To Do: Migrate

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

Not Seeing the Cemetery for the Monuments: Understanding the Importance of Preservation Assessments by Michael Trinkley and Debi Hacker

Michael:  My talk today deals with how, as conservators, we see the cemeteries in which we work. First, a little bit about us and the biases that we bring, collectively, to the table. Chicora’s been around for about 30 years. We’re small, non-endowed, non-profit. Our cemetery preservation work assessment, treatments, or both has taken us from Maine, south to Florida and from the Carolinas, west to Montana. This map shows the location of the 50 assessments we’ve performed over the past two decades. The 34 location preformed only treatments and the 18 locations where assessments were followed by treatments.

We’re extremely fortunate to have been allowed to see so many cemeteries in so many different locations. It is, perhaps, the breadth of our work that suggests a need to look beyond the stone and into the cemetery as a whole. As conservators focusing on objects, it becomes very easy for us to concentrate on the stone and its condition while overlooking the environment in which the stone is found, the cemetery. This is an example of what has been called target fixation; being so focused on the target, in this case the monument, that we become unable to see the mountain we’re heading toward. Of course, in our case the mountain is vandalism, abusive landscape maintenance, over-eager pedestrian, unpruned trees, caregivers with no understanding of cemetery needs, and has been brought out, a lack of funding.

In the field of objects conservation, the importance of the environment was discussed in detail by Garry Thomson, “Museum Environment”, as early as 1978. A decade later, Barbara Appelbaum’s “Guide to Environmental Protection of Collections” refocused attention on the role that the environment plays in the longevity of collections. She even provides a specific chapter on the importance of the non-conservator in the preservation of collections. Even more popular publications, such as “Caring For Your Collections” and Sotheby’s “Caring For Antiques” provide information on how temperature, humidity, pollution, and other environmental factors affect collections.

Object conservators would rarely repair an oil painting and then hand it back to their client, knowing it was going, once again, to be hung over a smoky fireplace in a country log cabin with no temperature or humidity control, and yet it seems that we as stone conservators do the equivalent when we repair monuments with full knowledge that the cemetery is poorly staffed, there’s no security, and no money for appropriate lawn or monument maintenance. Our point is that there seems to be a greater balance in the world of objects conservation than there is in the world of cemetery preservation. By stepping back and looking at the cemetery rather than just the monuments, we conservators may be able to provide clients with more cost-effective and targeted preservation options.

Conservators, with our intimate knowledge of stone deterioration factors, broad preservation backgrounds, are the perfect choice to evaluate broader cemetery context, including issues of vehicular and pedestrian access, lighting and security issues, problems with cemetery fixtures and furnishings, the impact of landscape choices as well as landscape maintenance issues, issues such as trash and signage, and of course, the conservation needs of stones and ironwork in the cemetery.

mowing in cemetery

Inappropriate mowing practices for historic cemeteries.

Conservators are also uniquely able to evaluate options and identify those having the greatest potential to improve the long-term preservation of the cemetery. We’d like to spend a few moments exploring the range of issues we pursue when conducting cemetery assessments. Although the depth and breadth of assessments will vary from a quarter-acre family cemetery to a 30-acre municipal cemetery, there are common threads. We begin the broad range of administrative issues, or we begin looking at those issues. For example, we incorporate a section that helps caregivers understand conservation and preservation and the difference between conservation and restoration.

We provide an explanation why it is important to preserve cemeteries and the contribution they make to a community’s quality of life. We explain what the Secretary of Interior Standards for Preservation mean in the context of cemetery work. We provide a brief history, helping place the cemetery in a broader community and mortuary context. We then drill down to the cemetery in its current context, looking at landscape setting, vehicle, bike, and pedestrian flow patterns and the surrounding neighborhoods.

Using census track data, we explore who the neighbors are and how the cemetery may be affected. We look at factors that affect landscape character, such as soils, elevation, local climate, flood potential, drought potential, air pollution and plant hardiness zone. We view each of these issues as critical to the long-term survival of the cemetery and its monuments. Drought and temperature affect plantings, which in turn can affect the monuments. Air pollution can explain damages observed in the cemetery, and neighborhoods can either embrace the cemetery or view it as a target.

We then examine administrative issues, such as ownership, and laws that protect the cemetery. We look at existing regulations and propose new ones that will serve to enhance long-term preservation. We examine public perceptions of the cemetery using Google to identify reviews, comments, and complaints. If available, we also explore visitation figures and whatever additional data the cemetery may routinely collect. We also carefully examine the financial records and budgets of the cemetery, looking at both where the money comes from and where it goes. We also examine the solvency of the perpetual care funds, if there are any, indeed.

