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The Great War (1914-1918) Forum

Remembered Today:

Cleaning private headstones of War Casualties


judy7007

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I am sure this would have come up before - searching the forum did bring up a post saying that "for your own sake" it is best not to touch private headstones. However this could actually refer to a number of possibilities ranging from prosecution in interfering with private property to having an accident whilst cleaning the headstone (or other scenarios).

However it does seem to me that we should not touch the lettering on the headstone of a private grave in any way (other than brushing away dust etc).

I know water has been recommended - but I am most unsure about the use of water and brushes on lettering. May not this contribute to accelerated deterioration of the lettering? And in any event, should we be touching them? I thank you for any ideas, opinions, advice etc.

Judy

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I was at a local cemetery some months back and was chatting with its "caretaker". He told me that CWGC contract with the cemetery for him to clean their headstones annually.

I guess much might depend on the context in which you're asking the question. I would doubt that the occasional use of water on a headstone is going to cause any problem - inherently they get wet whenever it rains.

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I would certainly check to see if there are any living relatives, they might be quite edgy if they thought that some stranger was interfering with 'great uncle Fred' even if they themselves never bother to do anything. On the other hand  a surviving nephew or niece of Fred who might even have known him and is now too frail and/or distant to tend the stone might be quite grateful. I'd be very wary of just doing it.

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I now care for the stone of a VC recipient in my local cemetery having found it to be in a rather neglected state a few years ago.

Before I started I sought permission from the cemetery manager and the museum of the man’s former regiment who were extremely happy for me to care for it. I also sought advice on methods of cleaning from a stone mason to be sure I would be doing no harm.

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I'm surprised that the cemetery owners either the church or local council would allow anyone to touch either the headstone or maintain the gound. They are responsible for the land and their usual insurance would only cover their own workers or contractors. if they know or encourage people to take this work on they would need to register them as either workers or volunteers. Its a bit like that bloke who says that he will trim your hedge for a tenner, if he has an accident on your property you are entirely responsible for his compensation and it is unlikely your house insurance will cover it.

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I am sure this would have come up before - searching the forum did bring up a post saying that "for your own sake" it is best not to touch private headstones. However this could actually refer to a number of possibilities ranging from prosecution in interfering with private property to having an accident whilst cleaning the headstone (or other scenarios).

However it does seem to me that we should not touch the lettering on the headstone of a private grave in any way (other than brushing away dust etc).

I know water has been recommended - but I am most unsure about the use of water and brushes on lettering. May not this contribute to accelerated deterioration of the lettering? And in any event, should we be touching them? I thank you for any ideas, opinions, advice etc.

Judy

I don't think that whether the grave is that of a war casualty or not is actually relevant. I also think that all gravestones are in a way "private" - even if provided (and maintained) by a body such as CWGC.

Elsewhere I have seen discussion of whether it is permissible to "scrub down a grave" and even dust it with chalk to make the lettering stand out so that it is easier for genealogists (or those supplying them - with for instance indices of burials) to photograph them.

So who has a right to "clean" a headstone? There is some sort of implied right granted to those responsible for a cemetery to maintain to the cemetery's standards. If a grave is purchased or taken up in a particular cemetery, there is an implication that there is an acceptance of terms (relatives can/can't place certain things on graves etc., and the cemetery authorities will mow the grass and keep the paths clear etc.). There is also some agreement about maintenance of the actual graves. So CWGC headstones are kept clean and maintained to documented standards of legibility, but other graves such as those in village churchyards are generally allowed to "weather".

Previously we have had discussion about what should be done about a CWGC provided grave that is not being kept in an appropriate condition (basically contact the CWGC local office - who known who has the delegated responsibility). If however it is a privately provided grave, perhaps the relatives wanted the memorial to slowly fade into obscurity like those of other relatives in the same graveyard with the stone gradually acquiring a patina of lichen. Perhaps as the body is absorbed below ground, the gravestone above ground should also be absorbed into the rest of the environment - we don't know and I don't think it is for us to second guess. If we really want to "do something" about a grave, I personally think we have to formally get delegated authority (from cemetery authorities, CWGC, relatives, etc.).

