The Masonry of Veterans Day

Veterans Day has been celebrated in the United States since 1954, but it was known as Armistice Day or Remembrance Day since Woodrow Wilson proclaimed November 11th a Federal holiday in 1919.  On this Veterans Day 2014, the Masonry of Denver would like to celebrate the men and women who served the United States in times of war and peace.  I am especially grateful for the service of my grandfathers, uncles, and cousins; my father-in-law; and many friends.  Thank you all for your service.

So how does masonry play into the lives of American veterans?  A walk through any military cemetery will give you a hint.  Every man and woman who serves in the United States military is eligible to receive a free military grave marker from the Department of Veterans Affairs, regardless of where they are buried.  The VA issues both flat cemetery markers and upright head stones.  The flat markers, which are installed nearly flush to the ground, are available in marble, granite and bronze.  Upright headstones are available in marble and granite.

Marble is by far the most common military headstone marker, and the military only uses Danby marble quarried from Vermont.  It is an exceptionally pure, white stone, and is readily available due to a large vein of marble of varying quality that runs up the east side of the Hudson River from Manhattan to the Canadian border.  Vermont marble is typically a very high quality, white or whitish gray marble, while the marble historically quarried in upper Manhattan and southern Westchester County is a granular, lesser quality pinkish tan stone.  The quality of the stone improves the farther north one travels up the Hudson River.


VA-issued upright grave markers are 42 inches long, 13 inches wide and 4 inches deep, though the depth of their installation varies.  The veterans markers in the photo above appear to have been set several feet into the ground.  Inscriptions typically carved into headstones by the VA include the veteran’s name, rank, location of service, the war or wars in which he or she fought, the branch of the military in which he or she served, and the veteran’s birth and death dates.  Families may purchase additional inscriptions if there is room on the grave marker.  Finally, each veteran may have a symbol of their faith carved into the top portion of the grave stone.  Very few religious symbols were available, such as the Christian or Catholic crosses in the photo above, but over the years the VA has extended their recognized emblems to include 61 religious symbols.

Cemeteries all over Colorado have markers noting the grave of United States veterans.  I came upon three large areas for military memorials in Fairmount Cemetery in Denver several weeks ago when I visited.  The one closest to the cemetery entrance marks the graves of the Colorado Volunteers.  The monument itself is made of a gray granite with a bronze statue, but the grave markers arrayed in a circle around the monument are all white marble.  You will notice that their inscriptions are raised letters in a recessed shield.  This indicates the graves of veterans who served during the Civil War or the Spanish-American War, or during peace time before World War I.  Most of these grave markers represent veterans of the Spanish-American War.

CO Vols Memorial

A second military memorial, called the Garden of Honor, sits just northeast of the Colorado Volunteers memorial.  The Garden of Honor is simple and elegant, with upright marble headstones arranged in a circle around the United States flag.  All of the headstones face inward toward the flag, as opposed to the Colorado Volunteers memorial, whose headstones face outward.

Circle memorial

The third military memorial at Fairmount Cemetery commemorates Lieutenant Frances Brown Lowry, who served in World War I and died when his plane was shot down over France in 1918.  The Lowry memorial marks the graves of members who served in Lowry’s battalion, as well as other veterans of World War I.  The memorial, created in 1921, is made of a light granite with a bronze dough-boy statue.

Lowry Memorial

Once again, we would like to thank all of the men and women who have served the United States military.

How to Care for Cemetery Markers

Saturday is Día de los Muertos (All Souls’ Day), the day when families pay their respects to the dead by cleaning and caring for cemetery markers.  So how should one best care for a cemetery markers?  I put together this short guide, in case you plan to visit your family’s cemetery plot this weekend.

How to Care for Cemetery Markers

1. Cleaning

06446vFor general cleaning, it is best use a light detergent that is pH neutral when cleaning a cemetery marker.  If you are not sure if the cleaning product you plan to use pH neutral, look for the manufacturer’s product literature online.  The product literature should note whether the product is pH neutral (7.0).  If it’s not in the product literature, look up the product’s material safety data sheet (MSDS).  If the pH is less than 5.5 or greater than 8.0, don’t use it for routine cleaning.  Some types of stone should only be cleaned with acidic or neutral cleaners; others with alkaline or neutral cleaners.  It’s best to stay with neutral cleaners unless you are working with a preservationist or conservator who can advise on the most appropriate cleaning products for your type of stone.

If you plan to scrub the marker, use natural-bristle brushes.  Nylon-bristle brushes may be acceptable on some stones that are more durable, such as granite, but you never want to use them on soft stones like brownstone, sandstone, or even some historic marble.  Never use metal-bristle brushes on any masonry.

