Gravestone Conservation at the PAWV Conference

A few weeks ago, my alarm clock (and by that I mean cell phone) went off at 4:50 am. I turned it off, and reluctantly got up and with a travel mug of hot tea in hand, I was out the door in twenty-five minutes. It was foggy and chilly, but I had a three-hour drive ahead of me to attend the first day of events at the Preservation Alliance of West Virginia conference in Huntington, West Virginia. The things we do for historic preservation.

As a colleague and I drove through West Virginia’s Alleghany Mountains, it began to clear and we saw some pink streaks of the sunrise, though we were heading west and most of the action was happening behind us. We arrived in Huntington promptly—with enough time, we happily discovered, to find coffee before the session began.

As more and more people gathered outside the office of Spring Hill Cemetery, Huntington’s oldest and largest public cemetery, it began to warm up and the sun shone brightly, promising a perfect day for mucking about in a graveyard. I mean, learning about gravestone conservation.


We started off, a little behind schedule, by walking through a section of the cemetery as Jonathan Appell, our guide and teacher for the day, pointed out gravestones in need of some TLC. Many were covered in lichen, others were slipping off their bases, some had bases that had sunken unevenly, and there were some that were just plain broken. He talked to us about some of the historical practices behind gravestone carving and placement, including the differences between different types of stone. Then we set to work doing the most basic of tasks.

After a brief demonstration, we were set loose on a few 19th-century lichen-covered headstones with bottles of D2, spray bottles filled with water, and soft brushes. The process for cleaning is shockingly simple when all you need to do is get rid of a little biological growth: spray with D2 (a biocide that actually kills lichen rather than just removing it, and which is gentle enough to be used on most stone monuments), wait for the D2 to start working, then scrub in a circular motion or scrape while simultaneously spraying with clean water. Voila.

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Our next lesson was on adjusting a base that had sunk and gotten out of line. After carefully removing the pieces of the headstone (did you know that headstones are often at least two separate blocks?), he showed us how to pack a mixture of sand and gravel beneath the stone while propping the stone up with a long iron bar and some wooden wedges. Then we began to rebuild the headstone, which consisted of a base set with two rectangular stones of decreasing sizes (think layer cake) and a column which had broken near the top.

First we learned about mortars, which was nothing new to me after the 2013 Fairfield Foundation AiP project. Then we got to work spreading mortar to replace the stone that set directly on top of the base, which we then pointed after replacing the stone. For the next two components, we learned about modern compounds and techniques for erecting stone monuments, using monument putty, epoxy, and small lead spacers. We repaired the remainder of the headstone using the modern techniques, though we used a combination of epoxy and traditional lime mortar to fix the most visible break (the column) to attempt a bit more subtle and historically accurate repair.

As the afternoon went on, our final project was a culmination of everything we had learned that day with a bonus demonstration of how to move gravestones with a tripod. We removed all the components from a headstone whose pieces were seriously askew, using a tripod for the top pillar. Then we realigned the base stone, put everything back together using the monument compounds, and finally gave it a good scrub. We left the cemetery both cleaner and tidier than it had been before, with lots of new knowledge on hand.

I don’t think I’ve ever had so much fun in a cemetery.

All photos by Hallie Borstel.

This entry was posted in Education, Historic Preservation, Historic Sites and tagged , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

2 Responses to Gravestone Conservation at the PAWV Conference

  1. Great work! I visited the cemeteries where my grandmother lives in Michigan last week and wished there were a preservation group there. Many of the stones in those cemeteries are in dire need of some tender care.

  2. Pingback: Spring Cleaning | Preservation Journey

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