We examine how vehicles access the cemetery and associated circulation concerns, such as narrow roads. It may be appropriate to close some roads with bollards, creating a more pedestrian and bike-friendly environment as well as one less threat by suburban assault vehicles. We examine the condition of curbs and roads themselves. Why? In a still-active cemetery, the conditions of the physical plant affect future purchases, and those purchases are relied on for perpetual care funds. In closed cemeteries, the condition of the infrastructure gives the cemetery an appearance of either being cared for or abandoned, and this affects the potential for vandalism.

We examine the condition of pathway and stairs in the cemetery, both as issues of liability and also for the impact these have on visitation. The presence of informal or social trails can also provide information on where pedestrians are coming from and going to. Over the past decade, we’ve seen our discussion of universal access expand from about a page to, in some cases, over five pages. While it’s true that the ADA is generally not interpreted to apply to cemeteries by the Department of Justice, this doesn’t mean that cemeteries should dismiss the issue of accessibility. We’re an aging population, and our position is that anything that can improve access will promote the long-term relevance and preservation of the cemetery. We routinely explore where accessibility can be improved, perhaps using grass reinforcement symptoms, perhaps using ADA-compliant stairs.

While we do not typically provide detailed or comprehensive assessments of structures in the cemetery, we do point out to caregivers obvious issues as well as the importance of these structures to the cemetery landscape. More attention is typically devoted to the mausoleums and receiving tombs that are found in our assessments. We are not hesitant to recommend the use of structural engineers on complex issues or situations where there’s a clear potential for public hazard. Vandalism and other security issues seem to plague more cemeteries, although regrettably, there are no specific statistics that can help evaluate the threat or guide response. We do know there are actions cemeteries can take, including access control, maintenance of fences, quick repair of damage.

In some cases, increasing the frequency of police patrols or the use of cemetery watches may make a difference. Providing rewards and demanding prosecution may also provide positive benefits. Every cemetery should have a defined mechanism for reporting vandalism. We also explore options to harden cemetery targets. We look at the cemetery and

Gates are easy targets for theft.

Gates are easy targets for theft.

say, “My, wouldn’t that gate just look lovely in our garden?” A lot of them apparently do look lovely in someone’s garden. One simple example is use of discrete stainless steel cable to prevent gates from being easily lifted off their hinges and stolen. This technique is especially attractive, as it can be used by volunteer and costs only about a dollar per gate.

Another cemetery issue we address in many cemeteries is homelessness. Our approach is simple. Homelessness is a societal issue. Being homeless is not a crime, but all cemeteries have the legal right to expect appropriate behavior. Most communities have laws against public intoxication or display of alcohol, abusive behavior or language and public indecency. It’s staff is trained to recognize problems and respond by soliciting law enforcement intervention. Homelessness does not have to affect cemetery preservation, or more importantly, perhaps, visitation.

Our view of landscape issues often represents between a third and half of our report. Not only is there much to be evaluated, but almost without exception, cemeteries are doing exceptionally poor jobs of maintaining or even managing their landscape. Often there are too few staff members, and the staff that is present is typically poorly trained or lacks training entirely. Many staff members are paid less than a living wage. It’s obvious that under such circumstances, caregivers cannot possibly provide even minimally-acceptable landscape maintenance.

Resources, such as the Department of Labor’s Occupation Employment Statistic System and the MIT Living Wage Calculator provide assistance in evaluating specific conditions. We also determine if prison labor is used in the maintenance of the cemetery. While it should be obvious that free labor is typically worth what you pay for it, most administrators seem to be oblivious to this truism. We, on the other hand, see a number of problems. Job descriptions are either nonexistent or so poorly written that job reviews are meaningless. Reporting to trustees, boards, or other supervisory agencies are often vague, so we’ve developed several reporting tools.

As you might imagine, one of the most controversial issues is the size of staff. We are firm believers in the recommendations offered in the 1989 Boston Historic Burying Grounds Initiative; two workers and one supervisor per ten acres. Perhaps surprisingly, this estimate is supported by such industry insiders as Kuplar in modern cemetery management and Myron West in establishing a successful cemetery business.

