Maintenance, Conservation, and Repair

An historic headstone is cleaned.

Maintenance

Sensitive maintenance and community awareness are the best long-term solutions to the survival of any cemetery. The community as a whole can take an active part in the preservation, maintenance, and protection of local cemeteries. Civic organizations, church groups, scout troops, and historical societies are all potential assistants in efforts to care for cemeteries.

The following are a few tips for maintenance and preservation of a historic cemetery:

  • Clear brush by hand when possible. When hand cleaning is impractical, use hand mowers, but not close to the gravemarkers. For close work, use hand tools.
  • Flag and protect field stones, fragments, and other easily-overlooked gravemarkers prior to any maintenance to help prevent damage, displacement, or destruction.

Cleaning Historic Stone

People clean a historic stone.

Before cleaning any stone, carefully check its condition. If the surface readily falls away, or you notice other conditions that indicate the stone is brittle or vulnerable, do not clean it. Cleaning may irreparably damage the surface.

  1. Use a non-ionic soap. One of the most readily available soaps is Orvus®, commonly used in association with horse and sheep husbandry. It can be found in feed stores. Mix a solution of one heaping tablespoon of Orvus® (it comes in either liquid or paste form) to one gallon of clean water.
  2. Pre-wet the stone thoroughly with clean water and keep the stone wet during the entire washing process.
  3. Thoroughly wash the wet stone using natural bristled, wooden-handled brushes of various sizes. Start at the bottom and work up. The use of plastic handles is not recommended, as color from the handles may leave material on the stone that will be very difficult to remove.
  4. Be thorough. Wash all surfaces and rinse thoroughly with lots of clean water.
  5. When cleaning marble or limestone, one tablespoon of household ammonia can be added to the above mixture to help remove some greases and oils. Do not use ammonia on or near any bronze or other metal elements.
  6. Lichens and algae can be removed by first thoroughly soaking the stone and then using a wooden scraper to gently remove the biological growth. This process may need to be repeated several times. Do not use force to remove deeply embedded lichens. If the growth cannot be removed easily with scraping, consult a conservator. Some lichen can have strong roots that may damage the stone if removed forcibly.
  7. Not all stains can be removed. Do not expect the stones to appear new after cleaning.
  8. Do not clean marble, limestone, or sandstone more often than once every 18 months. Every cleaning removes some of the face of the stone. However, occasionally rinsing with clean water to remove bird droppings and other accretions is acceptable.
  9. Keep a simple treatment record of the cleaning, including date of cleaning, materials used, and any change in condition since last cleaning (such as missing parts, graffiti, and other damage). These records should be kept at a central location where the condition of the stones can be monitored over time.

Developed from data supplied by John R. Dennis, Dallas Museum of Art Conservation Lab

Conservation and Repair

Historic gravemarkers, fences, and structures are delicate artifacts that must be repaired with care and expertise. Modern repair methods and materials will often harm items created 50 or more years ago. Specially trained craftspeople and conservators should undertake most repairs; however, careful volunteers can repair some artifacts within cemeteries.

Most historic gravemarkers in Texas are carved from one of three different types of stone: marble, limestone, or sandstone. These stones are relatively soft and easy to carve; as a result, they were used extensively in Texas cemeteries during the 19th and early 20th centuries. Unfortunately, because these stones are soft, they are more susceptible to the effects of weathering than harder stones such as granite.

Before beginning any treatment on a gravemarker, check it for soundness. Is the surface grainy and crumbling? Are there any large cracks? Are the vertical strata of the stone separating into sheets and flaking off? If the stone has any of these problems, or appears in any other way to be unsound, do not clean or repair it. The stone will require expert care from a stone conservator.

A stone’s appearance can be greatly improved with a simple cleaning. If the stone appears to be sound, cleaning and simple repairs may be possible. Test any treatment on a small, hidden portion of the stone. Wait a few days or weeks and evaluate the results. If the test is successful, begin cleaning the whole stone using the instructions above.

Things NOT to do:

  • Do not apply portland cement, harmful chemicals, or sealants.
  • Do not use metal bolts or braces.
  • Do not sink stones into concrete.
  • Never sandblast a gravemarker or spray it with an excessive force of water.

Gravemarkers are the focal point of most cemeteries and are given the first consideration when repairs are required; however, don’t overlook other historic cemetery features such as gates, fences, chapels, tabernacles, mausoleums, crypts, gravehouses, and historic plant material and landscaping. Consult with a preservation architect or other specialists before restoring these complex structures or cemetery features.