Saturday, July 11, 2009

Cemetery preservation conversation with Brad Manzenberger of Stone Revival Cemetery Restoration, Inc.

I had a great set of communications with one of my genealogy lesson readers, Brad Manzenberger of Stone Revival Cemetery Restoration, Inc. With his permission, I wanted to post the set of emails that went between us over the past few days. I think you will find them interesting and informative. I appreciate when readers write in and challenge things that I write. I am pretty smart when it comes to genealogy but I am always ready and willing to learn. I can also admit when I am wrong and I try to do something to make it right.

In one of my genealogy lessons, I talk about a genealogy travel kit. I posted as similar article here a few weeks ago as well. In that lesson I make three statements, they are as follows:

"...4. Paper and pencils are a must, maybe even chalk! I prefer large sheets of paper, legal size will work, in case I need to rub a tombstone. It is helpful to have an artists pencil or something with a broad tip that can easily rub over the engraving. A sharp pencil does not work well in this situation. You can also use the pencils and paper to jot down other notes of interest...

...16. A pair of gloves and maybe a small shovel, in case you need to do any digging. You never know when you might find a partially-buried tombstone.

17. If you are specifically looking for old graves, you might include some type of probe. Graves do not settle in the same manner as undisturbed dirt. You can generally drop a heavy probe on a grave and it will sink down a few more inches than ground that has not been turned. This is helpful when graves are unmarked or tombstones have gotten covered by dirt and weeds..."

Brad took issue with some of my items and wrote me with the following...

"Hi Kevin,

I enjoy your genealogy lessons and found this travel kit list informative. As a professional cemetery preservationist there are a few items below that I would like to address.

First, chalk: As long as it is being rubbed on paper and not coming in contact with the stone it should not harm the stone. Many people rub chalk directly on the stone and then take pictures in hopes that the chalk will bring out the inscription more. (Some do this with shaving cream which is even worse than chalk). Stones are porous and those pores can quickly absorb chalk dust. Even though it may seem clean if it is immediately rinsed, it may not be. Over time that chalk residue will begin to discolor the stone. I have found that digital photographs taken with varied lighting and at different angles often brings out inscription you can't otherwise read. Using digital photo software you can also 'invert' the picture and view it as a negative (think old film cameras) which sometimes brings out even more information. You can also play with the contrast and coloring with digital photos to help enhance the inscription.

Rubbing: There are very mixed opinions about the act of grave stone rubbing. Some believe it should never be done, and in fact, many cemeteries prohibit it altogether. I personally have no problem with rubbing's as long as the stone is in good, solid condition. If the stone seems fragile (crumbling, cracking, sugaring, wobbly) it should not be touched as further damage could occur. As I said before, digital photography can bring out a lot of 'lost' information and eliminates the need for rubbing's and the risk that is involved in the act of rubbing.

Probing: Laws regarding cemeteries differ from state to state. In some states probing in a cemetery is illegal without a permit. In Indiana, where I live and do the bulk of my work, it is illegal to "disturb the soil" within 100 feet of a cemetery without having a plan approved by the Department of Natural Resources (DNR). The DNR does issue non-scientific probing permits that will allow the person to probe in a cemetery looking for lost stones and stone fragments. Before you can receive a permit you have to have attended the restoration workshops sponsored by the DNR and Indiana Historical Society, or prove other experience in the field.


PS - Also, number 16 you mention a shovel and digging. Again, this may be illegal in many places and it is often better to leave a fallen or broken stone in the soil. If face down or completely covered in soil, the inscription can be preserved due to the lack of erosion and exposure to the elements. Also, if you pull a buried (or partially buried) stone to ground level there is more chance of it being damaged by a lawn mower. In a lot of older cemeteries that are no longer used it is not uncommon for the mowing crew to move fallen stones that are in their way to the side near a fence or a tree. If this happens it may be impossible to locate the correct grave location in the future. If you know it is there take pictures and notes. Talk to someone in charge of the cemetery and see if there is anything they can do. Sadly, with old headstones sometimes the best thing to do is nothing."

I wrote back...

"I agree with you in most cases. I think that efforts should be made to protect stones and cemeteries but what good is a tombstone if the data is lost? What good does a buried tombstone do if it is under three inches of soil? I can give you an example. I went to Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond and found the area in which my great-great-great-grandparents were supposed to be buried...but there were no stones. There happened to be a piece of broken fencing nearby which I used to probe the ground. After a few seconds I hit something hard, a few inches below grade. I used my hands and moved some of the dirt. Under the years of growth and debris was my ancestors tombstone. I pried it up out of the dirt and put it back on level ground. Now, should I have left it buried or never looked for it at all?

