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Cemetery Preservation

Thanks to Michele Patterson-McCabe, Grants Coordinator in the State Historic Preservation Office, for her contributions to this post.

The national holiday, Memorial Day, standardized an Appalachian tradition of honoring the dead with annual cemetery maintenance, floral headstone decoration, and often “dinner on the grounds.” Decoration Day varies slightly from community to community but is always in late spring through early summer. Folklorist Alan Jabbour and photographer Karen Singer Jabbour have traced this tradition to the early part of the nineteenth century and mapped its spread, as Appalachian families migrated further south and west. Click here for a summary of their recent book, Decoration Day in the Mountains.

One of the gravestones in Murfreesboro's Southall Cemetery

One of the gravestones in Murfreesboro’s Southall Cemetery

It is common for cultural heritage institutions to have stewardship responsibilities for cemeteries, either as a regular community service project or by virtue of property ownership. Two examples are the Murfreesboro Historical Association, which maintains Southall Cemetery, and the St. Paul Museum in Randleman, which operates in a former church with a cemetery behind.

St. Paul's in Randleman

St. Paul’s in Randleman

Is a regular “Decoration Day” part of your community’s traditions? If so, there are several helpful online resources to guide your maintenance efforts and warn against overly aggressive (and ultimately destructive) cleaning measures, such as pressure washing. Here are some top tips for gravestone cleaning.

  • A garden hose with a gentle soaking spray is appropriate for most cleaning.
  • A good cleaning brush (natural or nylon, not metal wire) will loosen dirt and clean crevices.
  • Do not use bleach. Although it may have an instant brightening effect, its chemicals will dissolve parts of the stone.
  • Do not yank plants out that may be growing out of the stones. Cut them near the stone and wait several days until they wither before pulling them out.
  • Scrape lichen off with a wooden or plastic scraper.
  • Avoid household soaps and acidic cleaners. Preservation experts recommend non-ionic cleaners available from janitorial supply companies and suggest a solution of one ounce non-ionic detergent to 5 gallons water. (Triton X is one possibility.)

For more practical advice on gravestone cleaning, click here and here. For a comprehensive guidebook on overall cemetery preservation, click here.

Several staff members in North Carolina’s State Historic Preservation Office have gained a great deal of expertise in cemetery preservation and are available to answer questions and give advice. Contact John Wood, Restoration Specialist in the SPHO’s Greenville office, or 252-830-6580 x 225.