Proper maintenance of cemeteries and grave markers can prevent quick deterioration of monuments and can help protect community history. But, it is important to understand what techniques, tools and materials should be used to prevent more damage from occurring during the preservation or cleaning process.

Guest post by Ainsley:

The Jewish Cemetery of Victoria is a quiet and peaceful place, and after spending some time there it became clear to me how important it is for the community.

When I was walking through the cemetery, I noticed the many different grave markers, which ranged widely in their condition. Some stones were newer, very readable, and showed little signs of damage, while others were old, hard to read and showed significant signs of damage.

I also noticed old grave markers that were in excellent condition, and newer ones that were in poor condition, so I wanted to learn a little bit more about the process of cemetery maintenance and preservation.

The Source:

The source I read was written on grave preservation by the Old Cemeteries Society of Victoria, which is a group that is primarily active at Ross Bay Cemetery in Victoria. Their main goal is to preserve the history of Victoria’s cemeteries in order to foster an appreciation for them.
While this article focuses on Ross Bay Cemetery here in Victoria, the same principles about maintenance, preservation and cleaning projects for grave markers can apply to our project in the Jewish Cemetery.

I would highly recommend that people who are interested in the preservation of monuments read this article because it gives a very clear overview of what the Old Cemeteries Society does to maintain grave markers in the cemeteries they work in.

Something I found interesting about the article was that it mentions that there is a difference of opinions regarding whether we should preserve graves. In Europe, it is common practice to not clean gravestones or grave markers but to let them deteriorate naturally, however, it is necessary for careful recording, and the maintenance of detailed archives. Whereas preserving and cleaning grave markers and stones requires a certain level of continuous stewardship and care to prevent neglect in cemeteries.

Key Takeaways:

Here are some important things to know when cleaning grave markers:

  • For your safety, you should always check the stability of a monument or gravestone before you start cleaning. Some may be leaning, and some monuments may appear to be stable, but in both cases, you should remember to be careful in case they topple over. Never lean on them.
  • Check to ensure that cleaning gravestones will not cause more damage since many of them are very old and the stone can disintegrate from the pressure of cleaning.
  • It is important to avoid using metal tools to prevent scratching and more damage to the stone. Instead, use plastic (or sometimes wooden) tools for cleaning the grave markers.
  • Don’t use household cleaners (for example, bleach or vinegar) because they can react with certain types of stone and cause it to deteriorate.
  • Gravestones are pieces of history, many of which have been around for quite a long time. They often show permanent signs of damage, such as staining and weathering, that cleaning cannot reverse.
Anth 367 Students cleaning monuments at the Jewish cemetery in Victoria.

Anth 367 Students cleaning monuments at the Jewish cemetery in Victoria. Source: Ainsley Jackson-Renz.

Relevance and conclusions:

I found this source to be particularly helpful for our project because we will be cleaning some monuments to make the inscriptions more visible and clear, especially when we take photos of the graves. And it is important to know why we will use some tools and techniques instead of others.

I think this article is also particularly relevant because I’ve noticed a trend of cleaning gravestones and markers which has become sensationalized on social media. While this can bring awareness to people about caring for and preserving this element of history, people must understand how to clean and preserve grave monuments properly. And people who don’t have experience or knowledge of proper methods, tools and materials can cause damage through the cleaning process.

Ultimately, in the coming days of this field course at the Jewish Cemetery, we should remember that we are working with old (and some delicate) pieces of history that are important to families, friends and the community.

Grave preservation. Old Cemeteries Society of Victoria. (2023, February 25).