Hello readers! It’s been a few weeks since I’ve written anything on here, but don’t let that make you think I’ve not been working away in heritage, no sir! In fact, since I last posted on, I graduated with my MA (focus on Historical Archaeology), moved to Ontario, and started a new job as a Cultural Heritage Specialist. Need a heritage building assessed, or a burial ground examined (or conservation plans for either)? Give me a shout!
Now that I’ve mentioned burial grounds (because what kind of death & archaeology blog would this be if that wasn’t what I was talking about), I wanted to discuss something that comes up a lot when discussing burial sites, historic or modern, with members of the public: Conservation in the burial ground. By that I mean practices that will help preserve the integrity and survival of the site, but also for the gravestones themselves as an important aspect of the space and a document about those buried in it.
The Burial Ground
Burial grounds are an important resource for cultural heritage, as well as containing the relatives of the decedent communities, making them sacred spaces for many people that should be protected and preserved. I’ve recently learned that the Funerals, Burials, and Cremations Services Act of Ontario defines ‘burial site’ as a space set aside for burials that is not a cemetery, which in Ontario basically means it wasn’t established under the Act, so it’s likely not modern…aka, historic burial grounds. (They do sort of also differentiate between Indigenous burial grounds and European ones, but that’s a whole other discussion).
When you’re working in a historic burial ground, and you’re not there working under an official archaeological permit, an important thing to remember is that you should not break ground. Many (unfortunately not all) burial grounds are registered historic sites within their province, or within their municipality, and breaking ground would require authorization and an archaeologist with a permit. This is to protect what could be below surface…aka, human remains. It’s very important to check with local archaeological and historical offices to make sure you know what you can and can’t proceed with in terms of maintenance, ground clearing, stone locating and recovering, etc.
Recently I’ve heard about or been around some projects where well-meaning people were participating in ground clearing and buried-stone locating by using pick-axes and metal poles. I would strongly advise against using these types of tools in a burial ground! Not only do you run the risk of disturbing human remains, and getting in trouble with archaeological governing bodies such as provincial governments, but if you are looking for gravestones the metal tools could scratch, chip, or destroy any fallen gravestones that are below the surface. Your best option is not to disturb the ground’s surface unless you’re an archaeologist (with a permit), or you’re working with an archaeologist who has been tasked with recovering the stones.
If you’re interested in looking for fallen headstones that have been buried, you might want to contact your local university’s archaeology department, your provincial archaeology office, or any consulting archaeologists who work with historic burial sites (like me)!
Probably the most tangible aspect of a burial site are the gravestones themselves, but they are often the most at risk element of the site, as they are exposed to the wind, rain, and potential acts of vandalism. Lets discuss some Do’s and Don’ts of gravestone conservation and protection!
- If you’re uncovering fallen gravestones,
and want to set them back upright away, make sure the stone isn’t cracked or compromised. If it is, leave it laying down until a solution can be arranged. Best practice is to leave it flat until it can be assessed for damage, as moisture from the soil could have deteriorated the stone.(in many cases leaving it flat might be the best option)
- If a gravestone is being reset into a base, do not set it into a cement slab or use cement in the repairs. Cement acts as a sealant, trapping moisture inside the stone and causing it to erode even faster as a result. Use mortar made from lime, as this will remove moisture from the stone.
- Do not power-wash your gravestones. Let me repeat. Do Not Power Wash Your Gravestones.
- When looking to record the inscription on a gravestone, the best and safest option is to use your eyes, your fingertips (lightly), and a flashlight at an oblique angle to pick up any subtitles.
Do not take a rubbing of the gravestone.
Gravestone rubbings on historic, eroding stone faces, especially ones made from marble, sandstone, or limestone, can be detrimental to the survival of the stone. Additionally, the pressure of the rubbing on a deteriorating stone could cause it to crack.
- Same goes for covering the stone in cornstarch, flour, chalk, or heaven forbid painting or colouring in the letters for the sake of recording. Do not do any of these things, as the will heavily compromise the survival of the stone! Powders can sink into the stone, swell when wet, and cause serious damage, while colouring in the letters is difficult to reverse and disrupts the historic nature of the stone. Many of these substances are also food for microorganisms which can cause damage to the stones as well. If you’re considering dumping something on a gravestone, stop. Please.
- If a gravestone has vines on it: STOP. don’t pull off the vines! Vines attached themselves to materials with calcium carbonate in them, like limestone, by eating into the stone, so pulling the vine off would rip out part of the stone as well. Cut the vines at the base/kill the roots and wait for it to die before carefully cutting it away from the stone, being sure not to scratch the stone.
- If you want to repair a broken gravestone, be sure to consult with an expert in that area, as doing something like drilling metal pins through a stone to hold it together with eventually cause water to get inside and cause further issues. There are many techniques to putting a stone back together using dowels and epoxy and colour-matched mortars that don’t involve Portland cement. I’ll leave some materials at the bottom of this post for those interested.
- The Irish Heritage Council’s document for conservation of gravestones and burial sites (link below) recommends that turn not be removed from around a gravestone as this could disturb remains as well as provide a place for weeds and ivy to thrive.
-phew- I know that seems like a lot of Don’ts, but I’ve tried to provide alternatives to what has become common practice in a lot of places! A challenge is that people want to be able to record the information off of gravestones, and that’s obviously what I want as well, but for it to be done in a safe manner that will not increase the degradation of the gravestone itself.
Sure, a lot can be done to help preserve aspects of a historic burial site through conservation, but part of the characteristics of these types of sites also lies in the uneven ground, the tilted stones (which can often protect the inscription, and shouldn’t always be righted, just fyi), the grass, etc. As a historic site and a cultural significant landscape, historic burial grounds in every community can increase our understanding of the heritage of the area. These sites deserve to be considered in conservation management plans, and I’m very interested in working with communities on best practices for preserving their cultural heritage through their burial grounds!
- The Heritage Council / An Chomhairle Oidhreachta:
“Guidance for the Care, Conservation, and Recording of Historic Graveyards“
- Tamara Anson-Cartwright for the Ontario Provincial Government:
“Landscapes of Memory: A guide for conserving historic cemeteries“
- Ontario Provincial Government’s:
“Funeral, Burial, and Cremation Services Act, 2002, S.O. 2002, c. 33“