To Do: Migrate

This presentation is part of the International Cemetery Preservation Summit, April 8-10, 2014 Niagara Falls, NY.

Down to Earth: Conservation Decision-Making for Historic Cemeteries by Katharine Untch

Katharine: Thank you very much. It’s a pleasure to be here, and I want to especially thank the conference organizers, Jason Church and Mary Striegel, NCPTT, not only for this valuable opportunity, but also just for the exchange of ideas and for the many years in advancing conservation of historic cemeteries. When I first started working on cemeteries, I think it was 2006, Jason was extremely helpful in sharing some of his ideas, which enabled me to further some of my own, and I’d like to share all of them with you today, but in the interest of time, I think I’m going to focus on the why part, the decision-making part for preservation.

Cemetery preservation carries with it a weighted responsibility to reconnect the past with the present, the physical and the spiritual, the human and the divine. Cemeteries provide a sense of our place within the human and spiritual world, a place of family, a sense of belonging and ancestry, a place of love and worship and of spirituality. They may also contribute to popular family-vacation destinations, as I showed here at Bodie California State Park, where the cemetery is a contributing factor to a Wild West ghost town.

Historic cemeteries can be as unique as the individuals who populate them. No two cemeteries are exactly alike, so there’s no one, single best solution, no one-size-fits-all for determining a preservation approach. When faced with decisions on how best to preserve cemeteries, several complex factors impact how they are maintained and preserved. A review of the literature identifies several helpful publications, including how-to guides, from identifying features and material, to navigating through planning and management, to cleaning and repairs.

Bodie California National Park

Bodie California National Park

I found these to be extremely helpful in defining challenges with some specific solutions, but the actual critical thinking and decision-making process in determining best approaches for various cemetery sites still warrants some further exploration. The Getty Conservation Institute and others have presented emerging trends and modalities for heritage-site preservation planning, promulgating sustainable and preventive approaches, employing risk assessments and value-based decision-making.

During this conference, I urge us to be thinking of a decision-making framework, while absorbing and contemplating what promises to be a wealth of information in presenting the ideas that will be presented before us. One of the typical modalities in decision-making is the decision-making tree, and here I offer a basic version on the left and an adaptation on the right. On first glance, this looks kind of like a flow chart or an arm chart, but the unique factor is that on the left, each branch constitutes a previous decision factor here, and then we have nodes, which are the points of decision.

As I said, no two cemeteries are exactly alike. Therefore, it would make sense that if we advance through a decision tree for each site, the preservation plan and treatment outcomes for one cemetery will likely differ from another with a variety of different possible outcome scenarios. You can, by the way, imagine this extended because there’s many choices. It could go all the way around it. Okay.

Similarly, the prescribed repairs to, let’s say, a broken headstone are likely to differ, depending on who you talk to. A little scenario: a few years back, I had a little skiing accident, a little tumble with an injury. I went to the doctor, and the doctor said, “Oh, painkillers, no problem.” I went to the chiropractor. “You need chiropractic treatment.” I went to the physical therapist. “You need physical therapy.” My mother, who’s a Christian Scientist, of course said, “No, you need Christian Science healing.” Of course, the point I’m trying to make is that sometimes the treatment recommendations are more dependent on who’s doing the recommendation than on the physical attributes of the broken headstone.

I would actually go further to propose that perhaps the person who did their master’s thesis on, say, marble adhesive repairs might be more likely to prescribe that kind of a repair, or somebody experienced at cleaning stone might be more likely to prescribe some form of cleaning, where maybe cleaning isn’t the highest priority on that particular site. It could be skipped maybe altogether.

Identification for Emergency Intervention

Identification for Emergency Intervention

In my own experience, I’ve seen various scenarios of what I like to call linear project approaches, as shown in just a handful of possible scenarios on the screen. Base projects with linear communications will likely result in different treatments and preservation outcomes. How many of us have seen projects where contractual agreements or phased discrete phases in a project will limit the communications? Perhaps the surveyor isn’t able to communicate directly with the planner, or the conservator or trades are asked to conduct repairs without being consulted in an earlier assessment or planning phase.

How often have we found that, despite best efforts, the prescribed implementation path is limited by earlier assumptions, and more feasible methodologies are discovered after a plan is completed, but before consulting with those who are more experienced in the repair work at the end? Or the opposite occurs where budgets escalate because those most knowledgeable with the repair options were not consulted earlier in the planning. Once in a while, we’ll have a situation where people conducting the repairs aren’t on board only because they weren’t consulted earlier on.

