04 March 2014

How to read the unreadable Gravestone Headstone Tombstone Grave Marker Cemetery Stone, guest post by Anthony Bengston

Ancestors at rest, this marble stone had become badly worn over time with text now barely legible or missing. Fortunately it was transcribed decades earlier.

NGS recently posted the question on their Facebook page, “Are you an expert on gravestones & preservation? Is using flour (as shown in this video) recommended? If not, what is the "current" Best Practice for helping us better read worn tombstones?”

Flour is NOT recommended for reading cemetery markers. Flour contains starches and protein. Any deposit that could become “food” for biological growth is not recommended. Just as we eat flour, other forms of life can feed on flour.

The best practice for reading cemetery markers that are difficult to interpret, is to use a mirror. The lighting created from a mirror across the face of a marker highlights the raised areas to contrast the insets and make the text more visible. The mirror allows better reading of the inscription and for photographing the marker. The sun can do the same thing, provided that you are at the cemetery at the right time for the sun to give a soft light across the marker’s face. The mirror can be used on a cloudy day as well, although the light will not be as prominent.

The most important thing to keep in mind when working with cemetery stones is that most of the old markers are sedimentary rock. Sediment is formed by deposits of minerals, such as calcite, and organisms, such as coral. The longer the sediment is placed under pressure, the harder and stronger the stone can become. The stone you are left with could be limestone, marble, sandstone, shale, slate, etc. This is unlike granite, which we are used to seeing these days. Granite is cut with a laser. Softer stone such as limestone and marble was utilized during the early stages of our nation, as stone masons could carve it with hand tools. When sedimentary rock is exposed to the weather it slowly erodes, basically a reversal of the process from which it was created. When we humans apply any liquid, solid, or pressure to the stone, we in turn are essentially assisting in this reversal process. While most applications of liquid are unnoticeable, we are none the less helping the marker erode. Most cemetery enthusiasts are insistent that the information on the markers is very important for research purposes, which it is. We must also keep in mind that the rules of working around cemetery stones are do NO harm and NEVER do any work that cannot be undone. Liquids should not be applied to cemetery markers with a few exceptions. First, inspect the integrity of the marker. If it is crumbling, don’t touch it! If the stone is of sound condition and not going to tip over, water can be applied. If further cleaning needs to be done, use a neutral pH cleaner, such as D/2, which has been used by the National Park Service and is recommended by the NCPTT. Cleaning should not be done often, for reasons stated above. While a lot of people love to see a stone in pristine condition, remember the stones are not brand new, they are older than we are! Also, algae are not always bad for cemetery markers and more harm could be done by removing present growth. Again, it depends on the integral condition of the stone.

Using the application of any chemical or compound is a last resort only. Cases where this would be applicable are if the stone in question has never been transcribed or photographed. To perform a diligent search, you can question the caretaker or record holder of the cemetery, the local library, genealogical society, or perhaps even a state repository. Check with nearby residents who may have researched the deceased or perhaps are related to the deceased. Also, use the information on surrounding stones to search for relatives. This can often be done through online sources. Make sure you get permission from the cemetery and from the family of the deceased.

Learn all you can about cemetery preservation methods. Join a cemetery preservation group or attend a cemetery workshop by a reputable preservationist. This is the best way to receive hands on experience to preserve cemetery markers. Only then can you make the call as to whether the information on the stone is important enough to lose the integrity of the stone. The future generations may wonder what the cemetery stones looked like. Will they be able to find photos and documentation to answer their questions? Always ask yourself, “How long do I want this stone to survive”?

Anthony Bengston conducts research for History’s Mysteries LLC, a new researching enterprise setting out to uncover answers to your inquiries about history in Northeast Iowa. We specialize in the research of real estate, cemeteries, and other areas of ephemera and genealogical research. http://ephemeracemetery.blogspot.com/

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