The Gravekeeper’s Paradox
March 24, 2015 11:25 PM   Subscribe

The Gravekeeper’s Paradox The impermanency of stone is visible everywhere at Mount Auburn. One headstone Gallagher and I stop at has been sandwiched between two wooden braces a few feet away from its rectangular base. Both pieces were struck by a snowplow during the winter, and a few chips in the base form a scar that shines bright white against the old greenish-grey rock. Gallagher’s assistant, Steve Brown, is trying to glue the monument back together. “The whole stone used to be white like that. That’s an algae growing on it,” Gallagher says, pointing to the damage.
posted by CrystalDave (28 comments total) 12 users marked this as a favorite
I think it might depend on the kind of stone you use.

There's a graveyard in Salem MA which dates back more than 350 years. The grave stones are a bit eroded, but you can still clearly read the names and dates on them.
posted by Chocolate Pickle at 11:33 PM on March 24, 2015

I visited Raymond Carver's grave in Port Angeles in 1997. He had died in 1988. It was pretty fantastic. I saw a photo taken about 10 years later that showed that the writing had been all washed out. Which made me sad. But doing a Google Search just now it seems as though Carver's grave has been restored. It features two of his poems, Late Fragment, and Gravy.
posted by Nevin at 11:42 PM on March 24, 2015

Erosion will vary depending on how exposed a location is, so some stones will definitely age better than others.

I'd guess that plastic gravestones were a cost-cutting exercise first and erosion countermeasure second. If you really wanted a good-looking stone that could stand the test of time, put a thin plastic coat on a granite stone, and touch it up occasionally.

Arthur C. Clarke hypothesised a thin diamond coating might be ideal for preserving monuments, and with CVD that might just work too...
posted by YAMWAK at 11:50 PM on March 24, 2015

‘There is no antidote against the Opium of time, which temporally considereth all things; Our Fathers finde their graves in our short memories, and sadly tell us how we may be buried in our Survivors. Grave-stones tell truth scarce fourty yeers: Generations passe while some trees stand, and old Families last not three Oakes. To be read by bare inscriptions […], to hope for Eternity by Ænigmatical Epithetes, or first letters of our names, to be studied by Antiquaries, who we were, and have new Names given us like many of the Mummies, are cold consolations unto the Students of perpetuity, even by everlasting Languages.’—Browne, Hydriotaphia.
posted by misteraitch at 2:19 AM on March 25, 2015 [12 favorites]

In the same way that the best barber in a barbershop will have the worst haircut, if you want to find the best grave keeper in a cemetery to tend your grave, simply find the person occupying the worst-kept grave.
posted by sebastienbailard at 3:08 AM on March 25, 2015 [5 favorites]

There's a graveyard in Salem MA which dates back more than 350 years. The grave stones are a bit eroded, but you can still clearly read the names and dates on them.

Yes and no. There is plenty of fading going on in the Charter Street and Howard Street cemeteries. Another problem here tends to be more thin slate breaking (due to weather, tourists) which often results in the marker snapping and needing to be reset in a concrete frame. We also have the odd grave robber.

Mount Auburn is a beautiful site - my favorite marker there is for Lt. Underwood who was "felled by savaged while promoting the cause of science and philanthropy" in the South Pacific.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 3:51 AM on March 25, 2015

something about the efforts of holding back the crumbling stones, helping them last a few more days. Just wonderful.
posted by rebent at 4:58 AM on March 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

One thing not mentioned in the article: the damage done to fragile tombstones by genealogists and hobbyists, taking rubbings of old stones using inappropriate methods. One method is chalking, where colored chalk is rubbed on a stone to reveal degraded information. Please don't do that.

The folks at have some ideas for getting information from a tombstone:
- if you aren't related to the person memorialized on a stone, don't touch it.
- if you MUST clean a tombstone, don't use anything but a soft brush and mild soap. - and consult the cemetery staff or a professional before you do.