A preferred approach is to convene a team with open dialogue and communication. The person sitting at the table at the onset of a project and the authorities that they hold can significantly impact the outcomes of a cemetery site and its preservation. Imagine, for example, that we have a strong owner/planner relationship at the table, but do not bring in the funders, the conservator, or the maintenance staff. We may have very different outcomes of our preservation plan than if the folks at the table include a different mix, for example. It is for this reason that forming a balanced resource-and-planning team at the onset and opening dialogues will enhance the decision-making process and hopefully lead to a more feasible plan.

When devising a preservation-and-treatment plan, it helps to first consider some of the overarching site criteria. Let’s look at some of these factors impacting sustainable preservation outcomes for cemeteries. Factors will typically include some of the criteria listed here, but of course, this is not an exhaustive list. Their priority and impact on the site will depend on the decision-making process guided by the individuals that are involved.

When contemplating appropriate preservation planning and physical-treatment options, I often think of the recording sounding board. I want to credit Michael Henry, who teaches at U Penn, for this idea. I think it’s a great one. One can think of each of the criteria as a knob on the sound board, and they move up and down depending on the level of relative priority of these various criteria. This is the image that always helps remind me that nothing is set in stone and that criteria priorities need to be actively balanced for a system to work in harmony.

Another critical factor in the decision-making process is the gathering of useful information, and I mean useful. The research-documentation surveys and assessments will help formulate a more complete picture as part of developing a preservation plan. We have the option of requesting information to be streamlined or targeted just to meet the highest priorities of the site and thereby expending funds in a … Maybe there are limited funds, and we can expend them in a prioritized manner. If a survey is to be undertaken, which choices would provide the most useful information? What types of surveys or series of surveys are needed? Who conducts the survey? I think it’s the site that will actually dictate some of these questions.

As an example of information gathering and its impact on the decision-making process, I just want to look more closely at surveys and assessments. I’ll divide the example into three levels, and depending on the site needs and budgets, one might achieve any one of these levels or some other variations. In this example, a basic survey might include general site issues and/or plot-by-plot specific observations. Physical attributes such as broken headstones or lichens might be noted. This level of survey could be done by volunteer staff, conservators, or others.

If a conservator is to conduct the survey, he or she will likely note physical attributes, but may also provide a little more in-depth information about those attributes, their causes, and options for remediation, which brings us to another level. If one is to expend funds for a professional to conduct a physical-site survey, the scope might be expanded, that’s noted in this slide, resulting in increased team communications. Including the development of a massive preservation plan in the scope of work for the conservator or surveyors provides the additional bonus for team interactions and discussions of the site values and project criteria, possibly even before the surveys are conducted. Again, this will likely result in a more feasible preservation plan.

Then if it’s possible to identify a conservator or somebody experienced with cemetery who also knows how to employ a risk-assessment approach, the outcomes can provide the tools necessary to determine where resources can be best spent for increased return of investment. This is an approach that maximizes sustainability and feasibility for long-term cemetery preservation.

For example, it may be too simplistic to say lichens deteriorate stone, and therefore, we should remove all the lichens. With the risk-assessment approach, one would determine the rate of stone deterioration from the lichens versus from other factors. The frequency and severity of the deterioration factors will help to determine projected rates of deterioration and allow the conservator to determine which factors should be addressed in priority order. Perhaps some preventive measures might be a more effective solution than repeated cleaning of the stones.

Obviously, this level of survey and assessment recommendations is likely to cost more, but we also need to be thinking about where to put our limited resources. Oftentimes, putting resources up front in the planning will pay off dividends down the line, and the stronger the planning, usually the more competitive the fund-raising, especially for grants.

In my own experience, I’ve also seen a little bit of the opposite. I see cemeteries, maybe the sites look neglected and headstones are broken, so funds are expended immediately to just fix whatever is aesthetically disfiguring, or maybe a community group wants to clean the headstones just to make them look better. These well-intended fixes are often just putting out fires without looking at the overall site-preservation needs that may include other priorities such as improving security or public education to deter vandalism. Sometimes it costs less to instigate preventive programs than to continually spend money on repairs. I’ve offered this just as a little example of the decision-making with the information-gathering phase. If we think back to that decision tree, we can see how the type and quality of information can impact some of the decision nodes, resulting in a variety of outcomes.

