Care and Feeding of Old Cemeteries

What NOT to do

Rubbings -- contrary to popular belief, this is NOT the best way to capture information from a gravestone. The surface of many old stones is very crumbly, and the rubbing process can result in futher deterioration and destabilization, hastening the demise of the very stone you want to preserve. A good digital photograph is a much better option and can be enhanced to increase contrast and shadows making the text more readable. Here is a good site that describes how to get the best results from a photo. Also, do not use shaving cream or anything other than water to make the carving stand out.

Cleaning -- First ask, Why am I cleaning in the first place? Old stones are supposed to look old. Biological growth is OK and in some cases, protects the stone like a "raincoat." If the inscription is completely illegible, then cleaning may be necessary. Read on...

Golden Rule of Gravestone Cleaning: keep it natural. Use only soft natural bristle brushes and clean water first. If that doesn't make the stone readable, consult one of the resources mentioned below. Stone is incredibly porous and most detergents and cleaning chemicals will permanently stain or deteriorate the stone.

Repairs -- Be very careful about calling a "professional." This may seem counter-intuitive, but unfortunately, modern monument companies can do more harm than good. They know exactly how to handle modern stones, but generally know very little about historic stone conservation methods. Walk around Gouldsboro's cemeteries and you will see plenty of examples of this. Cement, hardware store adhesives and epoxies, and fasteners may hold at first, but will eventually destroy old stones. Here's a great 2-page summary of these issues.

What TO do

Old tombstones are a lot more fragile (and heavy!) than they look and require special care. None of it is rocket science, but knowledge about historic stone conservation is essential before you take on any work in an old cemetery. Stopping the Hands of Time is a quick overview of the process and how to get started.

Next, if you can, attend a Gravestone Preservation workshop! Periodically, the Society will be offering Cemetery Preservation 101, a workshop in one of Gouldsboro's historic cemeteries for those who want to learn more about the proper techniques for documenting, cleaning, and preserving historic gravestones. This is a hands-on workshop and participants will have a chance to apply what they learn using tools and materials provided by the instructor. Registration information is available here.

In addition, the Maine Old Cemetery Association (MOCA) offers preservation workshops annually. If you can't attend a workshop, here are some excellent resources online for guidance.

MOCA has an excellent brochure on Cleaning Gravestones. Read it first.

Corea resident and Society Board Member Jennifer Stucker has extensive experience with cemetery preservation and historic gravestone conservation/restoration. She may be contacted via email for restoration advice.