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What Lies Beneath

by Neale Nickels, Director of Preservation
When you see a headstone, you’re probably not thinking about what’s below the surface. Come to think of it, most people probably do think about who lies below, but I’m referring to the stone itself. Have you ever wondered how deep a headstone is buried? It may be deeper than you thought.
In our experience, there is no set equation to determine a stone’s depth. Sometimes, we find that stones are only shallowly buried, and other times they’re very deep. Basically, when we reset a stone we consider three things:

  1. The position of the stone prior to our work
  2. That the carvings are still visible (if possible given the condition of the stone) and
  3. That the depth is adequate to support the weight of the aboveground portion

I’m not one for general rules when it comes to preservation, but as a general rule, you can assume that about a third of the height of a headstone is below ground surface (BGS). Again, sometimes this can be more and sometimes less. I should note that I am only talking about upright tablets, not die-on-base type markers.

There’s more that meets the eye when it comes to headstones

In the picture above, you can see that after making a repair, we set the stone so that about half of its height remained above ground surface (AGS). Why so deep? We found this particular stone lying on the ground on the lot, as apparently it had been for some time given its discoloration, cracking and bowing (marble is actually somewhat elastic, so it will bow over time if not evenly supported).

At first glance, it seemed like a small ledger stone, but when we examined it we discovered that it had cracked off another piece, which we did not immediately see. After referencing the cemetery burial abstracts and some careful probing, we found its bottom half buried a few inches below the ground nearby.
We excavated the piece, drilled both sides and installed stainless steel pins, and made the decision to reset the stone with the crack a little deeper than it had been. We chose this approach because it would not affect the inscription on the face of the stone, and because we knew that having the top half further supported below ground would ensure its stability. We also wanted to compensate for the massive amount of bowing, and setting it lower allowed us to center the weight of the top half more gradually.

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