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Giving new life to tombstones
Tombstone, Joanna Harwood.jpg
Joanna Harwood participates in a Cemetery Preservation Workshop on Saturday.

Budding preservationists “dug” into tombstone maintenance on Saturday.

“Today’s weather will be perfect for cleaning tombstones,” said Dr. Stacey Graham, class instructor. “Never clean tombstones in freezing temperatures. That’s lesson No. 1, which is why our original date for this session was cancelled.”

Graham is the research professor for the Center of Historic Preservation at MTSU. She held a Cemetery Preservation Workshop in McMinnville on Saturday. In two parts, the two-hour morning session was educational, while the two-hour afternoon session was hands-on experience at McMinnville City Cemetery on South High Street. 

First, remove debris and overgrowth and inspect the tombstone. 

“Only clean stable tombstones,” said Graham. “If it wiggles when you touch it, it will fall when you clean it.”

Use approved cleaners only. Graham recommended D/2, a solution that kills biological growth. It safely removes dirt, soot, pollution, and biological discoloration from most masonry surfaces. Never use harsh cleaners, such as bleach, detergent, dish soap, or any other household cleaner. Definitely do not use a power washer. 

Use approved cleaning supplies only. Those include a soft plastic scraper to remove loose debris, a bamboo pick for the inscription, and natural bristled brush to gently apply the D/2 solution. After a gentle scrub, rinse the tombstone with water. 

Give the tombstone a spritz of D/2 and leave it alone.

Before-and-after pictures should be taken with the date and timestamp to document when the tombstone was cleaned. With D/2, cleaning once every 2-3 years is enough. 

Among those in attendance was Ken Miller. He lives in Richmond, has family in Rock Island and ancestors in Mud Creek Shiloh Cemetery. 

“I am the Mud Creek Shiloh Cemetery Association president,” said Miller. “I want to learn about tombstone preservation and I’m interested in laws regarding cemeteries.”

Miller questioned how to get descendants involved in protection and preservation of the cemetery.

“Host a cleanup day,” said Graham. “That would be enough to get someone like me there, but not everyone. I would suggest focusing on interesting historic aspects of the cemetery. What notable people are buried there? Get the word out about those and that might get people’s attention.” 

Tennessee laws protecting cemeteries were also touched on during the morning session.

“There’s a balance between property owner rights and descendant rights when it comes to old family plots,” said Graham. “Always get permission before going onto someone’s property, but descendants have the right to visit their ancestors.”

If an old family plot exists on the property, the landowner has obligations to protect the cemetery. They must allow descendants to visit the gravesite of an ancestor. With a judge’s approval, the landowner may be permitted to move the cemetery. Property owners must remove and relocate the graves at their own expense. Relocation must be done with due care and decency. 

Kerri Harwood celebrated her birthday on Saturday.

“My daughters asked me what I wanted to do on my birthday and this is what I wanted to do,” said Harwood, in attendance with daughters Joanna and Caroline.

“We have a family plot,” said Joanna. “We have been looking into cleaning it up and taking care of the tombstones, so this session was very helpful. I’m fairly confident we would have done a lot of damage, because we had no idea how to clean a tombstone.”  

Rex and Leslie Crabtree were divided in their team efforts, each taking a tombstone’s side. 

“We both like genealogy,” said Rex. “This could be our future hobby, cleaning tombstones. We are enjoying it so far. The session was very educational.”

Session members described the hands-on experience as therapeutic, rewarding, honoring the dead, and providing them a “Zen feeling” as they cleaned. 

Warren County historian Jimmy Haley offered a history of the cemetery. It is the first cemetery established in McMinnville. Between 200 and 300 individuals are interred there. Because there are only 85 to 95 markers, an exact number is unknown.