This presentation is part of the International Cemetery Preservation Summit, April 8-10, 2014 Niagara Falls, NY.
Modern Problems in Historic Cemeteries by Frances Ford
Ford: Hello. My presentation today I have titled Modern Problems in Historic Cemeteries, and you’ll find out why in just a second. My presentation outline will sort of set the scene of this particular paper and how it came about. I’ll define what I mean by modern problems, offer some solutions, talk about who in my case I believe might be responsible, and then give my recommendations.
I work in Charleston, South Carolina. Charleston is a well-loved historic city, and in no small part due to its lovely churchyards which sit next to its numerous houses of worship. Known as the Holy City, over two dozen churches are located in the historic district of the peninsula, and half of them have adjoining churchyards. Many are no longer active which has led in some part to their deterioration. Others while active tried to balance the conservation of historic monuments with the addition of new burials and new markers. As a conservator, it has become increasingly surprising, and I might say frightening, that it’s the newer monuments that are now requiring interventions to keep visitors safe.
This is actually an image of St. Philip’s churchyard on Church St. in downtown Charleston. Some level of deterioration is expected of course when a tablet or ledger is from Charleston’s colonial days. The earliest marker in the city still extant is most likely the Simmon’s Vault, located in the circular churchyard said to date from 1698 or 99 and many early 18th century slate stones still exist in the circular church graveyard, which is this cemetery here that I’m showing you.
Also in the churchyard of nearby St. Philip’s which is adjoined property wise with through a little gate you can get from one to the other. These stones are well documented to have come from New England since the low country of South Carolina no resources for quarrying stone, and the modern stone of choice in Charleston today, as I would think is true all over the United States, is granite.
Modern granite markers are evident in many of Charleston’s historic churchyards, including the French Huguenot Church, which is shown in this slide, and St. Philip’s Church, where internments are still allowed. In recent years, it is increasingly that these are the stones which are failing among all the historic ones that I’m conserving. Tablets falling off of bases. Large crosses wobbling and turning on small pins, plaque markers and ledgers at grade sinking into the ground, which has led me to ask, “Are the construction techniques for modern monuments such that the safety of visitors to historic churchyards is at greater risk? Is it the responsibilities of the churches to dictate to modern monument installers a code of conduct? Is this a local issue or is it widespread?”
I was compelled to bring this issue to this particular conference in hopes of hearing from others of you who may be experiencing the same problems, and to hear what your solutions might be. For me after over a decade of repairing historic monuments, I’ve come to expect to find markers with numerous pieces cut or carved to fit together like puzzle pieces, each locking into the other, as in the case of a stone chest tomb, or tablets cut with a tab to fit neatly into the opening of a base, or a dye on a flat base connected with large iron pins and lime mortar. It was surprising to me to find that the manufacturers of today do not always follow this historic example, but instead often rely on shear weight as a connecting mechanism. To show more clearly exactly what I’m talking about, I will offer these illustrations of modern monument failure that I have dealt with in the last few years.
Large granite tablets that have fallen off bases, in some cases seemingly by the overgrowth of the vegetation. This particular marker the sexton called me and said, “Francis, Francis, come over, the azalea bush has pushed the stone off of its base,” and I didn’t believe him. Then of course other ledgers which have fallen off of the bases where unfortunately … This is a wonderful little chapel of ease called Strawberry Chapel and it’s some miles outside of Charleston. They have a terrible problem with vandalism and so this one got a lot help unfortunately.
A really surprising problem that I’ve encountered more and more over the last couple of years is ledgers that are slowly sinking below grade. Other markers, granite markers sitting on a base which begin to literally slide off as … Oh, wrong one. Which is in the case of this one as you can see where it originally was meant to be, and something like this. This actually is a stone that has a base, and you can’t, it’s totally gone below grade. Then of course these ledgers that were meant to lay right above grade and now are slowly being eaten up by the surrounding soil.
Taller monuments, most often crosses, which can literally spin on the one pin holding it upright. In the past few years I’ve tended to get phone calls from the churches I work for, because during the course of a new burial, those in attendance did what is second nature. They looked for a place to sit or lean, and found that the stone they chose was not stable. After years of conservation of only historic monuments, I was put in the position of having to deal with monuments installed within the last 20 or 30 years, not 120 or 130 years ago.
