Wind and water have carved some of the most spectacular scenery on Earth, but weather also works on stone made by humans.
Cemetery monuments around the world are clear evidence that water, wind and time continue to shape all the rocks on Earth.
“Graveyards are one of the few artifact structures that remain in their original context,” said Jonathan Appell, a well-known gravestone preservationist. “Most structures have had some sort of renovation, maintenance or additions.
“Not so in a graveyard. Other than cutting the grass, seldom anything changes. It is in its original context.”
So Appell, who began working in graveyards by delivering and setting gravestones, is now working toward preserving the gravestones that mark history.
“It is simple things like monitoring the monument, making sure it is standing up straight and that there are no cracks or other signs of damage,” said Appell. “And keep it clean. Don’t use acidic cleaners that may also erode the stone. Just little simple things can help preserve these gravestones for many, many years.”
Appell, a member of the Preservation Trades Network, will present a gravestone preservation clinic on May 4-5 at the Tahlequah Public Cemetery.
This will be the seventh straight year that Appell has presented a gravestone preservation workshop sponsored by Preservation Oklahoma and Cherokee Nation Cultural Tourism.
“Honestly, Oklahoma cemeteries, from what I’ve seen, are kind of in the middle as far as preservation,” said Appell, who lives and works in Connecticut. “I’ve seen worse, and I’ve seen better.
“The clean air out here is good. However, the moisture and wind makes it a little tougher.”
The two-day workshop, which costs $45 and is limited in registrants because of space concerns, covers a wide variety of topics.
The class includes how to reset gravestones, repair fragmented stones, repair and clean masonry and use infill material, as well as use of appropriate repair and cleaning materials.
“Most of this is about preventative measures you can take,” said Appell. “Just observing a gravestone, and knowing what to look for, will help preserve the stone.
“Most of the deterioration of stones is from simple neglect. Something has happened, and it doesn’t get fixed.”
He believes Oklahoma cemeteries rank somewhere in the middle for preservation among U.S. cemeteries.
Oklahoma cemeteries are not as old as cemeteries on the East Coast where there are gravestones dating back to the 1600s.
However, there is more pollution near the big cities in the northeast.
“There are a number of factors that work against gravestones,” said Appell. “Pollution is a big one, so the northeast is not an ideal environment.
“However, those gravestones from the 1600s are from a hard sandstone and slate. As a result, those stones age much better. They stand up to the weather much better.”
The best place for gravestones? The dry desert southwest from California to Arizona and Nevada.
“Of course, the dry is great, but there is an issue if you get too much wind because that then brings on blowing sand which can erode stones,” said Appell.
Appell said the gravestones of Oklahoma are in relatively good shape because of the type of stone, relatively normal weather and little air pollution.
The toughest gravestones to preserve are the 2-inch-thick slate headstones.
“Once they break or get a crack, it is really tough to preserve,” said Appell. “Still, I think most people would be surprised to know how easy it is for an average person to do a lot to preserve a gravestone.
“When you visit a grave, just look at it. Has anything changed? Has it sunk? Is it sitting crooked or at an angle? Do you see any minor cracks or damage? Does it need to be cleaned? Those are things that are easily fixed, and it will go a long way in preserving the stone.”
Appell got into the gravestone preservation business by accident. He was a carpenter when he took a job helping to install cemetery monumnents in the 1980s.
That eventually led to a cemetery contracting business that he operated. That naturally led to repair and renovation of older gravestones.
Now, he travels around the nation doing upwards of 20 workshops a year on how best to preserve gravestone monuments.
“Honestly, I was delivering and setting up gravestones, and I was always working around old gravestones,” said Appell. “I got really interested in those old gravestones. How they were carved? What kind of stone? How best to preserve them?
“Honestly, some of the oldest are the best preserved. They were the right kind of stone and stood up well to time. But there are things we can all do to help preserve these gravestones. All it takes is knowing what to look for and how best to fix or preserve. In many cases, it is something pretty minor.”