UNITY — With Hallowe’en around the corner, and death images and ghost costumes in the seasonal aisle of many stores, the New Hampshire Old Graveyard Association offered a lesson Wednesday morning in a more spirited activity: Cleaning and righting old gravestones. The nonprofit chose to present the class at the burial ground here in the Sullivan County Complex, which has many graves from the mid-19th century. It was originally a town graveyard before the county bought it in 1860.
However, most burial grounds are maintained by private caretakers, not by government, said Richard Maloon, listed on the association website as its secretary. “That’s the kind of people we’re trying to help.”
“We’re most interested in preserving the history of New Hampshire,” he said. Although some people feel gravestones should not be cleaned at all, the stones’ faces wear with time and are often covered with lichen, a composite organism that is both an algae and a fungus.
Maloon and association vice president Rae Tober told the group of about 20 persons that much of the lichen and dirt can be cleaned off the stones with water, sometimes using a gentle hand pumper. Sometimes they use a “non-ionic” cleaner, naming commercial products such as “Simple Green” and “D2.”
Before cleaning anything, though, the crew first addressed the other issue that gravestones face: Leaning over and cracking. The burial ground at the county complex has older graves in the rear half of the graveyard, and many of the markers were at odd angles. Lionel Chute, Sullivan County’s director of natural resources, was among those in the group. He explained that the graves in the front half of the burial ground, with its neater, smaller and upright stones, are more recent.
The group followed Maloon to the leaning gravestone of Mary Judkins, who died in 1835. Some of the volunteers dug out the bottom of the stone while Tober mentioned that good practice was to not pull the stone forward, which could break it. Unfortunately, it became clear that the footing of this stone already had a crack in it. For purposes of the demonstration, the group then turned to the adjacent grave instead. The men dug out the stone’s footing and found that it, too, was cracked. As Maloon and the volunteers gripped the stone and discussed how to stabilize it, the cracked footing came away.
Maloon explained that in such a case, the real fix is to remove the stone altogether and use epoxy to mend the broken pieces. Today, however, there was no time for that, so the stone was carefully reset, albeit more vertically, with pea stone and dirt fill. The men filled in the soil they had shoveled out minutes earlier and stamped on it with their feet to tamp it down.
Then Tabor gently cleaned the Judkins stone with water, and later others applied the D2 product with soft brushes.
The group moved on to other graves and repeated the work. One stone that was dug out revealed a tree root disturbing the footing — a common problem, Maloon said. Another stone seemed to be sloping, but it was hard to tell alignment, as the grave was on a sloping hillside. A small bubble level was placed on top of the stone. The men then argued over what the bubble was doing. One man opined that the stone itself might be curved. The stones were washed with water, and sprayed and scrubbed with the D2.
The stones here generally note dates of death, but not of birth. Several volunteers commented that the information on the markers can be valuable for genealogical purposes, and cleaning the stones, especially if the words are obscured by lichen, can help make the messages clearer. Maloon noted that other organizations, such as “Find A Grave” encourage photography of stones for this purpose.