All the monument failures used to illustrate this definition of modern problems. I’ve addressed them and they’ve been repaired, and most of the problems shown in this presentation required rebuilt foundations, and connections in the case of dyes on base. I’m going to show you a few before and afters just so that you can see that I really did address some of these problems. I normally, in a case … Keep punching the wrong button. In cases like this, you can just barely see it, I’m sorry I didn’t get a rally good one, but I use a gantry crane chain fall and straps of course to lift larger monuments like this, and move them aside while resetting the foundations with compacted sand and gravel, and then sometimes concrete pad as well.That would have been the case.
This is an interesting one is this stone was pulled up, put aside and the new foundation was being readied. We found that the original installer clearly just grabbed whatever else he could grab when he was laying his foundation, and he picked up this little footstone and threw it in there as well, and so we saved this little footstone. I can’t complain too much about what happened before me, that’s unbelievable, but anyway. Then a modern issue as well which I don’t normally like to have to come across. Sinking and falling backwards and picking out the coping stone, because sadly the vault is right here about four inches below grade. That was a problem with improper burial which I really don’t like to have to deal with.
Then again one that is not only sinking but this of course is not attached and sliding off, and then that’s the repair. As you might imagine, I began to ask why this was happening in the first place. After many repairs of foundations and connections, I had to place to blame on the manufacturers of these modern monuments, and their installers. The design is such that stacked pieces are intended to stay in place with a putty-like snake setting compound and shear gravity. As for the foundation of these monuments, I have observed that installers clearing the footprint, digging only a few inches below grade where they dump a partial bag of Quikrete, often with only the moisture of the ground to wet it, and then the monument pieces are stacked on top.
Of course when I’ve had to repair these modern figures, this process has been confirmed. This led me to do a little research, and I found that some states are clearly more engaged in ensuring safe, modern cemetery monuments in historic cemeteries, states such as Massachusetts and Michigan have published guidelines for preservation of historic cemeteries. Their intended audiences, those in charge of municipal cemeteries, but whose information is useful to church or privately owned as well. In my case I’ve decided that it will have to be the church administrator and the cemetery committees that I work for that will need to have clearly stated rules for installation of new monuments into historic graveyards, since they are ultimately responsible for the safety of visitors inside their gates.
To begin my research into the creation of these rules, I found the information most helpful for my purposes came from European sources, especially those available from English Heritage and Historic Scotland. English Heritage’s Paradise Preserved, they cited a survey which recorded 2,047 churchyards and cemeteries in the UK, and 83% of those were still receiving new burials, and most of them were very concerned for their future preservation needs. In the UK as well as in the US, there have been increasing reports of deaths and accidents in cemeteries and historic graveyards. The concern for the safety of all monuments in these landscapes which welcome visitors is now much more publicized. Actually one of the churches I’ve mentioned in this presentation today has experienced the death of a child within its churchyard, and as a result has been locked to visitors ever since. English Heritage has actually created testing procedures to measure risk, which beings with visual inspection, but follows with exerting physical force to estimate possible failure by recording any movement of the stones, bases or at their connecting joints. I too was encouraged to survey the markers in St. Philip’s two summers ago after a fairly new monument was found to be rocking very badly during a new burial. Shortly after each was assessed and its hazard ranked. Although the percentage was small, the evidence was shocking. Although you can expect less risk of serious injury with a smaller marker, taller ones carry a larger potential for instability and required immediate bracing until a permanent repair could be carried out.
My recommendations to these church groups that I work for will first state that all new memorials plan for the churchyard must be first approved by the governing cemetery committee and the church administrator. This is done to some degree already but they were written about 50 years ago, so we’re talking about little revision, and that a general survey be conducted at least every five years specific requirements would include a detailed drawing of the material disowning all dimensions materials inscriptions and lettering, a detailed illustration of the connection mechanism between the ground and the base and each subsequent piece stacked above. A foundation of compacted sand and gravel and/or a precast concrete foundation just below grade. Essential ground anchor through the base of the stacked memorials and stainless steel threaded pins between each additional component.