While we’re willing to be flexible, we view adequate staffing, continuity of staffing, year-round staffing, and staff training as essential for the preservation of both the cemetery landscape and the individual monuments. Too many caregivers act as if training is superfluous. This is short-sighted, even ignorant. There are national organizations, such as Planet that can provide training and safety programs in both English and Spanish as well as a wide range of regional and state organizations that also provide training and certification opportunities.

For every cemetery, we’ve begun collecting soil samples to use from a variety of locations. We decided to take this step since we found virtually no cemeteries that are routinely collecting their soils and formulating maintenance plans around the results. After examining a variety of testing labs, we’ve also standardized our tests using A&L Eastern Labs in Virginia, although there is also a California affiliate. We use the result to recommend liming in turf areas and fertilization for both trees and turf. All of our fertilization recommendations are based on slow-release organic fertilizers, since they have significantly lower salt indices than commercial inorganic fertilizers. Samples include blood meal for nitrogen, bone meal for phosphorus, and Greensand rock powder for potassium.

Maintenance of trees at most cemeteries is either non-existent or falls into the classification of butchering. We find numerous hazardous trees and inappropriately-pruned trees. Often our assessment is too late. Trees have already fallen, causing extensive monument damage. Our recommendations often include retaining an ISA certified arborist for more detailed inspections. At the very least, we provide clear instructions on appropriate pruning. However badly trees are treated, shrubs fair even worse. Most commonly, we see unnatural fanciful-shaped creations that tapers inward from the top, preventing adequate light penetration. Shears, and even nylon trimmers are used over clippers, butchering the shrubs. Only trained and certified staff should be allowed to undertake the maintenance of shrubs in the cemeteries.

As our population ages, ADA accessibility should be a priority.

As our population ages, ADA accessibility should be a priority.

Turf in many cemeteries is little more than weeds occasionally cut to the same height. Harried, poorly-trained, and often uncaring staff beat monuments to death, fail to blow off monuments, use equipment far too large, and leave tire tracks on the monuments they’ve run over. Supervision is all but nonexistent. Nylon trimmers are used without training or supervision, often scalping the grass in order to avoid trimming the next time around. Carelessness and the use of line entirely too heavy results in significant monument damage. We identify prevalent grasses and provide appropriate maintenance schedules for the grass and the climate zone that we’re working in.

Depending on the circumstances, and realizing the potential for salt damage, we may recommend some remedial herbicide applications. We may make recommendations on in-filling or lowering graves in order to make mowing easier and to prevent scalping. We may also suggest some turf renovations in areas where there is severe compaction, weed infestation or disease. We characterize signage as identification, regulatory, informational and interpretive, typically recommending improvements in that order. We encourage the removal of inappropriate signage and the development of a consistent theme, a consistent theme being something other than the highway department sign shop blew up and wound up in our cemetery with a little bit of everything.

We urge that signage not be cluttered or distract from the cemetery landscape. Other common cemetery problems include flowers, grave decorations, and trash. These distract from the cemetery landscape, increase maintenance costs. Limiting artificial flowers to seasons when cut flowers are not available may be a solution, as are posted notices of timely flower removals. Regulations should prohibit the placement of anything at the grave that will endanger maintenance workers. Proper setting of monuments will go far in reducing long-term maintenance. Although industry associations, such as the Elberton Granite Association have published proper setting information, it seems there are many low-bid monument firms that cut corners, failing to install adequate foundations and failing to appropriate pin monuments.

It’s up to the cemetery management to insist on and monitor setting procedures. We typically provide detailed recommendations for proper setting. Cemetery records are another preservation concern. While some cemeteries are passionate about holding records in supposed fireproof safes, we routinely recommend that preservation-quality photocopies be kept on site while original records be transferred to an archival repository, chosen for its ability to ensure appropriate care. Our discussions of a cemeteries stone conservation needs are no less thorough, but it is clearly one of but many issues.

We begin by explaining the standards that the caregiver should use in determining what is an appropriate repair. We outline the AIC Code of Ethics and Guidelines for practice. We review past conservation efforts, typically poor and often using copious amounts of Portland cement. We provide an overview of different stone problems present in the cemetery, such as sinking and tilting monuments, toppled monuments, broken stones, the presence of ferrous pins, examples of spalling and so forth. For each we provide a brief description of appropriate treatment, providing the caregivers with the information they need to judge the suitability of future treatment repairs.

