The Battle to Save America’s Historic Graveyards

It seems it is human nature to except the given doctrine of experts, regarding any specific discipline. Unfortunately, it is often too late before we realize that there are many solutions to nearly every problem. Often it is not the excepted solution which provides the only or best answer to solve any specific problem.

The following topic is such a complex and potentially controversial issue; it is very difficult to condense. It is nearly impossible to cover the entire subject matter without examples and deviations to illustrate specific situations and problems.

We are losing the battle in saving Americas historic graveyards, sculptures, and monumental works.

Over the past few decades an increased awareness of our stone heritage, has not always worked in saving it. Laws have been enacted in many states to protect our historic cemeteries. Experts and organizations now offer advice and warnings regarding improper conservation techniques, yet a new problem have arisen, virtually no one is qualified to repair the very stones which we all want to protect and preserve.

How you may ask, is this possible?

Who carved these historic gravestones? They were carved by artisans, craftsman who learned and sometime perfected the stone carving trade. They nearly always apprenticed with an experienced stone worker or monumental mason for a period of time, to learn the trade. The setting or installation of the markers was the final phase of the stone carvers’ job. Depending on the specific location and time frame, the gravestone cutter may likely have performed every step, from quarrying to the setting of the finished gravestone. If a stone broke after it had been set up in the graveyard, the stone cutter would likely have been called upon to perform a repair.

What has changed? Modern monuments which are primarily composed of granite are assembled and erected in a slightly different manner, then the older Victorian and Colonial gravestones. Most monument dealers prefer to concentrate on memorial sales and possibly the manufacturing of the markers and monuments they sell. Monumental dealers therefore, rarely have the time or expertise, to repair the older historic fragile gravestones, monuments and sculptures found throughout all older burying grounds in America.

Who then, is qualified to repair or conserve our stone heritage found in graveyards?

With an increased and greater awareness regarding the historical significance of burying grounds, a new attitude materialized regarding what constituted proper preservation techniques. Since graveyards were now considered to be open air museums, then only museum conservators and their approved procedures, were appropriate to repair the stones found in historic cemeteries. Suddenly university training became a prerequisite to fix historic stones. Repairs were now considered conservation treatments. The stones originally created and repaired be artisans and craftsman, were now too valuable to be cared for by the current generation of related tradespeople.

The terminology and understanding of stone degradation mechanisms increased, but new problems quickly arose from the curatorial attitude. Although graveyards posses
extensive historical information, they are not simply museums, but rather first and foremost sacred burial places. They are exposed to all the forces of nature, lawn maintenance equipment, tree roots and falling limbs, potential vandalism, etc.

An important concept in the field of historic preservation is the need for reversibility when performing repairs, also known as treatments, or conservation procedures. The notion of reversibility is not appropriate in an outdoor graveyard setting. If treatments are not functionally permanent they are very likely to fail. Human safely must always be a considered a first priority in all public places.

The procedures and techniques which worked so well in an indoor museum often had abysmal results in the graveyard, some proved detrimental to the fragile stones, and others were simply ineffective.

For example, the polymer resins at first promoted by conservators to join fractured stones together, worked poorly. They did not adhere well to the stones, were too hard and became overly brittle once exposed to the elements outdoors. Many of the conservations performed with polyester resins have long since failed, and may have caused further damage to the stone itself during their breakage.

Blind pinning is the act of drilling, and placing a hidden rod or dowel in between two fragments or monumental elements. The theory is that this pinning, will help join the two sections of stone together, and provide more and greater strength, then if no pins were utilized. Although simple in theory, the results in the field often leave much to be desired.

Additionally, conservators initially advised blind pinning to be composed of nylon rod. Many of the stones conserved with nylon rods, are now broken again. It simply was not strong enough to perform its function of internally strengthening the stone. Nylon pinning is way too flexible; it bends easily and eventually snaps. It lacks enough structural integrity to be effective as a strengthening rod.

The entire topic of installing blind pinning is a highly debatable subject. Gravestones composed of layered or laminated stones, should not be pinned. This included slate, sandstone, and many other stone types. If they are pinned, it is likely faults and cracking will emanate from the point of pinning, which eventually may contribute to a repair failure or breakage. Additionally, stones overly thin or fragile should not be pinned. This includes many marble stones which may be in an advanced state of decay. When sugaring, spalling, or in a highly degraded condition, drilling will be ineffective, as the stone will crumble rather then achieve a clean drill hole. Chipping, cracking or other weakening may also occur.

Whenever any substance is removed from an historic gravestone it is gone forever, and the amount of original fabric is reduced. The entire field of historic preservation revolves around the concept of attempting to preserve the original material fabric. If a stone which had been conserved by pinning breaks again, the act of pinning may have contributed to the demise of the stone, rather then its preservation.

Conservators now understand which adhesives hold up best, against the elements of nature. Nylon pinning is no longer recommended, and has been replaced by fiberglass, or stainless steel. Conservators have, through mostly trial and error experiences learned a great deal towards performing safer, longer lasting and better conservation treatments.
As a collective group we must continue to test new products and continue to advance the art and science of gravestone conservation.

With the continued escalation of military and security spending in America, towns, states and much of the funding relating to historic preservation in general has been and will continue to be reduced for the foreseeable future. Considering many of our historic graveyards and cemeteries are already in an advanced state or disrepair, it seems likely, this degradation will continue, at an ever increasing rate without a major change in attitude.

The current system of extensive research and documentation has proved detrimental to actually repairing the stones much of the time. Large amounts of money are often spent to write reports, planning stone conservation projects that may never be funded. Ever inflated preservation cost estimates only further the disconnect to beginning many preservation projects.

Is there a better solution that has been overlooked?

Yes, we need to establish basic standards and teach trades people to conserve gravestones. University training is not needed to conserve gravestones, although proper training is fundamental.

Universities should be encouraged to include graveyards as a training ground for many reinvent disciplines such as history, anthropology, photography, geology, etc. Not just the historic preservation programs, but rather all colleges could explore ways to incorporate gravestones into their curriculum. Gravestones could be photographed, recorded and placed into data bases, individual stone assessments could be preformed after receiving a moderate amount of training. This all could be part of our higher education system. This would foster a greater interest with many of the students involved, and would free up much needed funding to actually fix more of the gravestones.

There is long and sorted history of hording knowledge and information relating to the trades. Masons historically were no different in this regard. In this day and age we can no longer afford to hold trade secretes. We must share ideas, information, and techniques, to advance the cause as a collective group.

Only a hand full of training workshops or seminars are now available nationally, to those attempting to gain knowledge or training regarding gravestone conservation. We must establish more training options to further our cause. A science of conservation technology certificate and associated degree program should be formed throughout the United States.
All of the preservation trades are involved, not just stone preservation.

The answer lies in opening all avenues of communication between the sciences, universities, and the trade’s people. Due to the elimination of the apprenticeship system, most of the trades have a shortage of trained workers. We must now advance our educational and training opportunities to include all those interested, and beyond that entice future crafts people to join us in the effort to save our history.