Dick Eastman ran a very tragic story last week about a Tennessee cemetery. An individual had used a wire brush to “clean” gravestones. He wanted to photograph the stones to add them to the Find A Grave website. In his ignorance, he did extensive damage to the stones, rendering some of the inscriptions totally illegible. Some of these damaged stones date back to the late-eighteenth century (the church was founded in 1780). Even more remarkably, he did so without the permission of the church to whom the cemetery belonged.
There are all sorts of purported methods for cleaning grave markers. Included in these are:
- Baking Soda
None of these should ever be used under any circumstances. Nor should you ever use any kind of abrasive, tools, or anything with a firm pressure. They can all cause permanent damage, potentially destroying the very inscriptions you are trying preserve.
In addition to cleaning, individuals try all sorts of methods for reading inscriptions on grave markers that might be eroded and difficult to read. Among the items people use:
- Shaving Cream
None of these should ever be used. The chemicals in shaving cream can do serious damage to a gravestone. In addition to using chalk directly on a grave marker, some people use chalk and paper to create rubbings of the original stone. Be aware that this can also cause damage the stones. In some localities, such as Massachusetts, it is now illegal to make gravestone rubbings.
The two best friends you have for reading gravestones are water, and a reflective surface, such as a mirror. I routinely bring a couple of bottles of water in my bag when I visit a cemetery. often the simple act of putting some water on the stone makes some of the etched words easier to read. I’ve even brought out letters and numbers that were completely illegible.
A mirror or other highly reflective surface works well also. This tool is best used on a bright, sunny day. Use the mirror to reflect light across the face of the stone. The shadows it creates may illuminated the illegible inscription. I’ve also used photographer’s reflectors to achieve the same effect. They are flexible and as they are not made of glass, there is no risk or dangerous breakage if you drop them. You can get them inexpensively through photo supply stores or Amazon.
The man who damaged those gravestones is now facing possible criminal charges, a Class E felony carrying a prison term of not less than one year and up to six years, plus financial penalties up to $3,000. Think twice before you make his mistake. For more information about working with cemeteries and gravestones, visit the Association for Gravestone Studies.