April 20, 2016

Eight Tips for Re-setting Headstones

Little Bighorn Tombstone Guide Strings

photo by: Audrey Hall

Setting up a system of guide strings will help ensure headstones are aligned with one another.

Restoring a cemetery brings a whole new list of tasks to a preservationist’s checklist, but perhaps the most noticeable part of the project is the re-setting of headstones.

With weather conditions, shifting soil, and the simple passage of time, headstones can lean out of plumb or even topple over. HOPE Crew volunteers recently encountered this problem at Louisiana’s Chalmette National Cemetery, where they spent a month bringing the most troubled parts of the veterans' cemetery back to their original state.

Whether your cemetery restoration project is large or small, these eight tips will help you re-set headstones properly.

1. Do no harm.

As with any preservation project, the first and most important step is to do no harm. If at any point you are concerned about damaging a headstone or other element of the cemetery, take a step back and consult a preservation professional. A small amount of caution now can save a lot of work down the line.

2. Raise the stone.

Before a headstone can be re-set, it needs to be fully removed from its place. Because of the weight of a headstone, this usually involves a tripod, pulley, or other mechanism. Be sure that whatever mechanism you use is set on solid, level ground.

After securing the headstone to the pulley system, be sure to raise the headstone carefully and evenly in order to put as little stress on the stone as possible. Allowing the headstone to lean or list can cause cracking or breaking, especially with older stones. Once the stone is removed, it can be laid flat on the ground nearby.

3. Set your alignment.

The easiest way to ensure your stones are re-set in line with one another is to create a system of guide strings running the length of the existing row. Each string can be attached to a metal stake at each end of the row to make sure your line will be straight. This string will guide the exact placement of all headstones in that row.

Volunteers Digging at Chalmette National Cemetery

photo by: A. J. Sisco

Use a shovel to widen and deepen the hole for each headstone.

4. Re-dig the hole.

Using a shovel, widen and deepen the existing hole for each headstone. Be sure that all edges and walls of the hole are as straight as possible to help with an accurate placement. (The hole will later be filled in with gravel and loose dirt, so do not worry about digging the hole to the precise size of the headstone.)

5. Partially fill the hole.

Once your hole is prepared, partially fill the bottom with gravel in order to help level the base and solidify the stone's position in the hole. This step is particularly important in a cemetery with a high water table or muddy, loose soil.

6. Replace the stone.

Using your pulley, carefully raise the stone and re-set it in the new hole being careful to use your guide strings to keep it in line with the other stones. Once the stone is placed, be sure to make sure it is set flat in the hole (the top of both sides are even) by placing a level across the top of the stone.

7. Tamp down the hole.

Once the stone is in place and aligned, continue filling the hole with loose gravel and dirt. As the hole continues to fill, use a two-by-four to tamp down the gravel surrounding the stone.

At the same time, continue to check the stone’s alignment with your system of strings and your level. Also make sure you’re setting your stone in plumb (straight up and down). You can do this by holding a string with a weight next to the stone and comparing the angle of the stone and the string.

8. Finish the job.

Once your stone is aligned, level, and in plumb, fill the remainder of your hole, making sure to tamp down the loose gravel and dirt with your two-by-four.

Congratulations! Now you’ve now given this headstone its best chance at remaining plumb, level, and aligned for the future. With any luck, your cemetery will continue to look organized and attractive for decades to come.

For more information on how to research and preserve historic cemeteries, click here and here.

Chalmette Volunteer Month 2017: Volunteer

We need you! We're looking for volunteers to document, realign, and clean headstones in Chalmette National Cemetery.

David Weible is the content specialist at the National Trust, previously with Preservation and Outside magazines. His interest in historic preservation was inspired by the ‘20s-era architecture, streetcar neighborhoods, and bars of his hometown of Cleveland.

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