My 4th great-grandfather Isaac's FALLIS Pioneer Cemetery near Bellbrook, Greene County, Ohio FOLLIS Families
in the United States of America
by descendant Stanley J. Follis
Home Cemeteries

Cemetery Restoration Seminar

DeKalb County, Indiana September 17, 2005

This seminar was sponsored by the DeKalb County Indiana Genealogy Society at the Eckhart Public Library featuring Mark Davis of Stone Saver Restoration of Hartford City, Indiana.

I liked Mark's attitude that restoration of a cemetery is about presentation. To restore the original presentation the ancestor families established. Tombstones were not originally cast in concrete in pioneer cemeteries so neither should restorations. The old marble tablet tombstones were either set in a stone base or directly in the ground and that is how they should be restored. Concrete and marble are not compatible. Concrete is stronger than marble which means the old marble tombstone will eventually break and they do. Like Mark, I have seen and photographed many tombstones set in concrete that are permanently ruined and broken because someone set them in concrete often ruining valuable personal information. They had good intentions, nonetheless the result is destruction of priceless tombstones and family data. At today's prices, an exact replica tombstone can cost thousands of dollars to reproduce. Mark Davis' 2010 price is approximately $250 per tombstone just to properly clean an old marble tombstone.

Notes from the January 14, 2009 Mark Davis Presentation at ACGSI Fort Wayne, Indiana

Mark Davis continues to emphasize respect for old tombstones in pioneer cemeteries. It is all about presentation. If you don't know what you are doing, then do nothing but take a lot of photographs. The best time to take photos is 1:30 to 3:00 to get the "raking" effect of afternoon sun at angles to create shadows on the words. Never use wire brushes or chemicals. His favorite cleaning technique is a soft plastic brush and plain water. No chemicals, toothpaste or even chalk, since these chemicals can last for years even when immediately washed off. Pioneer cemeteries do not have running water so damage is usually permanent, at the very least they discolor the stone, at their worst they destroy irreplaceable family information.

Tablet style tombstones from the 1800's in the midwest are typically 2 inch thick white Italian marble, a relatively soft stone that should last about 200 years, so most of them are nearing the end of their life expectancy. Round Up vegetation killer is a chemical salt with a host of environmental concerns and will eventually destroy these old tombstone as it encourages and speeds up erosion of the marble or stone bases. Brown tombstones, early 1800's before 1850 are rarely seen in Indiana, are sandstone a brittle, easily crumbled stone and must be carefully handled only when necessary. Blue-green metal tombstones are zinc or white bronze, more popular in northwest Indiana. Tan tombstones are limestone. Various colored "modern" tombstones are granite. Concrete is the enemy of tombstones and should never be used to enclose tablet tombstones. It will last 200 years as a stable base to place block type tombstones on, but should never be used as in ground footer encasing tablet tombstones. With modern high speed "mow it fast" landscape maintenance of cemeteries, old stone tablets lose every time a mower or weed wacker hits them. Marble tombstones should easily last 500 years. Concrete footer bases for monuments should be 36 inches deep to reach below the frost line here in Indiana, not 6 inches like some companies do, if you expect them to last the 200 year life expectancy of concrete.

Given these facts, it is reasonable to expect that the old pioneer cemeteries will need restoration about every 50 years to remove lichens and reposition tablet tombstones to lengthen their remaining years. Indiana is in the process of requiring permits to probe pioneer cemeteries from the Indiana DNR, Department of Natural Resources, although regulations are not yet finalized. This is an attempt to discourage souvenir hunters from scavenging and permanently destroying the historical and family monuments in their quest for personal financial gain at the expense of unknown families. In other words don't buy eighteen century momentoes stolen from abandoned pioneer cemeteries. Collectors use the excuse they are abandoned, but only in the sense that there isn't a regular stream of visitors to the cemetery. I have personally visited hundreds of cemeteries that may only have a few visitors each year. Pioneer cemeteries are never abandoned, only forgotten for a period of time until they are rediscovered. If they are destroyed by so called collectors, then they are lost forever.

Pioneer cemetery rows run North to South, facing the West, so the deceased will rise on Resurrection Day facing the rising morning sun in the East. Rows are 10 feet apart to allow 7 feet, 84 inches, for adult caskets, and 48 inches for children's caskets. When facing the grave, husbands are typically on the right, wives on the left, just as when taking marriage vows. A little more complicated with second spouses.

A couple of good books are A Graveyard Preservation Primer by Lynette Strangstad and Your Guide to Cemetery Research by Sharon DeBartolo Carmack.