If I were to find my great-great grandfather's grave (somewhere in Cumberland), would I give it a quick scrub down before photographing it? No, I (personally) might clear away any modern-day detritus (fag packets - or worse) and temporarily push back any vegetation. In a parish churchyard, I might even feel inhibited about actually taking a photograph in a way that I do not feel inhibited in a CWGC cemetery.

David

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David

I take a different view about your last sentence and am very glad that I took a photo years ago of an ancestor's 'table-top' gravestone in a churchyard. Since then it has weathered to such an extent that the top surface has flaked off completely, leaving no inscription. The photo is now the only record of what had been there.

On the general subject of this thread, I have tried to have two fallen memorial stones [including the names of WW1 victims] re-erected after they had been laid down by cemetery authorities for safety reasons, but have decided that it is for the families to deal with this, if any survive, or care. I would now apply the same principle to cleaning, apart from removal of loose debris.

D

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If however it is a privately provided grave, perhaps the relatives wanted the memorial to slowly fade into obscurity like those of other relatives in the same graveyard with the stone gradually acquiring a patina of lichen. Perhaps as the body is absorbed below ground, the gravestone above ground should also be absorbed into the rest of the environment - we don't know and I don't think it is for us to second guess.

David

David

Thank you for the interesting thought above - not one that I'd thought about but, as you say, it is not for us to second guess.

My main reason for asking was to find opinions and advice as to whether or not it was acceptable to "enhance" a private headstone (belonging to a person unknown to me) for photographic purposes. Clearly I am not referring to "photoshop enhancing", but cleaning letters, scrubbing etc. on the actual headstone. It seemed to me that there were (at least) two issues involved but other ideas are emerging, such as the one quoted.

Firstly further deterioration could easily be escalated (especially to lettering) if brushes, soapy water, chemicals etc were used, especially by people like myself who have no specialised knowledge of how to clean lettering. What was acting as a protective layering could easily be removed by good intentions.

Secondly, the grave is private property and I would certainly not feel in a position to "interfere" with the headstone without permission (as others have mentioned).

So should I be in a position to need to make this decision, I would not proceed to "enhance" (other than a light dust or perhaps some water) without permission.

I do thank everyone who has replied - I find your contributions very helpful.

Judy

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Don't know what kind of camera you are using but using infrared film with the right filter can sometimes bring out inscriptions.

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Film! I remember that. I heard some hard core people still use it. What do we use in place of IR film now I wonder.

Alan

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Film! I remember that. I heard some hard core people still use it. What do we use in place of IR film now I wonder.

Alan

You can get Digital cameras adapted to work on the IR spectrum HAVE A LOOK!

Of course we also have access to image manipulation (contrast, sharpening, negative-positive inversion) using photoshop etc and standard digital images - in a way that most people without their own darkroom could never attempt previously.

Chris

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I have seen idiots who have gone over the inscriptions in felt tip pen or even biro...in fact I have been so annoyed by one that i keep a look out for the soldiers name on here to track the culprit down.

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The CWGC clean their headstones with RHODAQUAT. It's pretty nasty stuff and needs to be used with caution but it's brilliant stuff - slap it on with a brush or simply spray it on and within 1 week the headstone will be like new!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!

You can get this stuff but make sure you know what your doing regarding safety and protection. I gather you will need to cover up and protect your eyes etc...

With regards to actually cleaning a war grave - Go ahead providing you are sure you cann't cause damage. Sod the law or anything else, it's better to act than let an object deteriorate badly...

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Its a bit like that bloke who says that he will trim your hedge for a tenner, if he has an accident on your property you are entirely responsible for his compensation and it is unlikely your house insurance will cover it.

If you are employing him as a contractor it is his look out. It would only be your responsibility if he was your employee.

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Clean the stone, but make sure you keep the dirt so that you can give it to the owner if he complains (then you haven't stolen it).

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