Since cleaning seems to be something that is done regardless of need, we focus on examples of improper cleaning and provide a discussion of different cleaning methods. In addition to stone monuments, we also provide general recommendations for stone walls and iron fences, both of which seem to often be ignored to the point of collapse. Typical recommendations for fences include removal of soil and painting, treatments to stabilize the fence and help ensure its long-term preservation. Rarely do we recommend any effort at recasting or more substantial repair since funding using precludes such efforts, and there are usually far more pressing preservation needs.

Our final section reviews funding and priorities, breaking recommendations into three broad categories. First priorities are those that we recommend being undertaken during the coming fiscal or calendar year. Some are issues that have the potential to affect public health and the safety and consequently require immediate attention. Others involve administrative changes that are critical for future progress. Second priority are those that should be budgeted over the next several years, two to three years. They represent urgent issues, that if ignored, result in more significant and noticeable deterioration of the cemetery.

Third priorities, those that could be postponed for three to five years, or may require up to five years to see fruition. They’re issues that can wait for appropriations to build up to allow action. Some actions are also less significant undertakings that require other stages to be in place in order to make them feasible or likely to succeed. We warn caregivers that while these items are given a lower priority, they should not be dismissed as trivial or unimportant. Our assessments are also predicated on the simple philosophy that we don’t embrace excuses. We embrace solutions, and at most cemeteries, we receive a lot of excuses and very little focus on solutions.

Realistic budget estimates range from as little as $50,000 to upwards of $1,500,000 to $2,000,000. The bottom line is that cemeteries have received so much deferred maintenance that in many cases, their future has been placed at risk. Our review of the cemetery assessment is essentially similar to the IMLS-funded Conservation Assessment Program, where an institution receives a general conservation assessment. CAP is a tool for long-range planning and fundraising, and it is intended to help the institution develop strategies for improved collections care.

The cemetery assessment can and should serve the same purpose. There is currently no federal funding program for such assessments, making it all the more important that we, as conservators, help focus cemetery caregivers on the need to look at the cemetery rather than focusing exclusively on the stones. That’s everything I need to say today. If there’s time and there are questions, I would be happy to try and address them.


Often conservators develop what is known as “target fixation,” where they become so preoccupied with the monuments – and their treatment – that the broader cemetery context is overlooked. This can result in a great deal of funds being spent to treat objects, while overriding problems in the cemetery are overlooked. In addition, dealing with underlying problems, such as vandalism, abusive landscape maintenance, over eager pedestrians, unpruned trees may often be more cost-effective than treating individual monuments.

We suggest that stone conservators become more focused on the overall cemetery context, taking an active role in developing meaningful cemetery preservation plans that focus on issues having the potential to impact the long-term preservation of the monuments. By stepping-back and looking at the cemetery, rather than just at the monuments, conservators may be able to provide clients with more cost-effective and targeted preservation options.

Conservators, with their intimate knowledge of stone deterioration factors and broad preservation backgrounds, are the perfect choice to evaluate the broader cemetery context, including issues of vehicular and pedestrian access; lighting and security issues; problems with cemetery fixtures and finishings; the impact of landscape choices, as well as landscape maintenance issues; issues such as trash and signage; and of course the conservation needs of stones and ironwork in the cemetery.  Conservators are also uniquely able to evaluate options and identify those having the greatest potential to improve the long-term preservation of the cemetery.

This presentation will review how Chicora goes about the process of developing preservation plans for cemeteries ranging from small family plots to large multi-acre parcels.

Speaker Bio

Michael Trinkley
Dr. Trinkley has nearly 40 years of experience in cemetery preservation, receiving his undergraduate degree in Anthropology from the University of South Carolina and his graduate degrees from the University of North Carolina at Chapel Hill. He is a member of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, the Southeast Regional Conservation Association, the Association for Preservation Technology, the American Chapter International Building Limes Forum, US/ICOMOS, and the Association for Gravestone Studies. He has conducted work in South Carolina, North Carolina, Massachusetts, Maryland, Georgia, the District of Columbia, Virginia, Louisiana, Alabama, Florida, Tennessee, Indiana, Arizona, New Mexico, Oklahoma, and Montana.

Debi Hacker
Ms. Hacker received her B.A. in Anthropology from Tulane University and has a certificate in landscape maintenance. She is a member of the American Institute for Conservation of Historic and Artistic Works, the Southeast Regional Conservation Association, and the Association for Gravestone Studies, PLANT, International Society of Arboriculture, SC Nursery & Landscape Association, and the Alliance for Historic Landscape Preservation.

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