Survey: Risk Assessment

When planning a gravestone conservation project, it is a good idea to conduct some form of a survey to overview the stones conditions. This may be as informal and basic as a walk through the graveyard or as complex as an individual gravestone and monument assessment survey form to inventory each stone. Obviously the funds available are a huge factor in deciding how to move forward. The most important part of any survey is to have some knowledge regarding what should be prioritized before beginning the actual preservation plan.

Historical priorities should be established based on the needs of the specific town or cemetery involved. It is always a good idea for the local group planning the project, to first make a list of all the stones which are a special historic significance. If an expert is consulted, then his recommendations should be weighed with respect to your local history and the list you have already drafted. Consultants can base the need for conservation treatments on only the conditions at the cemetery in question. It is unlikely they will have had the time and information to take into account local historical records.

Hiring a specialist such as a conservator is the ideal way to progress in planning a graveyard preservation project, but it is also the most expensive. Very few cemetery associations, churches, towns, or historical societies, have the funding needed to undertake hiring a professional to survey each memorial and grave site. Instead, a representative survey is often conducted, choosing specific stones of all types and conditions to typify common problems and treatment procedures.

The most important aspect of a properly conducted survey is a quality photograph. Digital cameras have greatly reduced the time and cost to compile a photographic record. There is however some concern regarding digital records being lost or software losing the ability to read them in the future. Until recently 35mm black and white negatives, when properly stored were considered the only photograph archival stable.

Regardless of what kind of photograph is taken a fire of flood will destroy it completely. Therefore any records should be reproduced in duplicate and stored in two separate locations.
A written form explaining the overall size, condition, and inscription, is the other half of a complete gravestone survey. Ideally this written record is fastened to the photograph of the stone being surveyed. Placing each separate sheet into an acid free plastic sleeve, will further preserve this form of documentation.

There is good news however; an expert is not needed to conduct a cemetery or graveyard survey. It would however, be very helpful to consult with a specialist before beginning. A willing expert could train local volunteers to follow specific protocols which would help the information be recorded correctly. Depending on the scope of the project, volunteers can be trained in as little as one day to accurately record basic stone condition and inscription information.

There are also a few good books available pertaining to the documentation of gravestones. It would be very helpful, to read up on the subject of documentation, prior to undertaking the actual project, even if specialist is hired or consulted.
If this is not possible, contact the Association for Gravestones Studies or the National Trust for Historic Preservation to procure information. There are a few major training workshops conducted each year. The Association for Gravestone Studies holds a basic gravestone conservation workshop yearly, in conjunction with its annual conference.
The National Parks Service, through its training arm the NPSCPP, recently started hosting a yearly workshop or two in varying locations throughout America.

I commend the efforts of AGS, and the National Parks Service, but a much larger training program is needed to fill the need on a national scale.

Risk Assessment

The most important aspect of any assessment should always be for risk to possible human injury from unstable tombstones. The taller the gravestone the more potential it has to fall over. When it falls it will destroy or crush nearly anything in its path.

Monuments which look fine can be the most hazardous. Great care must be taken when inspecting two and three piece monuments, most common during the Victorian era. They were often constructed from marble which may be highly degraded and may have blind metal pinning still in place.

Many monuments which were installed in the past were not properly fasted to their respective bases. A headstone monument is composed of at least two sections; the upper is called the die, the lower section, the base. Many dies are simply sitting on top of a base. They are in no way connected, but rather are held in place by only gravity itself.

All gravestones, monuments, or statuary deemed to be unstable should be of the highest priority. I have encountered many towns that had little or no funds allocated for gravestone conservation, until it was realized a real human threat existed. Only then were provisions made to procure the needed funding. When health and safely become an issue it can be amazing how cemeteries and towns perspective can change.

If is not possible to hire an experienced specialist, a monument setter, working for a local monument dealer, may be able to perform a good repair. The knowledge and training may be widely variable regarding monument dealers and their approach to repairing an older stone. Once again, the more information acquired in advance the better prepared the local group will be when deciding who to employ.

At the very least, a monument setter can remove a hazard from a dangerous stone. The gravestone or monument can be temporarily laid down to prevent it form toppling over.

If it is impossible to carry out any stabilization on a highly unstable stone, it would then be advised to temporarily fence off the stone in question. Place the fence at a distance away form the monument at least one and a half times greater then the height of the stone, in case it falls.

It may also be possible place metal or wood framing around a stone to keep it upright until it can be properly treated by a specialist.