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Alabama Historical Commission General Recommendations for Cemetery Cleaning or Repairs

by Camille Agricola Bowman,
Technical Preservation Coordinator,
Alabama Historical Commission

Gravestones do not have to look new. They are not new. Do no harm to the gravestones. Do not remove any stones, bricks or markers from where they are found. Though in the way of lawnmowers, they could be marking graves. To locate the precise location of burials (or to approximate the siting of burials), contract with a professional archaeologist to perform some form of Remote Sensing such as Ground Penetrating Radar (GPR) or Thermal Imaging. Be sure to obtain a permit from the AHC before cleaning, repairing or moving any marker.
Clean stones using the Gentlest Means Possible. Determine the gentlest means by utilizing test patches, beginning with water and a soft bristle brush. A dilute solution of TritonX (or ammonia, if the material to be cleaned is marble) is an appropriate next step in the testing process. Generally, no stronger solution (whether acids, bleach, or blasting) is necessary to remove harmful dirt or plant growth from the stone.
Repair stonework utilizing Like Materials only. Never should Portland Cement be utilized to repair stonework, to fill joints, or to adhere pieces of stone. Further, adhesives of any sort should be avoided due to their creating a moisture barrier that contributes to breakage and deterioration of stonework.
Recreation of Walls or Building Fences: Walls or fences often surrounded only the marked graves. Often unmarked graves lay outside the walled area. Therefore, it is imperative that the locations of burials be identified before any fencing is constructed. Recreated rock walls or fencing should be based on photographic evidence, wherever possible.
Preservation in place is a viable preservation alternative. Remember, it is important to leave the markers alone until the appropriate intervention is identified.
Often, historic markers were constructed of fragile materials or were held together by gravity only (obelisks, for example). It is important that these design features be respected prior to making repairs or cleaning markers.
Contact the Alabama Historical Commission for more detailed articles and recommendations on appropriate cleaning and repair methods.