By Jan White
Cemeteries hold an important place in our lives, not only because they are the final resting place for our loved ones but also because of the history that can be found in them. The markers we set are often engraved with symbols that have religious, cultural, or personal meanings. Besides offering esthetic beauty, cemeteries are a voice from the past, a record of time, and an insight into the individuals buried there. Although modern headstones are designed to withstand several centuries of wear and tear, older historic markers need special care. Some of these ancestral headstones are from the 1700 and 1800s, and their existence can sometimes be the only record of an individual’s existence. Once these markers are gone, all reference to the individual is lost. Cleaning and preservation of these gravestones is a way to honor our loved ones and preserve the heritage of those who have shaped our lives and our history.
Many factors contribute to the deterioration and discoloration of headstones, such as water, temperature, moss, sap, lichen, bird droppings, and the mineral and chemical composition of the rock. Improper cleaning of the headstones can do more harm than good. Many historic headstones have been destroyed by good intentions but improper use of cleaning agents.
Dr. Perky Beisel, a history professor at Stephen F. Austin State University, began researching cemetery preservation as a doctoral candidate at Middle Tennessee State University. Since then, she’s been touring cemeteries nationwide and abroad, studying gravestone motifs, styles, materials, and shapes. Beisel has spearheaded or assisted with many cemetery clearing, documentation, and gravestone-cleaning projects.
Beisel’s formula for cleaning the headstones is actually quite simple and involves three key ingredients: water, a mild biodegradable cleaning solution called D/2, and some old-fashioned elbow grease. Begin by removing excess debris or litter on or around the headstone. The first rule of thumb when undertaking a cleaning project of this nature is to use the mildest, least-abrasive method. A good bit of the algae, lichen, and fungi can be removed using clean water and a soft-bristle (not metal) brush. After removing as much dirt and debris as possible with water, Beisel recommends using a biocidal cleaner. An excellent product to use is the D/2 Biological solution. D/2 has successfully removed stains from natural stones such as marble, granite, limestone, and slate and masonry surfaces like cast stone, brick, and concrete.
The headstone should be liberally soaked with water before applying the cleaner, which can be administered with a simple spray bottle. Allow the solution to sit for 10 to 15 minutes, then, using a gentle, circular motion, clean the headstone in small areas at a time, ensuring the surface remains damp.
After cleaning each area, rinse the stone thoroughly. Another round of D/2 can be applied, if needed, using the previous technique. Sometimes the results are immediate. Because the D/2 is biodegradable and contains no harsh chemicals or bleaches, it can be left on the surface of the headstone, if necessary, to continue cleaning the surface. Some preservationists recommend repeating the cleaning process once every year to eighteen months to ensure the stonework remains in good condition.
The process is fairly simple, but taking care of these headstones can help ensure their place in history for many years to come.
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