Be sure to thoroughly rinse the detergent off the stone, but only use low-pressure water.  Rinsing the marker by splashing water on it from a bucket is best, or you can use a regular garden hose with a hand-squeeze spray nozzle.  Avoid using a pressure washer on most grave markers, as most pressure washers will be too strong for the historic stone.

2. Repairs

005585pvIt is best to work with a preservation professional when making repairs to historic grave markers.  If you want to make repairs on your own, do not use cement for patches, to repoint open joints, or to reset the stone.  Cement will be too strong for the historic stone and will end up damaging the stone.  Speak to the maintenance staff at your family’s cemetery for advice on how to best repair a grave marker.  For more major repairs, consult with a conservator who specializes in cemetery restoration.  Many architectural conservators do, as do objects (sculpture) conservators.  In addition, the Chicora Foundation has several wonderful publications on cemetery preservation here.

3. Rubbings

365155pvDo you remember making crayon rubbings of the grave inscriptions of important figures from your town’s history when you were in school?  I do.  Little did we know that rubbings are bad for grave markers.  Over time, repeated abrasion of the person’s name and inscription can result in material loss.  In other words, each time someone makes a rubbing, a microscopic amount of the grave marker’s inscription disappears.  And when the paper rips and the crayon accidentally marks on the inscription – well, that’s not a good thing either.  It is best to photograph the marker for posterity, rather than create a memorial rubbing.

4. Plantings

17953vCommemorating the dead with plantings is always a nice thing to do.  That is, unless thirty years pass and the plants start uprooting your family’s grave marker.  Oops!  It is best to plant annuals that will die back every year so they will not develop root systems to disrupt the stability of your family’s grave marker.  If you want to plant something more permanent, it is better to place pots or urns near a grave marker rather than to plant them in the ground.  Keep in mind that some cemeteries have ordinances about which plants you can plant, or if you can plant any at all.

5. Offerings

08225vFinally, when leaving offerings for your loved ones, make sure that you know how they will deteriorate over time.  If you leave a toy for a child, does it contain iron that will rust all over the grave marker?  You should also check with your cemetery’s maintenance department whether leaving offerings is allowed.  For example, what happens if you leave a flag or some plastic flowers?  Those are wonderful ways to commemorate a loved one, but if you forget about the offering over the course of a year, the remnants of these items may interfere with grass maintenance equipment.

When planning any cemetery maintenance, a good thing to remember is that less is more.  Although you want your loved one’s grave marker to always look shiny and new, you also want it to last well into the future for many generations to come.

(All photos courtesy of the Library of Congress.)

The Mausoleums of Fairmount Cemetery

It’s Halloween week so I thought it only fitting to explore one of Denver’s great architectural treasures: Fairmount Cemetery.  Founded in 1890, Fairmount Cemetery was the third major cemetery to be developed in Denver.


The first, Mount Prospect Cemetery, was founded in 1859 by William Larimer, Jr. and was intended to be a beautiful burial ground to the east of Denver City.  Unfortunately it was located in an arid place far from water and its first inhabitant was Jack O’Neil, a man killed in a gunfight.  The non-denominational cemetery soon earned an unsavory reputation and was seen as a blight on the city.  In 1873, its ownership was transferred to the city and it became known as City Cemetery*.  (At that time, the two religious sections of Mount Prospect Cemetery were transferred to religious institutions: Mount Calvary Cemetery was transferred to the Catholic Church and the Jewish Burial and Prayer Ground was transferred to a Jewish congregation.)

In 1876, a group of prominent Denver businessmen formed Riverside Cemetery.  Located on the banks of the South Platte River just northeast of the city, Riverside Cemetery was planned as a ‘rural cemetery’ in a garden-like setting, similar to Mt. Auburn Cemetery outside of Boston.  It took several years for the owners to develop Riverside Cemetery into a lush oasis with tree-lined allées and beautiful plantings.  During that time, development began encroaching on Riverside, with railroad tracks and factories lining its perimeter.  So in 1890, a second group of prominent business men formed Fairmount Cemetery and rapidly transformed it into a beautifully laid out and landscaped cemetery to rival society cemeteries like Green-Wood in Brooklyn and Laurel Hill in Philadelphia.  Riverside and Fairmount cemeteries merged in 1900.

* In 1893, City Cemetery was closed and the remains disinterred to Riverside Cemetery.  The land later became Cheesman Park, a lush urban oasis in the heart of Denver.  The Jewish Burial and Prayer Ground, closed in 1923, became part of Congress Park, and Mount Calvary Cemetery, closed in 1908, later became the Denver Botanic Gardens.

Our first look at Fairmount will be the impressive mausoleums.  (On Wednesday we will look at unique monuments and carvings.)  Most of the mausoleums at Fairmount are centered around the Ivy Chapel near the northwest corner of the cemetery, not too far from the original street car turn around.