Grave Cleaning 101
My time in the Heritage Resources Program at NSU introduced me to an activity that I enjoy very much: cleaning gravestones. What began as a class assignment evolved into a full-fledged project thesis, for which I put 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.
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:
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):
Grave Cleaning — Evergreen Baptist Cemetery
On February 15, 2011 I headed east from Natchitoches and drove out to Evergreen Missionary Baptist Church near St. Maurice in Winn Parish. The cemetery is beyond the church and sits on uneven and sometimes even hilly ground. I was there to clean the grave of Mrs. Josephine Small, a flat concrete tablet with a vertical headstone. The front face of the headstone has an angel’s head and wings carved in relief at the top and an inscription below that reads:
ASLEEP IN JESUS
Atop the headstone is a carving of a lamb. Around the neck of the lamb is a sort of casing or brace of a different material that I believe is there to protect this area, possibly due to previous damage.
Both the flat tablet and headstone were covered with a large amount of dirt and grime. Some biological growth was at the headstone end of the tablet, and much more was on the front, back and carving of the headstone.
I wet down the stone and realized that two environmental factors were working in my favor. The first was that despite the uneven terrain of the cemetery, this particular grave was remarkably level. Water poured on the stone did not run off the side. The second was that the weather that day was mostly cloudy, though it did not rain. Almost no direct sunlight struck the grave during my time at the cemetery. These two factors meant that the stone would not dry out took quickly while I was working, a big advantage for work that requires the stone be kept wet during the cleaning process.
During cleaning and immediately after, it was apparent that most of the staining on the tablet was dirt and grime that had built up to such a degree as to turn the stone almost black in some places. This came off in large amounts after two cleaning cycles. The grime on the headstone also came off to a large degree, along with some of the biological growth.
I returned a week later on February 22 to take some “after photos” and was very pleased with the overall results. The headstone showed less biological growth despite the fact that I do not think that it rained at the site during the interval, which would have washed off some of the dying growth. The bracing material looked significantly cleaner as well. The weather report says that it will rain quite a bit at the site tonight, so the grave may look even cleaner over the next few days.
NOTE: As always, I should mention that I do not clean to make things look pretty, but as a preservation procedure that extends the life of the resource. An improved appearance is an added bonus.
Here are some before and after photographs of the grave:
See more photos of this cemetery on my flickr page.
American Cemetery — John and Phoebe Payne
The first four photos were taken before cleaning began. The next four photos were taken after the first round of treatment. The last four were taken two months after cleaning. The gravestone is much more legible now, and it appears that the cleaning solution has continued to kill off biological growth. The dead growth has been washed away by subsequent rain.