Hello readers, many of you are being directed here via the Heritage NL gravestone conservation tips and/or by Dale Jarvis! I originally wrote this post in 2017, and have since moved back to Newfoundland and have started my PhD in Archaeology (fall 2020). I have been working in heritage for nearly a decade, and specialise in burial ground archaeology and gravestone conservation. Last summer (2019) I had the pleasure of working full time as a gravestone conservator at Woodland Cemetery in the City of London, Ontario, and have since worked with Brick Street Cemetery in London, and on some other conservation projects as a heritage consultant in the Maritimes. I have given talks on gravestone preservation best practices to a number of organisations over the last year or two, and would have happy to answer any questions you many have about a site in your area. Please contact me through my website, or at blackcatpreservation (at) gmail.com. As an archaeologist with experience and graduate degrees in Newfoundland and Labrador, I am able to be a permit holder for archaeological projects such as burial ground projects.
The purpose of this post if to inform volunteers and communities groups who are invested in the care of their local historic burial sites of the current best practices in gravestone and burial site conservation. We all know that burial sites are a vital historic resource for learning about our communities, as well as the resting places of our families and friends, and they deserve to be cared for and conserved as best we can. As an archaeologist and burial ground specialist, I hope to help you do that, and it is my goal to make the conservation techniques for ‘Do No Harm’ care as widely available as possible.
Note: I am speaking only of the conservation and archaeology of settler burial grounds, as a settler in Canada. Work with Indigenous communities in their burial spaces is another topic entirely and should never be undertaken without the express wishes and blessing of an Indigenous community.
The Burial Grounds
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. 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: a historic burial ground. In Newfoundland, historic burial grounds are protected as archaeological sites, which is fantastic, and a number of these sites are even designated as historic sites within their communities.
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 authorisation and an archaeologist with a permit. In Newfoundland, it is always best practice to check with the PAO (Provincial Archaeology Office) to see if you need an archaeologist on site to conduct work in a historic cemetery. The good folks at Heritage NL can help you do this! This is to protect what could be below surface…the 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.
There are often 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 without proper training on the technique, the metal tools could scratch, chip, or potentially 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. Please always ensure you have permission before undertaking any work at a burial ground, historic or otherwise, and check with Heritage NL or the PAO before doing anything at a historic site. You can also email me with questions! These sites a protected for a reason.
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! As conservators of gravestones and historic grave sites, our job is to ‘Do No Harm’. This means to not undertake any work at the site that would cause more harm than good. This includes cleaning techniques and other practices that appear innocent but cause damage in the long run.
Before we jump into conservation tips, I want to repeat my mantra: ‘Gravestones have a lifespan’. It’s true! Like everything, eventually stone, as a natural material, will weather and crumble, and there is nothing we can do to stop that completely from happening. The best we can do is conserve the object as it, prolonging its life and document the inscriptions and iconography for future researchers, family members, and communities.
Do not power wash your gravestones. Let me repeat. Do Not Power Wash Your Gravestones. Power washing of any kind removes the outer layer of the stone while it ‘cleans’, which will make it look pretty for a small amount of time, but ultimately will cause the stone to weather even quicker and be gone even faster. Instead, try just using water and a soft brush made of natural or synthetic fibres (no metal!!) to clean the stone. This will often do the trick, but if you find you need a little more help, using a PH balanced cleaner such as D/2 Biological Solutions which is safe for stone cleaning as it does not deposit salts or acids in the stone, mixed with water will do absolute wonders. This is the cleaner that the Smithsonian Institute uses for their stone monument and buildings cleaning and care. Water and a substance like D/2 are the only materials you should be introducing to a stone for cleaning.
Do not use any soap, household or otherwise, as these too will deposit salts and/or acids into the stone which will be detrimental to its continued existence. 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.
If you are looking to clean a gravestone and notice that the surface of the stone is ‘sugaring’ or has a granular texture when you touch it that comes away on your finger tips, that means the surface of the stone is actively weathering and the polished surface is basically gone. While the stone can still be cleaned, scrubbing at it with a brush of any kind could do more harm that good because of the compromised nature of the surface. This is very common with marble markers especially, and the best practice for cleaning would be to mix 1:1 ratio of water and D/2 in a spray bottle and spray the surface of the stone (not so much that it is dripping everywhere). D/2 doesn’t actually need to be scrubbed in order to clean the stone, so this treatment will work over the next few days to weeks, and you can always reapply the mixture.
