Davis: Don't make grave mistakes when cleaning tombstones

  • Posted: Wednesday, November 28, 2012 7:41 p.m.

By Mark Wineka mwineka@salisburypost.com CLEVELAND - When Brian Davis walks up to the tombstone of Thomas Barber, who died in 1886 at the age of 85, he knows the simple devices in his hands will make a difference. Barber's stone tablet features a cross near the top and is covered with dirt, lichens and mold in its spot near the treeline. Davis sprays all sides with water, scrapes off the lichens with a broad Popsicle stick and rubs on the flat surfaces of the stone with a natural-bristle brush. "This is just water and a brush," he emphasizes, as significant dirt is removed. He employs light, circular motions, while also making sure he doesn't lean on or put undue pressure on the marker, which has been sitting in this spot for some 125 years. Davis next sprays on a "shock treatment" of chlorine - the same mixture used to clean swimming pools or hot tubs. He follows with some more easy scrubbing with his brush, then a rinsing coat of water. He was right. It does look better. "The bio-growth is now dead," Davis reports. "It will lighten up over the next two or three days as the sun hits it." Davis, executive director of Historic Salisbury Foundation, will be conducting a class Saturday morning on the proper cleaning techniques of cemetery markers. He'll be using the almost 200-year-old cemetery at Christ Episcopal Church as his laboratory. The handsome church cemetery, once surrounded by a stone wall, is filled with familiar family names such as Barber, Neely, Graham, Kesler and Moore. Davis first taught the class six years ago when he was preservation services director for the Galveston Historical Foundation in Galveston, Texas. He likes to offer the tombstone-cleaning class around Halloween, just because of the holiday's fun association with cemeteries. It's also the kind of educational outreach he hopes Historic Salisbury Foundation can offer more of in the future. Davis will be going over the different kinds of marker materials - marble, limestone, granite and metal - and when to proceed with cleaning, or when to stop and seek a professional's help. Normal household cleaners should not be used as cleaning agents on the markers, for example, because of the fatty residue they leave behind, Davis says. It can stain the markers, or that residue promotes algae growth. In addition, Davis will be discussing some of the symbolism seen on tombstones, things such as the weeping willow tree on the 1830 marker of William B. Neely. Neely was the 6-year-old son of Allexander and Margaret Neely. The weeping willow was a traditional symbol of mourning, Davis explains, just as the lambs on many tombstones signified the loss of a child. Cemeteries such as this one at Christ Episcopal Church are always interesting walks through history and tremendous resources for families tracing their ancestors. Cleaning up the markers sometimes reveals important dates and names for someone filling out the branches of his or her family tree. It also may reveal natural lines in the stone where the marker might be weak. Davis can't stress enough the need to be gentle when working around family markers. "Make sure you're not becoming too invasive with the stone," he says. "If you see that happening, call in a professional." Contact Mark Wineka at 704-797-4263,or mwineka@salisburypost.com.

When: 9 a.m. Saturday.
Where: Christ Episcopal Church cemetery, 3430 Old U.S. 70 Highway, Cleveland
Sponsor: Historic Salisbury Foundation
Cost: $10 for foundation members; $12, non-members
Instructor: Brian Davis, executive director of HSF

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