at the Lincoln Lutheran Cemetery, Ridgeway, IA.
(Left) Cemetery conservationist Jonathan Appell, and Jarrod Roll (right) reset a gravestone
at the Lincoln Lutheran Cemetery, Ridgeway, IA.
I have been cleaning gravestones since 2005 and have taught hundreds of folks how to preserve grave markers along the way. Over the years I have received numerous requests to repair gravestones and teach others how to do so as well. Cleaning gravestones is one thing--repairing gravestones is another thing. Repairing gravestones is much more involved in every sense of the word. But basic skills and techniques can be learned. That's where cemetery conservator Jonathan Appell comes in. Jonathan has been repairing and resetting gravestones since the 1980s. He is currently travelling the continental US providing workshops for people (like me) who want some practical instruction in gravestone resetting and straightening. On a muggy day in July 2022, I joined a dozen or so folks for a hands-on gravestone restoration workshop taught by Jonathan. I learned so much and will look for future opportunities to attend one of his workshops. I would encourage you to look for one of Jonathan's workshops coming to a cemetery near you: 48statetour.com
Most of the cemeteries I work in are located in the middle of nowhere, or at least on the outskirts of town. In July 2021 I had the pleasure of conducting two gravestone preservation workshops at Forest Home Cemetery in Milwaukee, WI. Forest Home Cemetery is best described as a peaceful, green oasis in the middle of a city. Established way back in 1850, the 200 acre cemetery is the final resting place to some 110,000+ individuals, including famed beer barons, politicians and Milwaukee's social elite. This non-profit organization is dedicated to preserving the cemetery and grounds to the highest standards possible, and it shows. They hope that some of the folks who took my workshop will use those new skills to clean and preserve some of the many gravestones in need of TLC.
[Above, 19th century gravestones were damaged by someone using an abrasive cleaning technique in a Maryland cemetery in spring 2021. Image courtesy the Baltimore Sun]
A person's good intentions alone do not qualify them to clean historic gravestones. A recent newspaper article reporting damage done to Civil War-era gravestones in Maryland is yet another example of someone who thought it was permissible to alter grave markers to better read the inscriptions obscured by years of growth and grime (I'm giving the unknown person the benefit of a doubt that their intentions were not malicious). Almost weekly I learn of another "good Samaritan" who is inspired to clean gravestones in a cemetery. It is true that proper cleaning can help to preserve stone and that many gravestones stand neglected in cemeteries all over the US. However, before anyone attempts a cleaning project in a cemetery, it is essential to, 1) research proper historic stone cleaning techniques (such as on websites like NCPTT), 2) share your plan for cleaning gravestones with a professional to get their feedback, and 3) obtain permission from the governing body of that cemetery. Without proper training and planning, a person--no matter how big their heart--risks doing more harm than good to that old gravestone they wish to preserve.
There's still snow on the ground in some spots of Western Wisconsin, but it won't be long until spring arrives and the grass begins to grow in our yards and in our cemeteries. The lawnmowers will come out and we'll smell that first fresh-cut grass smell that is always so welcoming in spring. Mowing cemeteries hasn't always been the norm. In fact, cemeteries weren’t landscaped and manicured in the past like they are today. Most would feature taller grasses and low growing plants (as seen in the image on the left). In the modern era the expectation is that cemeteries are kept immaculately groomed (or the caretakers will hear about it from the family of the interred). This standard, unfortunately, is often at the expense of the grave markers. Finding gravestones with dings from lawnmowers and whip marks from string trimmers is all too common. It's not always the caretakers fault...cemeteries are difficult to mow...they weren’t designed to be mowed.