If we skip forward a few steps to treatment options, we can utilize the same decision tree as established during the prior information-gathering and planning phases. I’d like to demonstrate that actual physical-treatment choices will be dependent on those same priority-site criteria as established by the decision-making team. Someone not familiar with the field of conservation might think that treatment solutions need not be addressed early in the information-gathering and planning phases. Some assume that treatments are always based on the latest research, are cut and dry, or instead the conservators or restorers just experiment and hope the treatment lasts as long as possible. There’s some truth in all of these approaches.

Shasta Catholic Cemetery, California Historic Park

Shasta Catholic Cemetery, California Historic Park

Even given the best available scientific research, present treatment choices are almost peppered with options and the opportunity to exercise our critical-thinking and decision-making skills. It is not a given that one treatment method for one site applies best to every other site. Hence, integrating treatment options into the early phases of preservation planning is paramount to achieving long-term sustainable preservation goals.

Now, when I look at options, I like to teach students and young conservators to think if/then rather than good/bad. All too often, we’ll look at a prior treatment result and we’ll think of all the negative aspects of why that didn’t work anymore, and we forget to take into consideration all the criteria and constraints that came along with that preventive decision tree, that previous decision tree, and we simply overlay our own current point of views onto a process that we weren’t involved with in the first place, right?

Instead, I like to teach students to think, “If we did X, then Y is likely to happen,” and to be able to articulate those choices and the reasons behind them to other team members and document on paper, or however it’s documented, the decision-making process, not just what the decision results are. For example, if we clean marble with bleach, the stones will probably look whiter, and notice I didn’t say better because that’s a good/bad value judgment right there. But the stones may also deteriorate faster over time due to chemical reactions between the marble and the bleach.

As another example, there have been many solutions to mending stone markers, each with its own set of pros and cons, so here’s how I like to look at these things. I just show a couple of examples here. It’s important to focus on both what does work, as well as what could be improved upon in the future, as it is rare to never that a perfect solution ever exists. Again, it’s about weighing those pros and cons and coming up with the best solution for a particular set of circumstances.

Here I show some previous solutions for repairing stone markers. The external iron pins, the two on the left, have the advantage of having their locations known, not having to use polymeric adhesives, connecting broken parts, removing little original stone, and being easily monitored. The cons might be that they can rust and expand over time, thereby pushing away segments of stone. Line pinning, the two on the right, has an advantage of being more aesthetically pleasing, but it removes more stone material. The locations and length of the pins are not always obvious or have to be documented, and further stresses that the pin termini may cause new breakage or spalling of the stone.

Then there are the pros and cons of different dowelling materials, inert metals, fiberglass, carbon fiber, et cetera, et cetera, and these are each with their own sets of pros and cons. Rather than just saying pinning or a particular material is good or bad, an experienced conservator should be able to articulate these pros and cons and allow the team to incorporate the information into an effective preservation-and-treatment plan.

Similarly, I’ll show here’s some examples of external armature. Again, I want to give my appreciation to Jason Church for sharing some of his images. The advantages here might be that very little of the original stone is further damaged. There’s little to no need for adhesives that can be difficult to reverse later on, and they are sturdy and allow visitors to understand the historic and fragile nature of the markers. A disadvantage for some sites might be certain aesthetic concerns.

With the setting of markers, we also have choices. On the left are headstones set in rows of cement. The advantages are the cement provides straight rows to facilitate lawn mowing. The cement holds the stones upright with minimal tilt from ground shifting. The disadvantages are that the cement is more rigid than the stones and have a tendency to break off near the base. The cement would also be difficult to remove from the softer stone surfaces, should treatment need to be redone or removed.

The center illustrates setting rows of stones in a veterans’ cemetery, where a system of cement blocks are set underground, and then it aligns them in straight rows below grade. These, then, are being used to receive each headstone. On the right, the image shows setting headstones and historic face stones that are then reburied with gravel and landscaper’s cloth, both for drainage purposes and to delineate where the soil was disturbed when excavated. Now, each of these solutions demonstrates a different set of site priorities. The example on the left, we might say, prioritizes landscaping maintenance. The example in the middle prioritizes a militaristic aesthetic and re-treatability. The example on the right prioritizes preserving archaeological evidence.

