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Protips from the PRO Team: Preservation Guidelines from the National Parks Service

by Ashley Shares, Preservation Specialist

The National Parks Service is known in the preservation community as a guiding light. It is a hands-on advocating, and educating body that has offered assistance and advice to state, local, and grassroots heritage preservation groups since the passing of the 1966 National Heritage Preservation Act.

One of NPS’s educational tools is the “Preservation Brief.” The Briefs are condensed manuals or guides pertaining to a specific area of preservation or restoration. The newest brief, entitled “Preserving Grave Markers in Historic Cemeteries,” was written by current and former members of the National Center for Preservation Training and Technology (a branch of the NPS).

I think the document as a whole was useful, accessible, and concise. It fulfilled its stated intent of “providing guidance for owners, property managers, administrators, in-house maintenance staff, volunteers, and others who are responsible for or are interested in preserving and protecting grave markers.” While it indeed does provide helpful guidance, it is by no means all-encompassing. Its broad overview of the topic should not be seen as a substitution for more in depth, hands-on training.

“Preserving Grave Markers in Historic Cemeteries” begins with a valuable overview of headstone types and materials. Monuments are placed in three categories: single element, multi-element, and structures. Identifying these categories is the beginning of an effort to build a “universal taxonomy” that will help preservationists create better written descriptions of cemetery features. As it stands, there is currently no universal typology used in the cemetery preservation world. This makes writing concise descriptions of the features at Oakland Cemetery difficult. However, this simple classification system will definitely help us build a consistent vocabulary moving forward. 

Next, the explanation of traditional cemetery materials managed to be very comprehensive without using hard-to-follow jargon. The description of the structural makeup of wood, masonry, and metals helps readers understand why these materials are susceptible to deterioration, setting them up for the brief’s next section.

A highly weathered marble “tab-in-socket” monument in Oakland’s Jewish Hill Section.

A highly weathered marble “tab-in-socket” monument in Oakland’s Jewish Hill Section.

The next two sections, “Weathering” and “Risk Factors” outline the deterioration that potentially may befall wood, metal, and stone grave markers. The authors present two categories of risk factors: natural — including inherent flaws in the material, moisture, and insect damage — and human activities such as vandalism, improper use of lawn equipment, and deferred maintenance. Two big thrusts of this section (which I am glad that they stressed) are that neglect of a cemetery allows for natural as well as human means of degradation to occur and that most human damage is not intentional. Improper maintenance is almost as hazardous as no maintenance, so it is paramount that caretakers understand the fragility of historic grave markers. Oakland Cemetery is fortunate to have a very careful and well-trained crew that is always careful when they trim grass around monuments. Unfortunately, most cemeteries are not so lucky.

Next, the brief proceeds logically to the components of headstone maintenance and conservation. The conduction of conditions assessments is presented as the first step in any preservation plan. Conditions assessments involve background research about the cemetery’s monuments, a survey of existing conditions, and recommendations to remedy or stabilize stones that have damage or deterioration. The authors stress the use of a form to document the findings of the assessment. Unfortunately, they did not provide an example form that might help guide inexperienced caretakers. Preservation staff members at Oakland use a standardized form which includes a map and key, written descriptions of conditions, and recommendations, and photographs of each monument from each cardinal direction.

A Georgia State University Student cleaning a historic headstone using D2 Biological Solution.

A Georgia State University Student cleaning a historic headstone using D2 Biological Solution.

The most vital part of this brief is its discussion of treatments. Treatments are defined as measures “used to preserve grave markers and protect them from future deterioration.” Some treatments, such as cleaning and lime washing are part of regularly scheduled maintenance. Others, such as pointing, resetting, and patching/filling are done on a need-based basis. Authors suggest that with proper training, cleaning of headstones is a task that can be passed along to eager volunteers, but more complicated treatments such as repair work should be conducted by a professional conservator. The preservation staff at Oakland, and at many preservation organizations, relies on D2 Biological Solution to clean monuments.

When talking about repointing historic mortar joints, the authors stress that the success of this undertaking is dependent on selecting the proper replacement mortar. Historic mortars, which many walls and monuments were originally pointed with at Oakland, are “soft” because of the high proportion of lime they contain. Choosing too hard of a mortar mixture, one that contains too much Portland cement, will likely cause future damage to the stone.

Mortar sample (top) from a historic wall in the Jewish Hill Section being matched to a custom-mixed restoration lime mortar (bottom).

Mortar sample (top) from a historic wall in the Jewish Hill Section being matched to a custom-mixed restoration lime mortar (bottom).

The resetting and repairing of monuments are described in this brief in a broad manner. This is not to say it was not a thorough overview. The writers explained the basic steps of resetting (careful removal of the monument, documentation of its dimensions, enlarging of the hole, tamping the soil, adding gravel for drainage, using proper equipment) but skim over the topic of repair. This is likely because there are so many variables that come into play that there can never be a “one size fits all” explanation. No amount of text, regardless of how detailed and exhaustive it may be, can properly teach inexperienced preservationists how to undertake these two treatments. That is why the authors stress the need for professionally trained conservators. Even at Historic Oakland Foundation, where we have a skilled and capable preservation staff, there are projects too big or specialized even for us. It is important to put safety first and never undertake a project that we are not qualified to complete. 

Metal wire reinforcement will help keep this new subterranean concrete base stable and support the monument that will be reset on it.

Metal wire reinforcement will help keep this new subterranean concrete base stable and support the monument that will be reset on it.

The final section of this brief is a list of additional readings for the logical next step in educating oneself about cemetery preservation. First and foremost is A Graveyard Preservation Primer by Lynette Strangstad. There are a host of other documents listed, but Strangstad’s work is a staple in this field that Oakland Cemetery highly encourages those interested in headstone restoration to read.

In general, I think this brief is a great resource for those new to the field of cemetery preservation. However, it did also offer a few helpful tips and hints for the professionals at Oakland. I was happy to see that its overarching themes included to “do no harm” and use the gentlest means possible to achieve results and to always call in an expert on complicated projects. The authors clearly understand the importance of sensitivity when it comes to cemetery preservation.

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