This post contains my thoughts and feelings after spending a day in the Victoria
Jewish Cemetery caring for some of the monuments that lie there.

Guest post by Hazel W.

On July 20th our Anthropology 367 class began work on cleaning some of the headstones in the Jewish Cemetery. This cemetery lies in the middle of a Gary Oak meadow, a beautiful space but the plant life does tend to leave quite a bit of debris. Many of these monuments have not been cleaned in years, the build up of lichen and bacterial growth beginning to completely obscure the inscriptions in places. The work seemed a bit daunting at first, but I was excited to do something that would be visibly gratifying for the community.

While our various groups worked on several monuments that day, I devoted my time to the headstone of Markus Gutwein (G-06). Markus was born in Poland in 1908 and died in 1986, he lived through both World Wars and fought against Nazis in the Belgian underground in World War 2. Markus’ headstone is a long flat slab of light grey granite, solid and sturdy but obscured by a layer of dark grey and black lichen. I could not accurately tell you just how long I spent working on Markus’ grave, the hot sun cooking us all and the scrubbed dirt and moss creating a muddy wash that coated my hands and shins.

I have always loved being in cemeteries, the beauty of the monuments captured my attention and the gentle peace of the spaces always calmed me. Being there that day, working for hours trying to bring back some of the original beauty of Markus’ monument, I think that was something I have been wanting to do for a while. The black sludge washing away to show the delicate etched linework and the Stars of David in each corner was certainly satisfying.

For all the important work that we are doing in that cemetery, this felt good in a different way. This felt more tangible. In the long run, the records and pictures we take, the GPR scanning we do, it will all go towards the greater preservation of the cemetery for years to come and I am so proud of that work. But the cleaning, getting to see the dirt scrubbed back to reveal the sparkling stone and words of love, that is something we can see now. Someone can come visit the cemetery and see that those headstones have been cleaned. That someone took the time. That someone cared. While physically very taxing, I found that I really enjoyed the work we did that day.

Now, while someone may read this and decide to try to go to cemeteries and clean headstones, I must emphasise that the process is not that simple. We did not just go in with Dawn Dish Soap and some steel scrub brushes. While stone may seem hard and immovable, some stones can be much more fragile than one might think. On that same day, July 20th, we were lucky enough to be able to meet with a man named Carl Hughes from Meadowlark Memorials. He specialises in memorial conservation, and taught us an incredible amount about the variability of stone and how something as simple as a sprinkler could severely damage a headstone over a prolonged period of time.

The monuments we cleaned that Thursday were made of granite, a very strong stone that can take a lot of wear before showing much permanent damage. Other stones, like sandstone for example, are much softer and something like power washing could risk destroying the inscription on the monument’s surface. Another concern is the chemicals that are used to clean the monuments. Acids and things like bleach can eat away at the outer layers of the stone, opening
them up to further damage and bacterial growth. We used a biodegradable soap that would have no negative impacts on the wildlife in the cemetery, and plastic scrub brushes that would not scratch the stone surfaces.

While wanting to take the time to clean and care for the monuments of loved ones is certainly important, it may be advised that you check in with your cemetery director first before taking any steps.