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
For 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.
It 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.
Do 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.
Commemorating 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.
Finally, 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.)