Caring for historic memorials

It can be a sad sight to see old gravestones in churchyards, especially when these are in a state of disrepair with nobody to properly tend to the ongoing upkeep. It is important to remember that all materials can be affected by time, plant growth and weather – even stone, which is strong but porous. Deterioration over a period of generations is somewhat inevitable, but some gravestones age more dramatically than others – so what can be done if you would like to restore an old memorial, whether this belongs to an ancestor or a stranger?

Causes of deterioration 

Plant growth can result in damage, with lichens and moulds often rendering any inscriptions completely illegible. Meanwhile, ivy can quickly take hold, completely suffocating and hiding the gravestone beneath. Trees are another culprit when it comes to damaging the condition of memorials.

Other causes can include ground subsidence and structural problems.

Meanwhile, poor repairs and badly conceived attempts at restoration (no matter how well intentioned) can actually cause more issues than there were to begin with.

Proper assessment 

The safety of visitors to a cemetery is, first and foremost, the most important consideration. Therefore, it will be necessary to undertake a risk assessment as a priority before any work is planned.

If there are any concerns about the stability of a memorial or gravestone, then this should be immediately reported to the cemetery management.

Local authorities do carry out regular inspections of cemeteries but monuments are privately owned and, technically, any descendants of the deceased are responsible for maintenance. Very often, this is not possible but it is expected that all reasonable steps should have been taken to trace family members.

Caring for historic memorials with skilled restoration 

Although some work may be done by volunteers (such as clearing away plant growth and then only when it has been properly assessed), other activities should only be carried out by skilled specialists and experienced memorial masons.

This includes resetting fallen memorials, rebuilding structures and repairs. Where cracks and fractures have appeared, only sympathetic materials should be used to fill the gaps.

Any work should be carefully recorded and photographed, allowing any changes in condition to be measured as time passes. These records should be stored with the cemetery authorities and with the local Historic Environment Records office. Further information and guidance is available from Historic England.

Talk to the experts about looking after old memorials

If you would like to speak to us about a memorial or a gravestone, complete our contact form or call our team on 01384 566 958.