I recently was invited to give a full day workshop in Manitowoc, Wisconsin through the Manitowoc County Historical Society. After the in-class portion of the workshop, the participants went out into a nearby cemetery to apply what they had learned. Several grave makers were successfully cleaned with care. Cleaning some of the larger gravestones was a real group effort (pictured above). Some scrub high; some scrub low; some scrub the back; some scrub the front. Just watch that over-spray! No one likes getting water in the face. :)
It's a beautiful Saturday morning and you're planning on cleaning some ancestors' gravestones in a little rural cemetery two hours away. You run down your list of needed items: Scrub brush? Check. Plastic scraper? Check. Denture brush? Check. Wood inscription stick? Check. D/2 Biological Solution? Check? Sunblock? Check. Bug spray? Check. Seems like you've packed everything you'll need to safely and effectively clean some gravestones, right? Just don't forget the WATER.
Over the years I've heard from several folks that they had neglected to find out ahead of time if the cemetery they planned on working in had clean water available on site. Water is the most important item needed for cleaning a gravestone, and you need a lot of it. How much? I would suggest a minimum of one gallon per cubic foot of gravestone. So, if you plan on cleaning a 3' wide x 3' high x 1' deep grave marker, I would have nine gallons of water. Again, that's just the bare minimum. More water is better. Keep the stone wet while you clean.
2) What if the cemetery in question appears to be abandoned or neglected? Must I still receive permission to work in the cemetery?
Answer: Yes. If you suspect that a cemetery is abandoned or neglected, contact the Office of State Archaeologist. If the cemetery in question is in fact unrecorded, then one of these state agencies typically is the authority on granting permission to work within the cemetery. Regardless, you still will have to request permission from the land owner to access the cemetery.
[note: The above answer comes directly from the Wisconsin Historical Society - Historic Preservation Division. If you're not cleaning a gravestone in WI, check with the state historic preservation office in your state because similar rules will apply]
"I'm a 'Good Samaritan' wanting to the clean gravestones of neglected veterans who are not my family members. I can just do that, right?" The answer to that question may surprise you.
One of the topics I cover when I give presentations or workshops about gravestone cleaning is about permissions. Over the next few blog entries I'll provide answers for some of the more commonly asked questions with answers I received directly from the Wisconsin Historical Society - Historic Preservation Division. If you're not cleaning a gravestone in WI, check with the state historic preservation office in your state because similar rules will apply.
1. Must I have permission to inventory, clean, or reset a gravestone or to remove vegetative growth from within a cemetery?
Answer: Yes. You must obtain permission from 1) the property owner to enter the cemetery itself if you must cross private land to access the cemetery, and 2) the Trustees of the cemetery to do any work with a gravestone (such as cleaning) or within the cemetery (such as brush removal). "Trustees" means the recognized representatives of the original incorporators, board of directors, affiliated church, or cemetery association.
Over the years, I have provided training to many service and community groups that were interested in cemetery clean up projects. Recently a western Wisconsin area 4-H group received training to properly clean gravestones at the Halfway Creek Cemetery in Holmen, WI. I was amazed at how well this group worked together despite ranging in ages from 5 years old to adults. In all, forty-four (44) gravestones were cleaned and preserved in less than four hours time! And they loved doing it. Great work everyone! The key point here is that no group, no matter how well-meaning, should undertake a gravestone cleaning effort without proper training beforehand. But, once equipped with the proper tools and techniques, amazing work can happen.
In my last post I mentioned that I sometimes include basic grave marker resetting instruction in my workshops. I always get asked about how to repair and/or reset grave markers that are multi sections. That sort of work is beyond what I typically get into, but, I wanted to provide a resource that I find very helpful.
Last year, Jason Church, Materials Conservator for the NCPTT, did a webinar with the Wisconsin Historical Society on resetting grave markers. In this 90 minute presentation, Jason shares a wealth of practical info about how to repair and reset gravestones. I'm providing a link to that video here because it is too valuable to not be shared. I hope you find it useful. Oh, and become a member of the WI Historical Society if you aren't already.
Jarrod Roll...museum curator by training, preservation educator by passion. Director of the Monroe County Local History Room & Museum, Sparta, WI. Owner of Save Your Stones Gravestone Restoration Services. Maker of the Gravestone Cleaning Kit.