism, and biological growth. This last is sometimes overlooked. Fungi and algae grow in moisture that the stone retains, staining the face and wearing away at it from within. We use a cleaning agent called D/2, made by a Maryland company named Cathedral Stone. D/2 kills the biological growth within the stone, and continues working for days and weeks after the actual cleaning is finished. The stone will look cleaner after a month than it did after a week. The difference can be seen in these two photos:

Mary Grace Williams grave before cleaning

Mary Grace Williams grave before cleaning--10/14/09

Mary Grace Williams grave after cleaning

Mary Grace Williams grave after cleaning--10/30/09

This product is safe for people to use and is also environmentally friendly. It was used at a cleanup activity in March 2009, video of which can be seen here (a brief interview with yours truly begins around the 4:40 mark):

There are many ways to preserve our cemeteries and keep them looking nice, but grave cleaning is without a doubt the one I enjoy the most.

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