What about the cemetery's responsibility? If they had provided the perpetual care as advertised, the stone should not have gotten buried. I agree that conservation is important but at the same time, we have to be reasonable. I agree that blindly probing for graves is probably not a good idea but I think what I did was justified. If it was against the law to recover my ancestors tombstone, someone will have to take me to jail!

You have to use common sense in what you do. Digital cameras are great but nothing can beat a rubbing if the stone is truly hard to read on its own. I do not advocate rubbing every stone I see but there have been a few times that it was critical. I guess you could say I agree more with preserving the data on the stone than the stone itself. Not that I would damage a stone but it is just a rock in the end, the engraving is what makes it a marker.

Again, I do not disagree with most of your points but an upside-down stone is not helping anyone. It might as well be beside a tree if no one can tell who is buried there anyway. (I have seen this happen before...fallen stones stacked up by a tree in an old church cemetery)."

Brad followed up with...

"I understand that an upside down stone is not helping anyone. But one that is handled and mistreated by well meaning but ill-informed individuals can cause irreparable damage. That is why I suggest taking pictures and notes and then leaving the stone the way it was found. At that point someone can be found that can properly care for it without causing unintentional damage and fix it in the proper way. Moving it beside a tree may seem like a better choice than leaving it upside down because you can see the name. But consider this. Let's say you move a stone and lean it against a tree today. A few years from now the trustee or whoever oversees the cemetery decides to have it restored. Unless you made a record of where the stone came from and filed it with the cemetery management whoever does the restoration work will generally have no idea where it belongs. So in this instance it is no longer a grave marker, but simply a memorial stone. Personally, I would prefer to both save the information and the stone. The stone isn't just a record of the name and dates of the deceased. They are also works of art from an almost extinct industry. Computers have forever changed the way grave markers are made.

I don't necessarily disagree with your points. In fact, as a genealogist, I feel much the same, which is actually why I got into this business to begin with. I think your points underscore the greater need of actually doing something to preserve our historic cemeteries. This is something the genealogy community really needs to get more active with. I personally don't have an issue with probing to look for your ancestors marker. My main concern is the laws in different states. I would hate to hear of someone getting prosecuted for trying to save Great-Grandpa's headstone. In the past in Indiana if the DNR knew who you were they generally looked the other way regarding probing knowing that a stone couldn't be repaired if part of it was buried. Since they instituted the permit program this year they have said that looking the other way would end and anyone caught probing without a permit would be prosecuted. I know that not all states are this way. Some, North Carolina for example, have laws that are very favorable to restoring and preserving cemeteries. Indiana is just behind the times on this, like it is most other things.

As for a cemetery's responsibility it goes back to the laws of the state and whether or not the cemetery is still used for burials. Different states have different laws regarding perpetual care funds. Most that I work in haven't seen a burial in close to 100 years. These are generally maintained by a township trustee. In Indiana the law requires the township to maintain abandoned cemeteries, which includes resetting and repairing headstones. Sadly most wont do anything unless and until someone forces the issue with threat of legal action. In these cases there is no perpetual care fund. And in Indiana, municipally-owned cemeteries are not required to have a perpetual care fund because the taxpayers are funding what the sale of plots doesn't pay for.


This post is long enough so I am not going to add any more of my thoughts. What are your thoughts? Leave a comment on this post and let is know.

Thanks again to Brad for letting me publish our conversation. If you have happen to be in Indiana and need cemetery preservation assistance, get in contact with him at his site, Stone Revival Cemetery Restoration, Inc.

(By the way, I plan on editing the lesson in question to include some of Brad's advice and to tone-down my own.)

1 comment:

sewnup said...

No arguments from family cemetery is one of those where 20 or so stones have been stacked around a tree..the only 2 left standing look as though the surface was always uniform...can't see any sign of inscription. The ones by the tree have been stacked inscription-side toward a giant old maple so by tipping them back they can be read. My son, a forester, estimates that the trees there are probably at least 100 years old and I don't doubt it (I know they were 'full grown' in 1950 when I was first there), big old roots are everywhere aboveground and I'd guess that's how the 'loose' ones came to be loose and moved to the big maple....

Anyway, Brad says "As I said before, digital photography can bring out a lot of 'lost' information and eliminates the need for rubbing's and the risk that is involved in the act of rubbing."

I'd like more information on that. I had a lot better luck with my old film camera than I do with digital and need help!