If a gravestone has a weathered inscription that is difficult to read, don’t use cornstarch, flour, chalk, or painting or colouring in the letters for the sake of recording. These materials will heavily compromise the survival of the stone! All stones are porous to some degree, and the small pieces of material, especially the acids and salts, will sink into the face of the stone and swell when wet, causing serious damage by breaking pieces of the stone apart. 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. Instead, try waiting for a bright sunny day that will allow shadows to fall in the letters for photographing and reading, or carry a flashlight and/or something reflective to manipulate light and make the letters easier to read. You can find out more about gravestone photography for recording a site HERE.
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. Although this used to be a common practice, heritage professionals now understand the damage that it causes in the long term and urge visitors to not take rubbings.
If you want to uncover 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, as it allows the stone to be visible to visitors to the site without causing any additional damage to the marker.
Resetting onto Base / into Key:
If a gravestone is being reset into a base, do not set it directly into a cement slab or use cement in any the repairs. Cement acts as a sealant, trapping moisture inside the stone and causing it to weather even faster as a result. Use mortar made from lime, as this will remove moisture from the stone, and breathe with the material, extending its lifespan rather than causing it to break quicker.
A new key or base can be made from concrete, as long as the marker itself is not set directly into the concrete. Instead, use lime mortar in the slot of the key or on the flat surface of the base to secure the stone in place, making sure to brace the stone on all sides with wood (or something) until the mortar is set. This allows for an easy base replacement, while still allowing the gravestone to ‘breathe’. The mortar is also removable from the softer stone, so if it had to be taken off the new base it could be. Unfortunately, concrete is nearly impossible to remove from soft stones without causing irreparable damage, so setting a gravestone into concrete is the end of that stone.
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 or scraping it away from the stone with a blunt wood spatula. The same can be done with thick lichen or moss growth, but be sure to spray water onto the growth to soften it prior to gently scraping away with a blunt wood spatula. As stated already in this post, never use metal tools when cleaning a gravestone.
Restoration / Repairs:
If you want to repair a broken gravestone, be sure to consult with an expert in that area, and should not be undertaken without proper training. There are many techniques to putting a stone back together, such as using stone epoxy, and colour-matched lime mortars. I’ll leave some materials at the bottom of this post for those interested in reading more, but highly advise that these kinds of repairs are not undertaken without training. Simple repairs such as putting a fallen tablet back onto its flat base can be done without aid, and involve putting a layer of lime mortar on the base of the stone with spaces (such as dimes or small lead pieces) in each corner, and simply placing the stone back onto its base.
If you are interested in gravestone repairs, resetting, and restoration, please contact myself or Heritage NL for more information.
That may seem like a lot of ‘Don’ts’, but I’ve tried to provide alternatives to what has become common practice for a ‘Do No Harm’ gravestone conservation approach. 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 it has to be done in a safe manner that will not increase the degradation of the gravestone itself.
Much can be done to help preserve aspects of a historic burial site through conservation, but part of the character of these sites is found in the uneven ground, the tilted stones (which can often protect the inscription, and isn’t always the worst thing), the grass, etc. As a historic site and a cultural significant landscape, historic burial grounds in every community increase our understanding of the heritage of the area. These sites deserve to be considered in conservation management plans and protected as historic sites and landscapes, throughout Canada!
- The Heritage Council / An Chomhairle Oidhreachta:
“Guidance for the Care, Conservation, and Recording of Historic Graveyards“
- The Cemetery Conservators for United Standards:
- Tamara Anson-Cartwright for the Ontario Provincial Government:
“Landscapes of Memory: A guide for conserving historic cemeteries” (however take this resource with a grain of salt, as many of the techniques described in it are outdated, such as the use of metal pins and concrete. Please don’t use these materials!)
- Ontario Provincial Government’s:
“Funeral, Burial, and Cremation Services Act, 2002, S.O. 2002, c. 33“
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February 24, 2023 at 2:36 pm
I recently found a family cemetery that had been ‘lost’ for a number of decades. I live out of state and am considering leaving many of the upright markers (that have broken or fallen ) flat. However I don’t want to leave them uncared for and am wondering if I should put some kind of supportive surface under the previously upright markers. I don’t have a lot of money to spend and may need to take some temporary measures and care for the markers one at a time. What would you advise? Thank you in advance.
March 1, 2023 at 2:11 pm
Hi Janet, thanks for the question! Leaving them on the ground is definitely the most economical way to preserve the stones. If it possible to have some gravel, we use a class A fine gravel, also called screening (like you would use under paver stones), put in the ground underneath them, that will help with drainage and help them not sink into the dirt as quickly. I usually dig a shallow area for the grave that goes an inch or two outside the edges of the stone, tamp the gravel down (you can just stomp on it), and lay the stone on top. Make sure you have permission from the site’s management before doing any digging, of course! Good luck!