How will site priorities affect treatments? Let’s look at just two different cemeteries for comparison. What I’ve selected here is a military cemetery active from World War II to the present, and I’m contrasting the aesthetics of this cemetery with the aesthetics and functionality from a 19th-century, historic, Gold-Rush-era cemetery. The Gold-Rush cemetery is historic and inactive. It is in a forest setting with steep slopes and can be reached only by hiking in. The veterans’ cemetery is in an urban setting and is easily accessible by vehicles. The Gold-Rush cemetery had been vandalized in the 1980s, and keeping it secure was of highest priority. These are just some of the factors that

Veterens Cemetery, Los Angeles, California

Veterens Cemetery,
Los Angeles, California

contribute to deciding on treatment options.

The criteria priorities had a large impact on the treatment strategies. Here I show a set of prioritized criteria. Note that they differ for each site. How did these priorities impact the actual treatment and maintenance? Well, at the Gold Rush cemetery, everything used for treatment, including scaffolding to repair a larger monument, had to be hand carried up or downhill to the site. Repairs to headstones were custom designed. The decision to use internal dowelling was also due to aesthetic criteria, as well as security, and the site’s history of vandalism.

Removal of bio-growth was limited to broken edges, only for rejoining pieces. Removing bio-growth from exterior stone surfaces was not feasible in the long run because of limited resources to maintain that clean surface. Other reasons for not cleaning were that the rate of stone deterioration from bio-growth, as determined by a risk assessment, did not appear too severe at that particular cemetery’s environment. Instead, the overall aesthetic of the site outweighed the need for cleaning.

In contrast, repairs at the veterans’ cemetery were also dependent on aesthetics, but the aesthetic was a different one. It was clean white marbles in these straight militaristic rows. Due to ground movement, several markers had sunk or tilted, destroying the visually-perfect rows. A system was devised then to reset the markers while avoiding placing them in direct contact with cement, like we saw in the earlier example. This newer system also provides a more flexible method in an active cemetery for setting new markers or just replacing old ones as needed.

In this final example, let’s explore how the criteria can differ by region or resources, but not by materials. I show you a comparison between two Gold-Rush-era cemeteries. The cemetery in California has the historic and aesthetic similarities with the same-era cemetery in Ballarat in Australia. When I visited both these cemeteries, I was intrigued at how the Irish Catholic iconographies on the headstones and the materials were also so similar, including iron-work fences and plot designs. During gold fever, some of the same people, hungry for gold, went to one, two, or all three of these Gold Rush regions, all active around the same time in Alaska, California, and Australia.

Even though the materials were very similar, the preservation solutions differ between the California and the Australia cemetery sites. I think this is in part due to regional circumstances, which might include differences in climate, resources, regional training, and local restoration and maintenance traditions. They probably also differ as to who was sitting at that decision-making table. In Australia, many of the broken headstones were temporarily or semi-permanently laid flat. It appeared that broken pieces set aside were not disturbed for quite a long time. The Ballarat cemetery had a variety of physical solutions that included just loose gravel, used to fill disturbed or broken areas.

Let’s examine the prioritized site criteria between these two cemeteries. On the left, we have a remote forested setting for the one in California, and on the right, urban access for the one in Australia. The cemetery in California had been abandoned for a period of time, and several of its markers became disassociated from their plots, either from theft, vandalism, but also from sliding downhill or being buried in eroded soils. In Australia, the cemetery had a governing trust established in 1854, and in discussion with the cemetery director, it appears that the governance continued more or less uninterrupted until the present day.

How do these varied site criteria affect the preservation plan? Here I show some possible comparisons and planning schemes. For the California site, securing small broken pieces off-site was paramount until repairs could be done. Next, site security was a priority, then locating and mending additional missing markers. In Australia, the priorities evident are the grounds maintenance and monitoring, keeping broken markers associated within the plots, using temporary gravel to cover damaged plots, and raising funds from plot families for further repairs.

How did these varied site criteria affect the actual physical treatments? At the California site, we used blind pinning, mostly due to high-security and aesthetic concerns. The owner needed the markers to look whole to deter further vandalism and did not want exterior armatures, such as some of the examples we saw earlier, so as not to detract from the overall historic aesthetic of the cemetery. We had to devise a blind pinning system that could withstand seismic activity, soil erosion, and snow pack.

