Grave Concerns: Do Not Touch the Gravestone!

by | Aug 15, 2014

By Alan F. Clarke

In the early days of the Internet, people from far and wide would email genealogy groups asking for pictures of family member’s gravestones. Rhode Island, being the birthplace of much that follows in United States history, the requests often came here. Sometimes, when I had a light day, I would volunteer to drive out to a nearby cemetery, take a picture of the gravestone and email it back to the person making the request. I traveled roads in Rhode Island I’d never seen before and it was always a nice adventure. Sometimes it was hard to find the requested gravestone but I was persistent. Pictures went out to California, Great Britain, Australia, and several other places. It was a fun thing to do.
Upon finding the gravestone, I would take the photograph with my Apple QuickTake digital camera, one of the first digital cameras on the market. There was no mirror to direct sunlight, there was no science to the photograph. It was just a snapshot of the gravestone. It never occurred to me to touch the actual gravestone – perhaps I might move a little grass or temporarily move a flag aside (always put back where it was). It was a simple take-a-picture, go home and send it on. 
Today we have the website Find-A-Grave online and thousands of people volunteer all over the world  to go out and take pictures of gravestones, many even without specific requests. Find-A-Grave people seem to love time in graveyards. Time seems to stop in a graveyard and sometimes we need time to stop for awhile. Recently I went over to Glenwood Cemetery in East Greenwich to grab a picture of a requested gravestone which I knew very well and when I got there, another person was already taking the picture. Such is the volunteer effort. In any event, Find-A-Grave has registered pictures of millions of gravestones and the database is constantly growing, new cemeteries are added, new countries join in. It is a wonderful coming together of humanity for humanity. 
Gravestones, like most things on this planet, are subject to erosion as well as vandalism and accidental damage. Taking pictures while they are still legible preserves them for even longer than they were intended. It’s a rare gravestone that is completely legible after 200 to 300 years in the best of circumstances. Gravestone photographers have developed a set of techniques to assist in getting the best shot. They use mirrors to reflect sunlight to best shadow the engravings. They use an appropriate time of day to go there. Find-A-Grave volunteers have added much to that which we know of cemeteries.
One poor but foolish volunteer in Tennessee has gotten himself into trouble. With the best of intentions but absolutely no common sense, he wire-brushed several gravestones to clear off the moss, lichens, and the detritus of time to make a better picture. Sadly, he ruined several gravestones in the process. The man should have read Find-A-Grave‘s question and answer page. It says, and I quote: 
“How do I clean a headstone or grave marker?

“Unless you are related to the interred on the headstone in question, DO NOT do anything to the headstone.
“Gravestones should never be cleaned with anything but water and a soft brush. Slate gravestones from the Revolutionary era and pre-Revolutionary era are best left alone due to their delicate nature and tendency to erode.
“Never apply bleach, ammonia, shaving cream, chalk, flour, baking soda, cornstarch, firm pressure or use anything abrasive. Do not post photos of recently chalked or shaving-creamed headstones.
“Consult a professional before any attempt to clean a headstone is made.”

To which, I would add: don’t even use a soft brush. Rule number one: do not touch the gravestone. Again, do not touch the gravestone! Unless you have taken a course or two on gravestone preservation, do NOT touch the stone. If you have taken such a course and have no other need than a photograph, still do not touch the stone.
In my world, if I don’t know the specific law, I try to apply common sense. To me, the gravestone remains the property of the person below it. He’s gone so it goes to his heirs for eternity. It is placed in the cemetery and it is the cemetery’s responsibility to take care of it for eternity. We, as the citizens of today, have to take care of the cemetery property, including gravestones. Governing boards and churches for the large ones, state and local commissions for the small family plots. We have not always done this but we are getting better at it. For the most part, our large municipal cemeteries are well run. Some need touching up and some people should not be running cemeteries, but we are sorting them out. Gradually we’ll get to all the family graveyards in people’s backyards and out in the woods. We know not the future and we can only hope that those who follow us do the same and perhaps better.
That fellow in Tennessee is in deep trouble and he might suffer financially as well as possibly do some jail time. What he did to those gravestones was totally unnecessary, uncalled for, and qualifies as at least vandalism and possibly a felony, no matter his grand intent. 
If you care to read about the incident, here is the website. Thanks to a state commission member for bringing this to our intention.
If you would like more information on Find-A-Grave and might even like to join the effort, here’s that website.
In the Rhode Island area we are fortunate to have begun to record these places photographically for ourselves as well as for travelers on the digital highway. Directory books have been written so one can locate gravestones within cemeteries. It’s a relatively harmless societal effort in which the average, seemingly powerless citizen can effect something positive on a worldwide basis. Go for it, by all means, but first, learn the rules. Don’t ever touch the stone!

Alan F. Clarke is a member of the Rhode Island Advisory Commission on Historic Cemeteries, East Greenwich area.


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