Tombstone Abusers

Be gentle with your ancestors' grave markers

BY: Terence L. Day

 

Mormons who revere their dead as few others do join millions of Americans in visiting cemeteries each Memorial Day weekend, paying their respects to family members who have completed their mortal probation. Unfortunately, some of the things done to "honor" our dead take a heavy toll on tombstones.

Vandals sneak into cemeteries under the cover of darkness and overturn markers or spray paint them, but the community's most upstanding citizens do their damage in broad daylight, often receiving the approbations of those who see them.

Who are these tombstone abusers? They go into cemeteries armed with Comet cleanser, Brillo pads, bleach, stiff-bristled brushes, rubber gloves, and other cleaning agents to clean markers and spiffy them up.

If rocks could speak, they would cry, "Ouch!"

Tombstones may be made of rock or metal, but they can't stand up to that kind of abuse.

If your ancestors' grave markers are dirty or decaying, you may want to contact the Association for Gravestone Studies. This organization publishes annual journals and has a bi-monthly newsletter. Among other things, the newsletter gives valuable advice on cleaning gravestones.

It supports preservation, conservation, and restoration of gravestones and archiving information about them and their sites. It also encourages education and historical interpretation.

A rose is a rose, is a rose, is a rose, but a headstone isn't just another rock. Markers may be slate, granite, marble, soapstone, limestone, slate, or a variety of other rocks. Not even all marble is alike, or all granite. The type of stone affects cleaning.

And let's not condemn all cleaning. Lichens not only turn white marble stones black, they can damage the strongest stone. Yellow-orange colored lichens can be especially bad and should be removed.

If you visited family graves over the Memorial Day weekend and noted markers in need of attention, by all means, go back and clean them. But please be gentle. No stiff-bristled brushes. Stone, and even bronze, is more fragile than we imagine. Most soaps contain acids that eat away at them, dissolving stone and pock marking metal--especially in concert with acid rain.

However you clean, your last step should be a thorough rinse with clean water, preferably distilled water, to wash away the acids.

If you want your family's markers to last a long time and retain legible engraving, treat them more like precious jewels than like rocks.

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