No matter what we do in the future, the Society’s cemetery projects will, without a doubt, always be my favorite! It’s also the subject that I get asked about the most. Where do you even start? What should you watch out for? How do you restore a cemetery without doing more harm than good? What tools do should you bring? There’s so many questions, but look no further! Here are some of my cemetery restoration tips.
1. Safety always comes first. You are not replaceable. Tools are, and headstones can be repaired. Watch for dangerous animals, especially the copperheads that infest Mason County. Use your tools with care, and make sure that anyone operating a power tool knows what they’re doing. Also, and I can’t believe I have to say this, watch out for needles and other drug paraphernalia.
2. Dress appropriately. This goes hand-in-hand with #1. If you have to restore a cemetery, chances are pretty good that it’s completely overgrown. This means that you’ll be literally neck deep in briars, and they tend to fight back. There’s also all kinds of creepy-crawleys that would love to suck your blood. Don’t give them the chance.
3. Pick a cemetery that you can handle. If it’s just going to be and a couple friends, you probably shouldn’t start with Lone Oak Cemetery in Point Pleasant. (That one is fine, by the way.) I’ve learned that, on average, 5 good workers can get the brush off of about 10 graves per day. This means that small groups should focus on cemeteries with less than 50 burials. 5 people can clear that in 5 work days. Anything over 50 burials should probably be left for a larger project.
4. As an added point to number three, make sure that you have permission to work on the cemetery. You need to get permission from the owners of the cemetery, both the landowner and the families with burials there, before you touch anything.
5. DOCUMENT EVERYTHING. The whole point of a cemetery restoration is to preserve the information within. Before you even start, document the overall condition of the cemetery, as well as every headstone you can find. As you clean out the brush, document any more headstones you discover, and once you finish, document the overall condition again. This is just as much about protecting you as it is collecting the information. That way, someone can’t blame you for previous damage. You can pull out your documentation and point out that it was that way when you found it.
6. Power tools are your best friend. Most of the overgrown cemeteries in Mason County don’t just need the grass cut. They’re full of thick briars, and you’ll likely also have to remove some large trees. To get the job done, I recommend heavy-duty weedeaters and chainsaws. If you can find one, an old walk-behind gravely also does wonders. But again, keep rule #1 in mind.
7. Don’t underestimate the simple solutions. Sometimes hand tools can get where power tools can’t. It’s best to keep a shovel, a set of loppers, and some wire cutters on hand.
8. Be selective in what you destroy! Briars and dead trees obviously have to go. However, some plants are as much a part of the cemetery as the headstones. Easter lilies, cedar trees, and other decorative plants aren’t natural. They were put there on purpose, sometimes over a hundred years ago. It’s also nice to leave some of the healthier trees for shade.
9. Leave the headstones to the professionals. I know that fixing the headstones is an important part of any cemetery project, but it’s really easy to do more harm than good here. Certain types of stone, especially sandstone, are more vulnerable to breaking than others. Even something as simple as trying to clean the headstone can destroy what little inscription is left. In the future, I’m planning on using one of our cemetery cleanups to teach volunteers how to correctly clean and restore headstones.
The next meeting of the Mason County Historical and Preservation Society will be on Saturday, May 12, at 3 p.m. at the Mason County Library. The group will be planning cemetery projects for this summer.