Austere colonial burying grounds, small family plots, grand rural cemeteries and state and national cemeteries honoring those that served our nation, give dignity and grace to country roads, townships and urban centers, providing a wealth of historic, artistic and spiritual benefit. Markers range greatly in age, style and materials. From small, local rubble or single slab headstones in schist, slate or sandstone, to large ornate monuments in marble, limestone or granite, stone markers and structures are endangered by physical damage, chemical decay, loss and, most unfortunately, senseless vandalism. Cast iron, wrought iron, brass, bronze and zinc also play an important roll in cemetery design, providing the fundamental materials for surrounding fences, gates, doors, architectural embellishment, sculpture and monuments. Corrosion, fatigue, external stress or impact threaten the longevity of metals. Theft for scrap metal threatens complete loss.
Historic cemeteries don’t simply include the obvious markers and architecture in stone and metal, but also include the surrounding small plants,shrubs, trees, roads and other elements of the landscape. Many early, colonial cemeteries took shape in an organic fashion, expanding outward in uneven rows and shapes. Later designs were primarily based on the utility and the economy of the grid system. Both of these cemetery types have natural small growths and wildflowers that provide intrinsic beauty and harmony. Intentional plantings by the cemetery caretakers, family members and loved ones add a social complexity and spiritual richness. The grand Rural Cemetery Movement started by Mount Auburn in 1831 changed the cemetery landscape completely into a sophisticated planned design, of earth, water, plants, markers, walks and roadways.
The preservation of a historic cemetery may require a wide range of expertise including advice from historians, landscape architects, botanists, conservators and maintenance professionals – all well versed in the unique qualities of the cemetery at hand. The development of a preservation plan is highly encouraged for long term care of these complex sites. An emphasis on preservation of the object in unity with the landscape should help shape the overall plan, particularly for historic sites on state and national registries.
The design and implementation of the marker treatment should be thoughtful and site specific. The use of gravel for resetting markers should be evaluated by examining the soil types and determining the reason for current instability. The introduction of foreign materials is often not beneficial. The need for cleaning should be evaluated for each site and implemented in the least aggressive means possible. The development of quaternary ammonium cleaning solutions allows for cleaning of fragile surfaces and significant historic markers without scrubbing or mechanical action. Treatments should be made with materials that are compatible with aged stone types and aesthetically harmonious by appropriate color matching and use of like stone, stone dusts and aggregates, finished to match the color and texture of the original. Whether the historic markers are stone, metal, cast stone, or concrete, the fundamental principles of conservation, as outlined in other pages of this site, should help guide treatment.
Insightful planning and implementation of informed preservation efforts will preserve these threatened landmarks for future generations.