Photos from DeKalb County, Indiana September 17, 2005

Start cleaning tombstone
Start cleaning

I have visited hundreds of old cemeteries the past few years in Indiana and Ohio. I have read about and heard a lot of stories about vandalism and neglect. Vandalism garners the headlines, but for the majority of my ancestors and relatives it is neglect over time and misguided, but well meaning attempts at restoration that have led to the loss and deterioration of many of the old family tombstones. The relatives die off and are themselves buried with no one left who knows or remembers who or where the old family members were or are buried. All too often the person mowing the grass simply piles the loose tombstones into piles and eventually no one remembers where they originally belong. Whether the tombstones worked out of the ground from freezing and thawing over 100 years or a vandal knocked them down will never be known.

Top is clean Almost cleaned tablet tombstone Volunteers cleaning tombstone
Partially clean Cleaned and reset Volunteers cleaning

Only clean tombstones with a soft bristle brush using clean water and one cup of clear ammonia per gallon of water. Anything else risks damage to the tombstone. Rinse liberally with clean water to remove the ammonia when finished. Non-granite tombstones are porous absorbing cleaning salts which can cause damage to the stone. Never put anything on a tombstone that is not brushed or rinsed off. Waiting for rain can cause permanent damage.

Tombstone in concrete Mower damage Tombstone broken at concrete
Tombstone in concrete Mower damage Tombstone broken at concrete

As Mark Davis pointed out, the number one threat to old tombstones is concrete and misguided restoration. Putting the old white tablet tombstones in a concrete base is sure to lead to its destruction. Concrete is much harder than white marble. Stress of expanding concrete from heat, freezing and thawing over the years, then modern riding mowers repeatedly hitting the tombstones in the immovable concrete will break the tombstone before the concrete. I have seen many tablet tombstones snapped off at ground level with the tombstone base still in the concrete and the rest of the tombstone no where to be found. The marble tombstone should be reinserted in the original stone stand, a pre-fab concrete replacement not concreted in or simply put in an appropriate sized hole roughly a third of the way in the ground on a bed of pea gravel. A presentation that restores the original look is as important as any other consideration. The marble tombstones will last hundreds of years if properly standing straight up. Permanently buried names, dates, epitaphs, etc. in concrete is reason enough to never use concrete. I have at least one direct ancestor whose dates are permanently lost to this cause.

Replacing compound Cuting compound Finished seal
Replacement compound Cutting compound Finished resealing

Mark does not usually replace tombstone compound on granite markers, but did demonstrate the correct way to do so. Products like silicone rubber are NOT used. The correct compound keeps the tombstone from easily moving around on its stone or concrete footer. Lead was used originally. I found a 1912 newspaper article in The Columbia City Post which described grave yard thieves as ghouls who were stealing the 3 to 5 pounds of lead that was originally used to seal the tombstones.

Military tombstone Military tombstone
Military tombstone removed Military tombstone half way buried

Military tombstones are free for veterans or their families from the government. 36 or 44 inches tall they should be buried half way into the ground without being buried in concrete. Many modern cemeteries require burial in concrete which will ruin the tombstone eventually.

3 piece tombstone base 3 piece tombstone mixing mortar Chipping lead off 3 piece tombstone
3 piece tombstone base reset Soft shearing mortar Chipping old compound

This series of photos show their procedure for replacing a common 3 piece gray upright tombstone. A gravel base under the stone base. Soft shearing mortar made with white portland cement and hydrated lime, no gray masonry mortar or concrete! Remove excess mortar within a few hours before it sets up and hardens.

3 piece tombstone mortar 3 piece tombstone base Smoothing 3 piece tombstone mortar
Start remortaring Base is done More mortar

This web page only highlights a few things I remember. I was busy taking photographs and did not take notes. There are many good books on restoration and a few web sites. Old tombstones are porous and soft compared to concrete and granite so suffer from acid rain, string trimmers, riding lawn mowers, use of chemicals such as silicone rubber, herbicides, soap, bleach, etc.. Rusting metal frames permanently discolors the stone. Using colored chalk or other powdery substances to highlight tombstones for reading information may not come off and may permanently stain. A better alternative is to use the dirt around the tombstone to achieve the same effect. The list can go on and on. If you haven't studied the known problems so you know what methods are safe, then do nothing until you educate yourself or hire a competent restorationist.

Finished 3 piece tombstone
Finished tombstone still needs cleaning

Indiana Cemetery Questions and Answers
Compiled by the Indiana Department of Natural Resources, Division of Historic Preservation and Archaeology

If I want to clean up a cemetery I’m concerned about, may I go ahead and do so? No. Members of the public should not attempt to clean up or maintain cemeteries until they have clearly determined who the legal landowner is, and obtained that person’s permission to go onto the land. Unsolicited voluntary clean-up efforts might be viewed by the landowner as trespassing. In addition, there are proper ways, as well as harmful ways, to clean and repair stones, and anyone attempting to conduct such activities should be acquainted with the proper techniques.