Daily Progress, Jacksonville, TX

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April 29, 2014

Markers of time

Properly cleaning headstones 'critical' to preservation

JACKSONVILLE — Long after a person is gone from the Earth, markers displayed on their graves serve as reminders of life.

Standing upright through seasons of extreme cold and searing heat, cleansed only by rain, a grave's headstone battles not only the test of time … but the test of the elements.

Designed to represent those who have long since passed, they are a reminder to each generation of those who came before them. With a few simple steps, families can help ensure the markers remain for those who come after them.

Deborah Burkett of the Cherokee County Historical Commission held a presentation earlier this month at the City Cemetery in Jacksonville. Burkett spoke about the history of the cemetery and shared information about cleaning gravestones.

“Cemetery headstones are visible reminders of our ancestors; names etched on grave markers can serve as a ‘directory’ of early pioneers who shaped our history," Burkett said.

According to state and local historical records, Jacksonville began in 1847, the year Jackson Smith built a house and a blacksmith shop in the area.

Burkett said the City Cemetery dates back to the 1840s, as well.

"Everything I find points to this place being the burial ground for settlers of the old town site," Burkett said.

Therefore, a number of the headstones date back many years. Burkett expressed the importance of cleaning the markers properly to a group gathered for the presentation.

"We're blessed in Cherokee County to have so many historical cemeteries. We need to make everyone aware of the importance of preservation. Learning the proper cleaning techniques is critical," she said.

Burkett said sometimes adding chemicals to a headstone can cause a chemical reaction that will erode the stone. She pointed out that although bleach may brighten a headstone, it also will cause the stone to change in pallor and become rough to the touch. This reaction is caused when the sodium chloride in the bleach dissolves, causing the binding materials and quartz crystals to exfoliate, Burkett said.

"When this process is used on marble and limestone, the lettering is the first to disappear," she said. "Something that is over 100 years old shouldn't look bright and new!"

Burkett also advised against power washing headstones, recommending instead the use of soft bristle brushes to prevent possibly scratching the stone.

"Cemeteries are the history of every town, therefore the preservation and maintenance of the stones are a very important part of preserving that history," City Manager Mo Raissi said. "We are happy to have this group show such an interest in helping us find the best way to preserve and maintain the stones." The recent presentation at the cemetery was in conjuction with the Jacksonville Wednesday Study Club, which Burkett is also a member. Club member Judy Angle assisted in the presentation, as well as Elizabeth McCutcheon, chairwoman for the Cherokee County Historical Commission.

Burkett said it was the third grave cleaning program the group has done. The first one was in 2012 at Old Palestine Cemetery near Alto, and the second one was in 2013 at Cedar Hill Cemetery in Rusk.

Here are a few more tips for cleaning headstones:

Before cleaning any stone, carefully check its condition. If the surface readily falls away, or you notice other conditions that indicate the stone is brittle or vulnerable, do not clean it. Cleaning may irreparably damage the surface. Historic masonry should only be cleaned if the marker is stable on its base, with no signs of flaking or sugaring.

1. Use a non-ionic soap. One of the most readily available soaps is Orvus®, commonly used in association with horse and sheep husbandry. Also recommended for washing quilts. It can be found in feed stores. Mix a solution of one heaping tablespoon of Orvus® (it comes in either liquid or paste form) to one gallon of clean water.

2. Pre-wet the stone thoroughly with clean water and keep the stone wet during the entire washing process.

3. Thoroughly wash the wet stone using natural bristled, wooden-handled brushes of various sizes. Start at the bottom and work up. The use of plastic handles is not recommended, as color from the handles may leave material on the stone that will be very difficult to remove.

4. Be thorough. Wash all surfaces and rinse thoroughly with lots of clean water.

5. When cleaning marble or limestone, one tablespoon of household ammonia can be added to the above mixture to help remove some greases and oils. Do not use ammonia on or near any bronze or other metal elements.

6. Lichens and algae can be removed by first thoroughly soaking the stone and then using a wooden scraper to gently remove the biological growth. This process may need to be repeated several times. Do not use force to remove deeply embedded lichens. If the growth cannot be removed easily with scraping, consult a conservator. Some lichen can have strong roots that may damage the stone if removed forcibly.

7. Not all stains can be removed. Do not expect the stones to appear new after cleaning.

8. Do not clean marble, limestone, or sandstone more often than once every 18 months. Every cleaning removes some of the face of the stone. However, occasionally rinsing with clean water to remove bird droppings and other accretions is acceptable.

9. Keep a simple treatment record of the cleaning, including date of cleaning, materials used, and any change in condition since last cleaning (such as missing parts, graffiti, and other damage). These records should be kept at a central location where the condition of the stones can be monitored over time.

(Source: Developed for Texas Historical Commission from data supplied by John R. Dennis, Dallas Museum of Art Conservation Lab15.)

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