We did not coat the iron or use any rust inhibitors. The reasons were that the rate of iron deterioration was so slow that it did not warrant the cost of surface treatments that would likely not be maintained due to lack of resources in the future. The other reason the iron surfaces were not treated was to retain the historic weathered aesthetic. One of the iron fence surrounds had been previously coated several times, but having a newly-painted plot fence surrounded by several unpainted features would stand out and look too modern. Hence, the owner did not want it to be a priority to re-coat at this time. Note, however, in this … Now, in this example that I’m giving, the security and the aesthetic criteria seemed to outweigh most of the other criteria for that site.

At the Australia cemetery, broken markers could be laying directly on the plot to await further treatment. The fact that the cemetery is actively monitored and maintained probably deters theft and allows for this type of temporary solution. The use of gravel, in my opinion, is also very clever. The gravel can be used in combination with a weed barrier such as landscaper’s cloth. The solution appears neat and tidy, avoids root growth that can interfere with historic masonry, avoids having to maintain grass or plant material or removal of weeds, facilitates drainage, and is easily reversible at such time that further repairs can be conducted. Some of the cast-iron architectural features in the Australia site had been re-coated, while several of the other plot fences remained uncoated.

In summarizing, my hope is to leave you with a few take-away points. Cemetery preservation is an ongoing decision-making process. It is dependent on each site’s criteria and priorities. The backgrounds and experience of team members have an impact on the outcomes. The type and depth of information gathering will impact decision-making, and the type of physical treatments are dependent on site goals, criteria, and priorities. Using the approach of “this is the most current method for mending stone” or “this is the most effective way to clean marble” is not really the approach we should be looking for. Instead, we should continue to gather data from a team of specialists and stakeholders, develop a master plan that incorporates information from all parties and then determines preservation treatment methods that are appropriate to each unique site. No two cemeteries are alike, and we should expect variant preservation and treatment solutions to cater to each site.

I hope that this short presentation was sufficient to get us thinking about this decision-making framework as we weigh the options that will be further presented during the conference. This is a marvelous opportunity to discuss and digest challenges and possible solutions that lay before us. I greatly appreciate the efforts of the NCPTT and also to my fellow speakers and look forward to learning more about how we move forward with the preservation of these highly-significant treasures of history and culture, our cemeteries.


Historic cemeteries can be as unique as the individuals who populate them. When faced with decisions on how best to preserve cemeteries, several complex factors impact how they are maintained and preserved. This paper will focus on the decision?making process for addressing the physical preservation needs of cemeteries. Some of the factors impacting sustainable preservation outcomes include context, environment, resources, significance, visitation, location, physical attributes, stakeholder opinions, aesthetics, and the qualifications and experience of those conducting the planning or work. A military cemetery dating from WWII to the present will contrast in aesthetics and functionality from a nineteenth?century Gold Rush?era cemetery. By the same token, a nineteenth century Gold Rush?era cemetery in California has obvious historic similarities with an Australian cemetery of the same context; however, preservation solutions will differ due to regional circumstances, including differences in climate, resources, regional training, and local restoration or maintenance traditions. The presentation will outline a decision?making process to help conservators and stewards navigate potential strategies, briefly covering a variety of preservation approaches illustrated with examples from different cemeteries, with comments on the relative merits and efficacy of these approaches. The presentation will draw upon field experience particularly at the Shasta State Historic Park Catholic Cemetery—a Gold Rush cemetery whose rehabilitation was awarded a Preservation Design Award by the California Preservation Foundation last year—as well as the San Francisco and Los Angeles National Cemeteries. The presentation will serve as a helpful corollary to and tie?in with individual case study presentations.

Speaker Bio

Katharine Untch has over 25 years of experience in the conservation of three?dimensional art, archaeological, and architectural materials, with particular strengths in planning and project management. A Fellow of the American Institute for Conservation (AIC), she has extensive experience with outdoor sculpture and monuments, as well as a variety of materials in both interior and exterior contexts. As Director of Professional Education on the AIC board and Project Specialist at the Getty Conservation Institute, she expanded continuing education opportunities for conservators nationally and internationally. As former Director of Conservation at ARG Conservation Services, an award?winning design?build conservation construction company based in San Francisco, Katharine has led several cemetery conservation projects, including a multi?year conservation project at the Shasta State Historic Park Catholic Cemetery.  Katharine’s own business has provided conservation, education, planning, grant writing and consulting services for a variety of clientele since 1984.


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