This lecture is part of the 2009 Nationwide Cemetery Preservation Summit
‘Make it Better than it Was’: Poor Design and New Problems in Cemetery Restoration by Robert Russel
So, I’m the only thing standing between you and a drink. You’ll be happy to see that the paper is written. Before I start, though, I have to thank Fred’s aunt, Francis Miller, and Francis Ford for, in their three ways, introducing parts of my subject. Fred brought up yesterday, some of the, I think, pretty much constant issues and problems with box tombs that we’ll be looking at, some we’ll view tonight, some tomorrow at city cemetery. Francis Miller gave you a great example of an 18th century box tomb. I’m going to be talking about a 19th century ones. Though I’m not familiar with all the details of New England box tombs, from what I saw in the pictures, it looked a lot like 18th century box tombs. Charleston and Francis Ford mentioned that, talking about Captain Ross Stone mentioned that kindergarten children in Sunday school are excited about buried treasure. I have to say, they’re not the only ones in the world excited about buried treasure.
So as conservators, restorers, practitioners of graveyard repair, whatever we call ourselves, we’re always face with the difficult task of combining the past and the present, as we put the objects of our care together. We must respect the past, and the creations of the past, and give them the primacy they deserve, but we must also look at the monuments we work on with a critical eye, recognizing their inherent weaknesses and drawbacks. Very few things are perfect. We also, most of us, work with coins, who while almost always want to do the right thing, don’t know what the right thing is. And finally, times, we never tire of telling each other, have changed. It’s been mentioned several times here at the conference that people do not always hold burying ground in the same respect that they once did. If you’re not a 65 year old white woman, the predominant visitor to Mount Auburn cemetery, as we heard yesterday, you might be going to cemeteries for other reasons, other than repose and reflection.
We here need to recognize that grave markers now must often be retrofitted to resist ignorant curiosity or worse. What I want to do today is not so much case study, as it is a retrospective view back over my grappling with a particular type of grave marker, common in the southeast, and elsewhere in the country: The box tomb. So Norman will be happy to know I’ll be talking about failures, as well as successes, but mostly I hope, some successes. Now, box tombs are a particular type of grave marker. Their form can be traced back to Greek and Roman sarcophagi. Sarcophagus as most of you know, probably, is Greek for “flesh eating”, since the limestone they were made out of dissolved the bodies that were put inside of them. They were also popular in the middle ages, particularly for prominent and powerful people, like this box tomb for the English King Edward the Third.
Now, in all these cases, the stone boxes actually held the remains of the deceased, and perhaps that’s why modern cemetery visitors keep imagining box tombs still serve the same function: Conserving the body of the deceased. As we all know, they don’t. Neither, however, are they constructed in the same way. Historically, these tombs were carved from single blocks of limestone or marble sometimes, with a monolithic lid resting on top of the box. Since this form was revived for modern use in the early 18th century, their construction has been much more problematic. As modern tomb markers, and this is what they’ve become, simply markers, in this form they appeared, or reappeared, in the early 18th century. This is the earliest box tomb that I know of in Charleston, South Carolina. This is a maker for a 1722 burial, and it shows a lot of the same characteristics that you saw a few minutes ago in the sandstone Connecticut box tomb, although this one is limestone. The 18th century tombs are much more massive than 19th century tombs.
The elements tend to be anywhere from four to six inches thick. The ledger stone’s very heavy, very thick, as you can see, and the sidewalls, and the legs, the end pieces, are an equivalent massive quality, which helps a lot, and I can point out that when this one was taken apart to straighten it because of a sinking foundation, those cornered pieces, the holes that you saw in the Connecticut example actually, these are iron straps that did hold these together, thought, of course, being iron and almost 300 years old, they’re gone. This is the earliest one that, as I said, I found that they’re common. They were the most popular during in the Antebellum Period. They were effective as status markers, as well as grave markers. They indicated that the owner was wealthier than the riffraff under the headstones, as you can see here, and they stand out in fields of headstones. After the Civil War, they almost completely disappeared. In fact, they do disappear, replaced by more spectacular pedestal markers, and obelisks, although it may well be people were already recognizing the drawbacks of the tomb type.
