Restoring Old Cemeteries

by Hilda M. Fife, Theodore Brown and Lyle Littlefield
edited by Jonathan D. McKallip
published by Maine Old Cemetery Association
Updated 2005

Planning and Equipment

  • Choose a cemetery to work on; secure permission from owners of land or town officials.
  • Take pictures "before" starting work, "during," and "after" the restoration.
  • Clothing suitable for protection against heavy growth and sometimes poison ivy. Don't forget insect repellent, drinking water, lunch, other personal needs.

Possible equipment

For general cleanup

  • Saws
  • Scythe or weed eater
  • Ax (for tree roots)
  • Grass clippers
  • Rakes, light weight
  • Pruning shears
  • Lawn mower
  • Weeding tool
  • Edging tool

For righting a stone

  • Probe for finding a stone
  • Hand trowel
  • Garden spade
  • Tripod, pulleys, and strap
  • Measuring tape
  • Burlap or plastic bags
  • Tamping device
  • Sand, gravel, bricks

For cleaning stones

  • Brushes: nylon or fiber bristle
  • Work gloves
  • Buckets
  • Water
  • Camp seat

16 photo(s) Updated on: 19 Jun 2014
  • Headstone chosen for demonstration on May 30. Kendell K. and Jane F., children of Fullerton & Margaret Kelloch (who are buried in Village Cemetery, Thomaston). The original plan was to use this stone
  • Laurie records information on the survey sheet as Joe takes the stone's measurements.
  • Joe is testing for the presence of a base for this stone by probing with a metal rod. None
  • Digging (on the side away from the lean) revealed additional inscription below ground level. Plan of action will have to change.
  • Since the inscription continued below ground level, the entire stone will need to be removed so it can be reset with the entire inscription showing.
  • Ryan cleans the stone with water. It is then sprayed with D2 and scrubbed.
  • When the headstone was being removed, its granite base was discovered several inches away. Joe is carefully uncovering the base; the sod removed will be used when it is reset.
  • Removing base in preparation of leveling.
  • Cleaning off the granite base with a neat portable vacuum.
  • Testing the fit. The stone will actually face the opposite direction like the others in the cemetery. Theory is that it fell over with the back side up, someone turned it over to see whose stone it wa
  • Cleaning out base with water.
  • Ryan tamps the ground to level it for the base.
  • Replacing base - Ryan is packing down the sod.
  • Mixing new mortar.
  • The headstone is placed in the base, mortared, and checking to make sure it is level.
  • Small boards are used to hold the stone in position while the mortar dries. (It was also covered with a plastic bag since rain was forecast for that evening.
  • Record cemetery location, both road/map location and GPS location. Send this information to our Website Administrator who will update our online cemetery lookup database.
  • Measure the perimeter of the cemetery. Look for an old fence line.
  • Record inscriptions if not already done. Check MOCA Inscription Project.
  • Include measurements of tombstones and the material they are made of (wood, slate, marble, white bronze, gray/red granite, etc.).
  • Create a plot map where each stone was found; this is helpful in recovering very old cemeteries.
  • DO NOT discard fieldstones - they are probably markers.
  • Cut weeds and tall grass. Trim about stones.
  • Rake up clippings, leaves, trash; put in bags and remove bags.
  • Clear out brush, small "scrub" trees; remove. DO NOT burn trash, brush or leaves inside the cemetery.
  • Prune or cut trees in moderation.
  • Ax out any tree roots that are heaving or breaking stones.
  • Repair and straighten fences, rock walls, plot border stones.
  • Probe for fallen stones. If a probe goes down the same depth (3-10 inches) at several locations, there probably is a stone buried under the soil.
  • Level up stones by hand (first loosen dirt with trowel or spade), or by gently lifting foundation with a tripod, pulleys and straps.
  • Clean stones with brushes and water only. (For stubborn dirt and stains consult an authority on safe materials.) Check with the Association for Gravestone Studies for current recommended procedures.
  • Avoid high-pressure spraying, especially on old stones as details and surface finish may be washed away leaving it unprotected from the elements.
  • Reset stones, repair where necessary.
  • Obtain the advice of a local monument dealer; check references.
  • Fill in sunken graves and reseed after the cemetery has been mapped.
  • Provide for a maintenance program. Forming a "cemetery" or "Memorial Association" is necessary. See state laws.
  • Promote your project in the local news media.
  • Remember to send cemetery data including directions, locations, and/or transcription information to our Maine Inscriptions Program Coordinator and/or Website Administrator who will update our online cemetery lookup database.
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