Additionally aesthetic issues could be addressed in this document to prevent unfortunate selection of granite color or lettering which visually is not in agreement with the historic landscape. Thebes illustration nave found when I was doing my research is this great one from again my UK friends which one the left of course shows the historic precedence for monuments and their stability, and then over on the far right, very clearly showing the connecting mechanisms for each piece starting at the foundation through the base then the pieces tablet that are up above ground.
In conclusion I can only hope that in the future when burials and modern monuments are inserted into the landscape of historic burial ground that the risk of failure or injury to the visitor will be reduced or eliminated. Cooperation will certainly be the key between all affected parties. The families require tings the modern markets, the cemetery committee and the church administrator, at the monument company supplying and installing the stone. I for one hope that that happens really soon. I thank you for your attention and look forward to any conversations. I will have while here for the conference about this issue. Thank you.
Charleston is a well loved historic city and in no small part due to its lovely churchyards which sit next to its numerous houses of worship. Known as the “Holy City,” over two dozen churches are located in the historic district of the peninsula and half of them have adjoining churchyards. Many are no longer active which has led in some part to their deterioration. Others, while active, try to balance the conservation of historic monuments with the addition of new burials and new markers. So as a conservator it has become increasingly surprising (and frightening) that it’s the newer monuments that are constantly requiring interventions to keep visitors safe.
Some level of deterioration is expected when a tablet or ledger is from Charleston’s colonial days. The earliest marker in the city still extant is most likely the Simons vault located in the Circular Churchyard, said to date to 1698-99. Many early eighteenth-century slate stones still exist in the Circular Church graveyard and in the churchyard of nearby Saint Philip’s. These stones are well documented to have come from New England since the low country of South Carolina had no resources for quarrying stone. The modern stone of choice in Charleston (as I would think is true all over the United States) is granite. Modern granite markers are evident in many Charleston colonial churchyards, including the French Huguenot Church and Saint Philip’s where internment is still allowed. In recent years it is increasingly these stones which are failing: tablets falling off of bases, large crosses wobbling and turning on a small pin, plaque markers and ledgers at grade sinking into the ground.
Are the construction techniques for modern monuments such that the safety of visitors to historic churchyards is at a greater risk? Is it the responsibility of the churches to dictate to modern monument installers a code of conduct? Is this a local issue or is it wide spread? Historic construction practice finds that markers of numerous pieces were cut or carved to fit together like puzzle pieces, each locking into the other; in the case of stone chest tombs or tablets cut with a tab to fit neatly into the opening in the base (die in socket). A die on a flat base would be connected with large iron pins and lime mortar. It is surprising that the manufacturers of today do not follow this historic example. Connection between multiple pieces can only be truly secure when pins are in place along with the adhesive. Sheer weight should not be used as a connecting mechanism.
This paper will look closely at the conservation issues now facing the historic church yards on the peninsula of Charleston, SC. Specifically looking at examples of modern monument failure, its causes and offering some solutions for the future.
Frances Henderson Ford has both undergraduate and graduate degrees in Historic Preservation (College of Charleston; University of Pennsylvania). She has had a long-standing interest in materials conservation, and in graduate school concentrated in that area, particularly the field of paint and ornamental plaster conservation. She currently works as an independent conservator as well as heading conservation initiatives for Richard Marks Restoration, a nationally known restoration contracting company based in Charleston. In addition to her work focusing on historic interiors, she is much in demand for her skills in cemetery restoration and stone conservation, and has been entrusted with the repair of some of the oldest graves in Charleston.
Frances is an active scholar as well as a practitioner, and has participated in conferences up and down the east coast, as well as internationally. She has a long-standing interest in the important 19th-century Philadelphia marble mason, John Struthers. She continues to research and document the work of Struthers and his company. Her paper entitled, with “feelings of reverence for departed greatness” will be published in the fall issue of Change Over Time. She serves as a conservation lecturer for the Clemson/College of Graduate Program in Historic Preservation teaching HP 810 Conservation Lab, HP 811 Advanced Architectural Conservation and HP 819 Investigation, Documentation and Conservation.