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Make it Better than it Was: Poor Design and New Problems in Cemetery Restoration”

Robert Russell
Director, Program in Historic Preservation and Community Planning

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 halfofthe 19th century. The box tomb was grander than a
simple headstone, but not as fancy (or expensive) as a more elaborate form of 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 of 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 points of a box tomb’s design are primarily that it

  • relies on the weight of the 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;
  • that the side panels are held in place by only the most tenuous means:
    shallow channels cut in the comer legs and thin iron or copper pins set in holes in the top
    edges of the legs and side and end panels; and
  • 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 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.

Key issues: engineering challenges, stone, masonry, metals.

Robert Russell 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 cemetery conservation and restoration for that program, and has
worked for a number of years as a restorer of monuments and tombs in Charleston and

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National Center for Preservation Technology and Training
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