A Cemetery Preservation Guide

A Cemetery Preservation Guide

I am often contacted by folks at the very beginning stages of their very first cemetery preservation project. And in each case I am asked the same question: What do I do?

I have put this Guide together to answer some of those basic questions and provide beginners with an outline for their project. Not everything included here will apply to every situation.

This is not a “How-To” article. It is intended only as a guide. Proper training with experienced conservators is vital even before assessments begin. See my Cemetery Preservation Workshops Facebook page for scheduled training opportunities.

The First Step

Obviously, the first thing to do is choose a cemetery for preservation. The motivation will vary from project to project and from group to group. A group of family members may decide to take care of an old family burial ground. A local historical society would focus more on historic significance to the community.

Getting Permission

Once you have picked the cemetery you are interested in you need to determine who owns or is responsible for the property the cemetery is on. It can be the owner of the surrounding property, a cemetery association, a church, a township trustee or some other level of government.

Determining the owner or responsible party may be as easy as knocking on the door of the nearest house and asking. It may require a trip to the county courthouse to look at land deeds to see whom the property is deeded.

Once the owner or responsible party is determined you need to get permission from that person before any actual work can begin. It is always a good idea to get this permission in writing and always have a copy on site whenever anyone is working. Also give a copy to the land owner.

Also, once you have written permission you should obtain any local or state permits that may be required. These permits are not always required and the laws vary from state to state. As with the written permission, have copies of any permits on site while work is in progress.


Certainly before any work on grave markers begins, and really before assessments are undertaken, those involved should receive some training from someone with experience. There are very good articles and videos online, but grave marker preservation is something that requires some “on the job training.” Please see the links at the beginning of this article for training opportunities. I highly recommend reading A Graveyard Preservation Primer by Lynette Stragnstad.

Historic Research and Cemetery Assessment

Now that permission and permits are in place and training at least started it is time to do any historic research into the cemetery that needs to be done. This wont always be necessary as the information may be readily available at the local historical society. If plot maps or other cemetery records are available make a copy to work with. These are rare in older cemeteries and unlikely for family cemeteries. But if they exist they can help you ensure grave markers are where they belong. A history of the site is not necessary for preservation of the grave markers, but can offer useful information if you know or suspect a grave marker is not at the proper location.

Assessing the overall cemetery is necessary to determine if any work needs to be done before the needs of the grave markers are addressed. If trees need to be removed this should be done before any stone preservation work is accomplished. This limits the risk of further damage to a reset or repaired grave marker.

While making this initial assessment be sure to take plenty of photographs from different vantage points. Document on paper your full assessment of the cemetery. Include things such as trees, especially if they are a part of the historic fabric of the site or need to be trimmed or removed. Include condition of fences, gates, signs, paths, roads, anything in the cemetery.

If your cemetery has structures such as chapels or mausoleums be sure to include them in your general assessment.

Once this general assessment has been completed you can begin to carefully remove any brush that may need to be removed. If your site is not overgrown then you get to skip this step.

Stone Assessment 

An accurate assessment of each grave marker is important in ensuring the appropriate methods and treatments are used. Two stones set next to each other and looking identical other than the name and dates can actually age at very different rates.

Master Plan

Once all assessments are complete it is time to create a Master Plan. Your Master Plan should prioritize each item that needs to be addressed. It should also include your long range plan for maintaining the site long after preservation work is done. This long term maintenance should address issues from what to do if a stone is damaged to regular mowing and other landscaping.

As mentioned above, any tree trimming or removal should be done before work on grave markers begins. Stone preservation should be prioritized in three general categories:

  • Safety issues. Multi-piece stacked stones often become unstable over time and become a real hazard to life should one of these monuments fall on someone. I see articles every now and again about someone being injured or killed by a falling monument. This can also open the owner or responsible party to litigation should someone be injured or killed. The first grave markers to reset or repair are those that pose these potential threats. Most often it will be the stacked monuments that are the biggest concern, but even smaller tablet markers could cause injury.
  • Stones on the ground. The next group of grave markers to deal with are those that have already fallen over and are flat on the ground, or in some cases, sunken beneath the grounds surface. Also include markers that have been leaned against a nearby marker, tree or fence. Getting these markers off the ground stops lawn mowers from driving over them or people walking on them and damaging them further.
  • Everything else. Finally, whatever is left that needs to be addressed, keeping in mind some markers are fine just as they are. But during this portion of the work you can straighten leaning stones that weren’t safety issues, clean markers that need only to be cleaned and any other stone issue that remains.

Cleaning Grave Markers

Because it is relatively quick and easy to teach someone the basics of cleaning grave markers it has become a very popular thing to do. The problem is many people are cleaning for the sake of cleaning, not because there is an actual need to clean the marker. Not every stone needs to be cleaned. Please read my article, Cleaning Headstones for more about this.

Resetting Grave Markers

Resetting grave markers can be as basic as digging a hole and setting the stone in it and making sure its level or more complex requiring hoists and other rigging equipment.

Repairing Grave Markers

Repairing broken grave markers can range from fairly basic to complex. Each situation is different. Some repairs require work to be done in stages or the use of a lime mortar infill to replace missing stone, while other repairs are as basic as applying epoxy and clamping the pieces in place.

Final Steps

Now that you have the dead trees removed and the grave markers preserved there are a few final steps to take.

You may choose to fill sunken graves with clean soil and seed the area. If no grave marker is present the sunken grave effectively becomes the “grave marker.” If you back fill and seed the grave make sure you place some sort of marker so the grave is not completely lost to time. Even if the name of the deceased is unknown a small marker of some sort denoting that fact is recommended.

Also seed the bare areas around the markers you reset. Planting grass will help prevent erosion which can lead to the marker falling over again.

Finally, complete any remaining documentation. Make sure to document what you did to each marker and what products you used. Also take “after” photos of each grave marker and of the entire cemetery from the same vantage points you took the initial photos from.

A Final Word

I want to stress again the importance of getting trained before undertaking a cemetery preservation project. Even before assessments begin someone in the group should have some training and a knowledge of what to look for how how to address it. I am always happy to answer questions and help guide people in the right direction. Many other conservators feel the same. But it is imperative that you get some hands-on training before you get too involved in your first project.

Browse the information of the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.

Good luck!

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