Now the modern box tomb was built using modern techniques, which did not include the slow and wasteful hollowing out of hug blocks of stone. Rather than being subtracted, they were added to, and assembled out of various sizes and shapes and material on the top, with a ledger stone that allowed, when needed, and extensive inscription. As you can see, this inscription runs all the way to the bottom. This is a child, but this inscription was written by a very angry widow, whose husband had been mugged and murdered. As people came to have less and less to do with the dead and the places where the dead were laid to rest, this form of grave marker came to be more and more mysterious, not to say more tantalizing to more 20th century people. Now, in my work in cemeteries and grave yards in downtown Charleston, I’ve been variably found that passersby are most intrigued when I’m working on a box tomb. Headstones are interesting.
Obelisks are exciting, but nothing beats a box tomb for eliciting questions, which generally begin the same way: “Is there somebody in there?” The assumption, it turns out, is widespread, not just the tourists that wander through historic graveyards during the day. Now I was first called to St. John’s Lutheran church in Charleston several years ago to look at an ongoing problem they were having with vandalism, especially directed at their box tombs. Now, St. John’s is in the heart of Charleston’s downtown, half a block from the lower King Street shopping district, but in a very quiet neighborhood. It turns out, temptation to look inside these markers was too great for many people to resist, and graveyard, which has numerous box tombs, was looking pretty beat up. There were multiple examples of two particular problems. The first was broken ledger stones, caused by people trying to get inside the boxes of the box tombs. The second had nothing to do with vandalism, but rather was caused by the inherent drawbacks of the modern box tomb. This was the subsidence of the tomb because of it’s weight. Once the coffin beneath it decayed and collapsed.
Frequently, the subsidence was irregular, and the box tomb broke apart, as bits and pieces of it sunk, and other parts stayed where they were. Now, my contact at St. John’s Luther Church was a retired engineer, who was suspicious of principles of preservation practice. He simply wanted to make these tombs better than they were, hence the title. But to his credit, he was willing to listen to me, and has, over the years, modified his views on many, not all, but many of the issues that come up. One thing we agreed on from the beginning has been the inadequacy of modern box tomb design. So think about it. Originating with a design that was about as simple and long lasting as you can imagine. Hollow out a big chunk of stone, put a lid on top of it. It has become, in modern times, a fragile construction of nine separate pieces of stone, held together largely by the weight of the ledger stone. If that gets moved, the whole thing can come apart.
Fundamental starting points for monument conservators are that the object worked on should not be modified, that original materials should be conserved as much as possible and that compatible materials should be used where necessary. These are generally valid and should be taken to heart, but two unspoken assumptions lying behind all these strictures is, first that the design of the grave marker was good to begin with, and second, that circumstances do not change. These are not always the case.
The subject of the proposed paper is such a case. Box tombs were popular– in the south especially– in the first half of the 19th century. The box tomb was grander than a simple headstone but not fancy (or expensive) as a more elaborate marker. They are very prevalent among the antebellum grave markers in Charleston, South Carolina. Because of general ignorance about burial customs and a surprisingly widespread belief that these boxes are in fact the tomb itself and not just a marker, they have been subject to more than their share of vandalism as people pry or shift the ledger stones off the boxes in search for loot or ghoulish pleasure. Even where vandalism does not occur, these markers are classic examples of poor design, frequently coupled with poorer execution.
At the insistence of a client (who had been an engineer) whose graveyard was subject to frequent vandalism, especially of its box tombs, I have, after working on nearly two dozen such markers, developed a series of repair methods that result in a restored tomb marker indistinguishable from an intact original but one that will long outlast an unmodified box tomb and that discourages all but the most persistent vandals (who cannot be stopped anyway).
The weak pints of a box tomb’s design are primarily that it (1) relies on the weight of a ledger stone to hold it together, but the total weight of the monument is such that there is very frequent subsidence, which is not consistent, therefore leaving parts of the tomb unbraced; (2) that the side panels are held in place by only the most tenuous means: shallow channels cut in the corner legs and thin iron or copper pins set in holes in the top edges of the legs and side and end panels; and (3) that the ledger stones simply rest on the box itself. By substituting a concrete slab for traditional (and inadequate) brick footings; building a supporting brick ‘I’ structure inside of the box; substituting new, thicker bronze cramps for the deteriorated original metal pins and leading them firmly into the stone, and by pinning the ledger stone to the new interior brick supporting structure, it is possible to repair a box tomb so that it looks completely original but will not fail again in the same way, all without excessive additional cost to the client.
Robert Russel is the Addlestone Professor and the Director of the undergraduate program in Historic Preservation and Community Planning at the College of Charleston. He has taught courses in cemeter conservation and restoration for that program, and has worked for a number of years as a restorer of monuments and tombs in Charleston and elsewhere.