Saturday, March 27, 2010

Cemetery Workshop

What? That sounds strange to you? Well, cemeteries are actually the site of a lot of preservation. The elements can cause quite a bit of damage to that headstone, add in time, neglect, settling ground, expanding tree roots, abrasive cleaning, and the unfortunate occasional vandalism, and you've got some work to do.

This past August Leadville was the site of the annual Preservation Trades Network symposium. Lucky for me, I was able to get some real hands-on experience my first week of school. One of featured workshops was the 'Cemetery Preservation Workshop' led by Jonathan Appell, an expert in the field of both cleaning and restoring deteriorating monuments in aging cemeteries.

I gotta say this workshop was really fascinating. Restoring monuments in cemeteries is far from any image I have in my mind when I think Historic Preservation, but when you think about it, it certainly fits right in.

Here's a question for you...What would you say is the most common material used for headstones in U.S. cemeteries today? Marble you say? Well actually, very little marble is used in American cemeteries today, (though it used to be) it is in fact barred in some states altogether. The most common material used in U.S. monuments today is granite. Granite is extremely strong and will show very little weathering over the course of many many years. As we learned throughout the day, typically headstones were made of whatever material was available to the geographical region. With the connection of train lines however, larger and more varied materials were used for monuments as they were more accessible. As seen in the Leadville cemetery, marble, zinc and granite were the most common materials used for headstones. (We're talking about 100 years ago)

In addition to the above mentioned enemies of monuments, water is any mason’s biggest foe. Water can come from below, or through the ground into the structure. It can come from above, in the case of rain, and more specifically today, acid rain, and it can come from within as in condensation. Water can draw out the salts of the material, and cause rapid deterioration.

In addition to learning all about the materials and history of U.S. cemeteries, the participants got to work on 3 different monuments. I'll share the details of the largest one we worked on.

You can see the challenge we faced. This marble headstone had fallen off of it's base and substantially sunken into the earth. This was a pretty big monument, I couldn't see how we were going to get this sucker out of the earth and back onto its base without throwing out a few backs. Jonathan must have some magic that I was anxious to see.

The first thing we did was dig up around the monument to clear some of the earth so that we could get under it with a level and pull it up out of the ground.

We then cleaned off the marble using a soft brush and water, using care not to be abrasive as this could cause further damage.

Then Jonathan pulled out his magic. He demonstrated how to use a tripod to lift the headstone onto the base after the cleaning and leveling of the two fragments. This was a simple yet effective process for using a pulley system to lift the very heavy stone.

Before placing the monument back on its base, we applied a monument setting compound, epoxy and very small pieces of lead to the base of the monument to allow the headstone to secure to the base, and to allow for proper fitting of the two fragments. The base retained it’s metal pins, which the headstone was reaffixed to. After joining the two pieces, we cleaned off the compound, and that was it, done!

Pretty cool huh. It was actually much easier than I would have thought. Though this workshop was only one day, I learned a ton. My favorite part though, was meeting the wonderful man that takes care of the Mason's tract at the cemetery. He's been coming here for many years to clean and preserve all of the headstones associated with the Masons. He doesn't get paid, and no one asked him to do it, he just wants to. He's made makeshift wooden signs for those missing their names, he waters the lawn, cleans the monuments etc. He just happened to be there that day, and after talking to him for a bit, he decided to join our session and learn a few things himself. What an amazing man!


  1. Was wondering if it was posible to get a photo of the top part or the tripod where the pulley is. I am working on replacing some tipped over head stones at a Cemetery that I donate some time to each month.

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