Soapstone marker at Reddies River Cemetery, Wilkes County, NC.

Soapstone marker at Reddies River Cemetery, Wilkes County, NC.

We field a lot of cemetery and headstone questions at NCPTT. The most common question is how to clean grave markers. The second most common is where to get funds for cemetery care, I am still looking for that answer. However, we can usually help with the first question. Generally, cemetery stewards around the country are caring for marble, limestone, or granite markers with lots of slate, sandstone, and brownstone mixed in.  I still get the rare wooden or iron marker question, and I look forward to the occasional question about concrete markers, which are some of my favorite.

However, in all my years of questions only once has anyone asked me about soapstone. This is either that people are not interested or that they do not know what soapstone is. I hope this post covers both of those possibilities.

Soapstone is a metamorphic stone composed mostly of talc. A relatively soft stone it is easily quarried and carved, for this reason it has been used to mark graves all along the Southern Appalachian Region. In this area most soapstone is in the blue or green range of colors. It appears to with stand weathering well and most headstones that I have personally documented were very readable. Commonly these stones are very vernacular, having been carved by family members or by local craftsman but not by formal monument shops.

Vernacular stone showing mower damage.

Vernacular stone showing mower damage.

If a soapstone marker is in the need of cleaning. I would only recommend the softest of brushes and water, I  have used a baby hair brush with great results. The biggest thing to keep in mind it how very soft this stone is, some soapstones have a value of 1 to 2 on the Mohs Hardness Scale. When cleaning or working around soapstone exercise patience and care not to scratch or damage the stone.

The largest enemy of the soapstone grave marker is careless landscaping practices, so if your site has

Soapstone marker showing scratches from mower.

Soapstone marker showing scratches from mower.

soapstone markers special care should be taken around them when weed eating or mowing.

If you are interested in seeing more pictures of soapstone markers, I suggest the excellent book “Sticks and Stones, Three Centuries of North Carolina Gravemarkers” by M. Ruth Little.

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3 Responses to What about Soapstone?

  1. Jason, I was THRILLED to find this post! These gravestones are for my relatives who died in Wilkes County, NC. L. Whittington (1770-1856) was Leonard Whittington, my 4th great grandfather! The other stones are also from Wilkes County. Did these photos come from M. Ruth Little’s book “Sticks and Stones”?

  2. Jason Church says:

    Barbara,
    I am glad you found the post interesting. These pictures are not from “Sticks and Stones” they are my own. My family is from Wilkes County, NC and most of my family is buried in Reddies River Cemetery. The second picture is from Charity United Methodist Church Cemetery.

  3. Linda Ellis says:

    Jason, please share with us your thoughts about the methods for cleaning all types of tombstones that you are aware are considered unapproved by most conservators; i.e. being as specific as possible citing the products and procedures that are not endorsed regardless of the composition or condition of a gravestone. Surely, there have to be some.

    In some areas of our country cemetery preservation workshop attendees are instructed to use high-speed rotating plastic wheels on power drill type tools that scale or peel back some of the surface of a gravestone. The practice of putting this type of a power tool on a tombstone for cleaning and removing lichens, and making the carving and inscriptions more readable; has been justified with the assertion the gravestone afterward is returned to the state it was in when it was new. This type of practice continues almost unchallenged at least in Ohio and Indiana that I am aware of.

    Another example, is using cleaning solutions such as “Wet and Forget” which can be bought at local hardware stores. I know the product D/2 Biological Solution has been generally approved by NCPTT, however, it can be too expensive for some to use. Could you suggest an accepted alternative as a comparable cleaning solution, if one is being considered, other than plain water? And, what about water? I have heard only distilled water should be used to clean headstones, is that the case?

    I feel more specifics are needed to be openly discussed and published on line by the NCPTT regarding products — naming them by product name — that are in general use and, sadly, being demonstrated at hands-on cemetery preservation workshops by those who operate businesses in this field implying they are doing very little harm to gravestones in the process.

    There are several common generalized “Do’s and Don’ts” published for what to apply or not to apply on gravestones to clean them and make them more readable. However, we are at a stage where this issue has gone beyond awareness that chalk and shaving cream are bad for gravestones. We are looking at serious long-term irreversible damage being done to America’s historic gravestones in the name of preservation without serious steps being taken to stop it. Thank you.

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