An unfortunate part of gravestone conservation and care is that sometimes it doesn’t always stand the test of time. This could be because the repair wasn’t strong enough, or the stone had been disturbed in some way after the repair took place. Perhaps it was bumped by a deer or a lawnmower, or someone leaned on the stone, or the ground shifted and gravity took over. Regardless of the reason, we can learn a lot about conservation and repair when the stone falls, and learn from the experience.
Today I want to talk about the repair and fall of one of the largest simple gravestones I’ve ever seen, that of Maurice Baker at Woodland Cemetery, London, Ontario.
Maurice Baker died in 1853, and was interred in a cemetery in London which no longer existed, the ‘new’ St. Paul’s Cemetery. It was located where the Western Fair Grounds are today, and when Woodland Cemetery opened in 1879 to the west of the city, remains and gravestones began to be removed from St. Paul’s to the east, and relocated at Woodland. Of course, as is typically the case in burial relocations, only the people who could really afford it had their bodies moved as well as the grave markers, and many, many graves were left underground at Western Fair, where they are still being uncovered in contemporary construction projects today. We don’t know if Maurice was moved to Woodland along with his headstone, but the headstone itself was placed in an area that was later occupied by other members of his family. Maurice was also buried with four of his deceased children, who are unnamed on the stone.
I worked on Maurice’s gravestone with my colleague Brienna, while we worked at Woodland Cemetery in 2019 as monument conservators. We found his gravestone broken and partially sunken into the ground, and at first thought it was a ledger based on the massive size of the stone! We were able to pull back the sod and carefully remove the pieces of the stone from the ground. As I’ve written about before on this blog, the repair process for Maurice’s stone took ages due to the concrete encasing the sandstone key (which caused it to sink fasted and for the stone to fall). In the end though, the gravestone was put back together with the help of everyone at Woodland and the helping hands of Tom and his crew at Memorial Restorations (Brienna and I weren’t tall enough to lift the final piece up!).
In order to give the pieces a bit of extra stability, we used wood dowels to pin each piece back together along with epoxy, and lime mortar after the repairs had set to fill in the cracks. We didn’t colour-match the mortar, and I stand by that today, as I think it is important to see where the repairs have happened in the stone. It’s part of the history, after all! There is a lot of discussion over what kind of pins should be used when repairing a gravestone, and even whether pinning should be used at all. I’m starting to feel like pinning should be used only minimally, as it does impact the gravestone quite a bit (you’re literally removing pieces of the stone to do it, after all), but sometimes for tricky repairs or larger stones, it might be needed. For Maurice (and yes I am going to refer to the gravestone by name, apparently), there were three breaks: two horizontal breaks from the original fall, and one diagonal break that occurred when we were removing the gravestone from the literal ball of concrete that the base was stuck in, and each got three pins.
The other day (in 2021), I got an email from Tom Klaasen of Memorial Restorations, an excellent monument repair company with good conservation practices in Ontario, who helped us with the top piece of Maurice’s stone. He had visited Woodland recently and found something rather unfortunate…Maurice had fallen, and all but the bottom diagonal repair had broken. Needless to say, this was upsetting news for a stone that we were so proud of to have standing again! We don’t know why it fell over, but I suspect it was bumped or gravity too its course with a gravestone that stood nearly 6 feet high (this thing is massive, and quite thin), but down it went.
In the photos (see below), it is clear that the wood pins were dry (yay!), and broken. While that could count as a fail, I think they did exactly what they were meant to do. You see, adding pins to a gravestone isn’t meant to completely support the stone if it is leaning over…in order to do that, you’d need rods the length of the stone, which…please don’t do that. What it does is add a bit of extra stability to the stone. If the repair is going to fall because the stone is leaning or pushed over, the pins, in my opinion, should fail with the rest of the repair. Wood dowels are a perfect way to do that, because they break with the weight of the stone and then could be drilled out and replaced.
If you were to use something tougher than the stone itself, as I’ve written about before, like iron (boo), steel (better), or fibre glass pins (best), they are all going to try to stay in place against the weight of the falling stone. This will result in pieces of the gravestone ‘popping’ off against the force of the pin, which needs to go somewhere as the stone falls. There are arguments for both, of course. Wood pins will break if the stone falls, but in doing so they do a bit less damage to the stone. Tougher pins will break pieces of the stone off as it falls. Do we even need the pins, if they don’t help much in the case of a stone falling over? Possibly not, or at least it may be something to avoid for larger stones.
As you can see in the examples above, Maurice is down (thank you Tom, for the photos). The stone didn’t escape without damage, but considering the weight of the marker, I think it actually suffered relatively little new damage, other than the spalling around the breaks and the bottom right corner which appears to have hit the key when it fell, and there isn’t much we could have done to prevent that from happening. The top portion of the stone did, unfortunately split diagonally when it hit the ground, but again, that is from the force of hitting the ground and I don’t think fibre glass pins would have prevented it either, since this stone was so huge.
What do you think, other folks in graveyard conservation? Would you try to get Maurice’s gravestone standing again, or maybe just flip the pieces over and set them laying down on the ground? I personally think that due to the size and weight of the stone, I wouldn’t try to get it standing again unless we could find a better means to do so. The repaired breaks will always be the weakest part of the stone, and therefore the first part to break again if the stone is going to fail down the line after care. Maybe wood dowels weren’t the way to go for Maurice, maybe the epoxy we had available wasn’t strong enough to bond stone (I suspect it wasn’t), or maybe the stone itself was too degraded to create a strong bond. Whatever the reason, Maurice’s gravestone is down, and I hope someone can flip it over and give it a clean in the future!
I’ll leave you today with the beautiful epitaph at the base of Maurice’s stone, which is currently not visible:
“Rest though with loved ones gone before
To join the ransomed throng above
Thy spirit called by God did Soar
To swell the ceaseless song of love
We mourn thee not though often here
Thy absence makes a lonely heart
Yet still thy Saviour’s here to cheer
Through him we’ll make no more to part.“