Ways to work with a tombstone:
- use a camera. Take photos of the stone and adjust the digital image to adjust color/brightness/contrast to reveal the information.
- shine a bright (and I mean bright) light across the surface of the stone to reveal the engraved information.

posted by disclaimer at 5:46 AM on March 25, 2015 [6 favorites]


Taken at the Granary, Boston.
posted by rtha at 5:46 AM on March 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

Oh and: always check the rules and regulations of the cemetery you're visiting before doing anything to a stone. I live in a cemetery (surrounded on three sides) and they don't allow cleaning of stones by visitors, it will get you thrown out. And I'll be giving you the stink-eye, too.
posted by disclaimer at 5:49 AM on March 25, 2015 [2 favorites]

disclaimer: "I live in a cemetery"


No offense, but it sounds a little creepy. I'm sure the rent is cheap, though, so that makes sense.
posted by InsertNiftyNameHere at 7:49 AM on March 25, 2015

I have quiet neighbors. No chance of a Taco Bell opening a drive thru, either :)

It's a relatively (1850 or so) modern, well kept cemetery with few visitors and an active cemetery association/church that manages it. I grew up here and have quite a few relatives buried there, makes it handy when people are researching family trees.
posted by disclaimer at 8:27 AM on March 25, 2015

Taken at the Granary, Boston.

If you ever go back, here's a guide.
posted by robocop is bleeding at 8:33 AM on March 25, 2015

> No offense, but it sounds a little creepy. I'm sure the rent is cheap, though, so that makes sense.

Well, the whole point of the rural cemetery movement was to have beautiful, free green spaces to be enjoyed as parks by the living -- anyone, rich or poor -- while also memorializing those who lived and died before us.
posted by desuetude at 9:20 AM on March 25, 2015 [6 favorites]

This thread is a perfect time to share what I've recently learned about Colma, CA, a town where the dead outnumber the living a thousand to one. You, too, can live in a graveyard but pretend not to!
posted by Gilead at 10:06 AM on March 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

My aunt and I went on a road trip, scouring old graveyards in New England, armed with a family history book, more or less randomly looking for the grave of our original immigrant ancestor, from nine generations ago (eight for her).

We actually found his grave, and we thoughtfully applied a protective layer of black ink to the stone while making a rubbing of it. I went back to look for it 10 years later, really just to see if the ink had weathered away yet, and the whole graveyard was now replaced with an apartment building. I asked around City Hall and everywhere else, and people said the graveyard had been moved, but no one could say exactly where.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:21 AM on March 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

I used to work for my town's cemetery department, and helped to maintain Standish Burial Ground [Google Maps] [Town Webpage] which claims to be the oldest actively-maintained cemetery in the United States. Nobody is buried there anymore ,though the three other cemeteries in town, Mayflower, (attached to my family's church!) Ashdod, (across the street from the house where I grew up!) and possibly even Dingley are still burying people, especially Mayflower, and are nearly as old. There are Revolutionary War veterans buried there, and even earlier graves.

One of the things that I helped do was fight the eternal battle between time and stone—digging up and resetting headstones that were being swallowed by the ground, mortaring back together stones which had cracked or broken—and it was very apparent that different types of stone weather very differently. Many of the oldest headstones were made from limestone, which is a very pretty white rock that is easy to come by and easy to work (hence cheap), but which is very soft and is prone to developing lichen, as well as being rather brittle. (The image linked above is actually a fairly good specimen of an older stone, though at only 115 years old it's not the oldest one I've seen at all.) Slate headstones were another popular choice, and slate is a bit harder so the writing on them tends to be more legible, but they're even more brittle than limestone and so they often will crack—particularly the oldest ones, which were often quite thin, maybe an inch or two thick at most. Nowadays it seems like almost all headstones are made from granite, which is quite hard and strong and weathers very well, and which can also be polished. Many older stones are granite as well, but since granite is comparatively expensive (it needed to be shipped down from New Hampshire, and it's harder to work) those old stones tended to be either very small (if your family weren't rich) or very elaborate (if they were). The smaller, older granite stones were often very low to the ground though (think of a flat stone plaque that just says "Mother" or "Baby Boy") and are frequently the victims of grass encroachment.

Nothing lasts forever, I suppose. We did our best, but there were far more graves than there were gravediggers, and the mowing alone was a full-time job. It was an interesting job, and I learned a lot.
posted by Anticipation Of A New Lover's Arrival, The at 10:25 AM on March 25, 2015 [10 favorites]

One problem with limestone is acid rain. That's increased quite a bit in some places, and acid rain causes pretty much a baking soda with vinegar reaction, that dissolves the stone.

Let me add, that when we found the gravestone of our ancient ancestor, while the stone looked quite old, it was cracked, eroded and worn -- and it had these weird medieval-looking winged skulls on it -- there were fragments of an older gravestone wedged behind that, so what we took the rubbing from had presumably been placed there quite some time ago after the original stone had fallen apart.
posted by StickyCarpet at 10:56 AM on March 25, 2015

The oldest tombstone I can think of that I know of in my family is from 1704, and it looks like it's held up fairly well.

