Soon after I started researching my genealogy a Pioneer Cemetery in rural Missouri was discovered on my paternal line. The beginning of this adventure was blogged about here and here. Now that I found this cemetery, which is filled with my Blackwell family ancestors, I was determined to clean it up.
Most tombstones were leaning, broken, buried or disintegrated in the cemetery.
The ground cover was completely taken over by the forest floor. As I stood looking all around I admit that I thought, ‘Now what?’ I was lucky to be with my father and sister who also had the same desire to clean up this cemetery. We got in our car for the long drive home which provided us ample time to discuss our first steps.
I began a massive deep dive into researching cemetery clean up.
This particular cemetery is located an hour from my home, on private property, no amenities anywhere near and on a hill in the middle of a forest. The first thing I knew we needed was more people to help with our initial clean up day. I had to appeal to family and friends to give up a weekend day, drive 1-2 hours away, bring supplies (weed-eaters, gas, string, chainsaws, clippers, rakes), along with special techniques to follow.
people graciously accepted the challenge! I was so thankful and actually I still am.
Before we could begin the first leg of cleanup, which was reclaiming the space from the forest, we had to flag the tombstone locations. Some were obvious and standing tall but we had to search for the others. We scoured the thicket for broken stone locations and foot-stones. This allowed us to come up with plans on how to move forward with cleanup and know where to walk and work successfully.
7 important tips I learned for initial cemetery preservation:
- Fertilizers are to be avoided in cemetery plots. The chemicals will accelerate tombstone erosion. If fertilizer must be used it should be an Organic type where it doesn’t come in direct stone contact and you have to consider rain runoff (especially sandstone tombstones).
- You must not weed-eat directly around a tombstone. The string will knick away at the integrity of the stones and more so on fragile stone materials you will find in Pioneer Cemeteries.
- Do not try and mow directly around the stones. The machinery can also damage the integrity of the stone bases and can move them or knock them over.
- You cannot drag tree branches through a cemetery. Even if you think its just on the forest floor you may be wrong as there could be a stone hiding or you can accidentally damage known stones. The branches have to be lifted and carried out (which would be a reason to bring a chainsaw).
- Do not move tombstones, pieces or combine stone fragments. Until you are ready to focus on stone repair leave the stones were they fell.
- Take down small trees/bushes that are growing. Leave large trees as the grow (even if disrupting to a stone). The removal can cause more damage to surrounding stones.
- Rake gently around tombstones and not with a metal on.
We were prepared as much as we could be and set the date, informed the land owner of our plans and prayed for good weather!
We also had to come up with a plan for a makeshift bathroom, supply lunch and drinks, and bring a complete first-aid kit. These action items were the easiest to plan but it was just more to add to the to-do list. Once the day arrived we were blessed with the commitment of people to help and great weather. We made, as a group, wonderful progress in one day.
The next step in the process, before i left that day, was to document the tombstones, layout, and damage as it currently rested.
I took photos, notes and videos. This helped me begin the next phase of planning of uprighting, straightening, cleaning, and repairing the stones. This cemetery is also blessed with a beautiful wrought iron fence and door surrounding the graveyard. The fence also sustained damage from trees and erosion throughout the years.
At that point my focus was then on tombstone care, planning the next cleanup day and keeping my motivation.
Want to learn more about cemetery preservation? Check out classes offered here!
Have you restored a pioneer graveyard before? Its no joke! Tell me all about it.