Interestingly, the "medieval looking winged skulls" is also on this tombstone. Was this a common motif or is it possible we're talking about the same ancestor?

Picture of William Throope's stone

Also - I always love seeing the little roadside cemetery plots that have like 5 graves or whatever, and a couple pillars and a simple small gate. I've always want to go just brood in one of those, but it doesn't quite have the same effect as a larger cemetery that goes on for a while. That's a whole other brooding game. For when you're really feeling broody.
posted by symbioid at 12:31 PM on March 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Also - anyone looking at the link I posted - don't go and buy that bullshit about being the son of regicide Adrian Scrope, I've a like 99% feeling that's one of those "My great grandma was Pocahontas" bullshit stories.
posted by symbioid at 12:33 PM on March 25, 2015

If "surviving being struck by a snowplow completely unscathed" is the definition of permanence, very few things are permanent.
posted by Joakim Ziegler at 12:57 PM on March 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

It's not common, but it does happen, that a cemetery will be moved. Usually, the graves are dug up and the bodies/containers are moved to an existing cemetery to keep the bodies in consecrated ground. Most of the time, though, the headstones are not kept with their corresponding grave in the new location. In some cases, they're lined up in the cemetery somewhere out of the way, and in other cases they're reused as material somewhere else (I can't remember where, but there's a path in some city somewhere that has marker pieces lining the path, used as a curb. You can still read the writing on them).

And I know of family associations that will replace a worn stone with a new one, usually incorporating the old with the new if they can.

Nothing is permanent, and when a family line goes extinct and there's no one to remember or trace that line genealogically, the gravestones are the last remnants of that family's impression on the planet.
posted by disclaimer at 1:53 PM on March 25, 2015

Very interesting post. I wasn't aware that cemeteries even had caretakers whose job involved attending to old gravestones and that makes me happy, indeed. It would be fascinating to learn more from this man or someone else who knows how to do this - and especially how to find the balance between the aging and legibility of stones made of different materials.

We visit cemeteries when we can for genealogical purposes and most of the gravestones we search for are a couple of centuries old, so they're often almost illegible. We've found that fooling around with the light and different angles and shadows, with many pictures, will usually bring at least most of the information up to a readable quality; image-editing software has helped this tremendously - so often the detail shows up when working with the image editor on different photos, which I find preferable to working on the stone itself when I don't know what I'm doing.

Thanks for an excellent post, Crystal Dave.
posted by aryma at 10:26 PM on March 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

Sorry to do this, but I need to add to the above that we visit old cemeteries often not only for genealogical purposes but especially for the sheer historical fascination; cemeteries tell amazing histories - we can spend days photographing old graves and reading stones and stories. My son has taken hundreds of photos of old graves from the Southern and Eastern part of Washington State and Oregon and into Nevada. We've put some of them on genealogy websites but we have many, many more.
posted by aryma at 10:32 PM on March 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

I do like those cast iron/aluminum monuments that became popular in the Victorian era. They age nicely and take on a sort of patina while retaining detail longer than stone.
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:22 PM on March 25, 2015

My great-uncle (with Great-Grandma and Uncle D. for occasional assistants) was a gravedigger and cemetery caretaker, and fixing up broken stones was part of his job, too. I doubt he did as much as the folks in the article, though. I think he mostly propped things up and glued chunks back on.

(He also saved the silk and satin ribbons from funeral wreaths and arrangements; I have a quilt made out of them.)
posted by The Underpants Monster at 11:25 PM on March 25, 2015 [1 favorite]

I would so have a cast iron monument if our local cemetery allowed monuments (they only allow flush to the ground plaques).
posted by Mitheral at 6:39 PM on March 26, 2015

> I do like those cast iron/aluminum monuments that became popular in the Victorian era. They age nicely and take on a sort of patina while retaining detail longer than stone.

Fun fact, for a time around the turn of the century, the monument industry also tried to get cast zinc to catch on as a cheaper and more durable alternative to stone. They were marketed as "white bronze," and you'll sometimes see one or two in cemeteries of that era. You can readily recognize them if you're looking; the color has a sort of weird cool bluish cast in comparison to the warmer marble and granite. (Even weirder is to tap on them -- they're hollow.)
posted by desuetude at 7:35 AM on March 27, 2015 [1 favorite]

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