December 19, 2014

Elyria
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Man’s project: To give new life to gravestones

WAPAKONETA — Armed with a rotating brush and a seven-part mortar mix for filling in cracks, John Walters resembles a dentist as he carefully chips away layers of unsightly scum and treats it to reveal the same white, polished marble that was once firmly planted into the ground to mark the passing of an Auglaize County settler from the mid-19th century.

Walters also uses a brace to correct its crooked lean, as if it were a stubborn tooth.

But with his frayed cut-off jeans, sleeveless shirt and scraggly beard, Walters looks more like an auto body shop repairman.

His job, as a self-employed “graveyard groomer,” is a little like both, he says. Like a dentist or shop repairman, Walters cleans and restores that which is often neglected and exposed to corrosive elements for years.

“A cemetery can be a community embarrassment,” the Connorsville, Ind., native said as he worked to restore a marble gravestone Wednesday afternoon at the Evergreen Cemetery on Silver Street, “or it can be a point of community pride.”

A city council committee proposed hiring Walters and one of his assistants, Kelly Luke, for a week to restore tombstones in the city’s oldest non-Catholic cemetery, where many of the community’s founders are buried. Work at the cemetery is costing about $3,000.

“Lots of the stones out there have been cracked or lost; we were told about 40 percent of the stones are missing, and there were several hundreds of people buried there,” said 4th Ward Councilor Rachel Barber.

Barber, who first arranged for Walters to teach at a workshop on grave restoration in May, said she believes the cemetery restorations are an important way to honor the community’s founders.

“I think it’s just an issue of respect,” Barber said. “There are people who have relatives there who have been saddened by the condition of the cemetery, and it’s incredibly amazing the difference between the before and after.”

Walters, who started his business 11 years ago after serving as the cemetery supervisor for the Fayette County Highway Department for five years, begins each cemetery project by assessing the priorities of a particular location.

“This cemetery shares the same problems all other cemeteries do,” Walters said. “The biggest problems are unstable stones, which can be a threat to humans, stones leaning where they are most likely to fall and small fragments that can be carried off or thrown out and need to be secured.”

The responsibilities of cemetery upkeep typically is assigned to township trustees or church officials, but the attempts those individuals make with the intention of preserving often causes more harm than good, he said.

As vandalism, air pollution and time take their toll, many caretakers try to clean the stones using bleach and water or wire brushes, both “big no-nos,” Walters said.

Other caretakers use large riding lawnmowers or power mowers, which can knock down the graves.

Walters uses a solution of one part ammonia and four parts water because it will clean without damaging limestone or marble.

Rather than a wire brush, which is too abrasive and can leave metal fragments embedded in the stone that cause rusting, Walters uses a soft-bristled Nyalox brush to remove patchy layers of lichen, an algae-like substance.

Lichen grows naturally on stones, but factors such as smog and acid rain cause it to turn black, he said. The brushing process is time-consuming for a stone that stands approximately 5 feet tall. It will take nearly six hours.

In the end, the stone appears white and spotless.

He then buffs the stone with a second Nyalox brush to restore its polished sheen.

The next step, he said, is to glue the top portion of the stone back to where it belongs. Finding which pieces match up among a scattered field is a task in itself “a lot like a jigsaw puzzle,” Walters said.

He uses surnames and dates as clues, tracing husband and wife pairs and examining the fragment sizes to determine where they fit.

Once the pieces return to their origin, Walters bonds them with Tenax Epoxy glue, a specially formulated variety for bonding stone to stone.

Walters then uses mortar to seal the cracks and cover the glue, which can be damaged by the elements over time.

He seals it with a seven-part mortar mixture of white Portland cement, hydrated lime and other minerals that easily adapt to the soft limestone or marble of long ago without damaging it.

Sometimes the stones must also be reset because the ground has shifted, causing the stone to lean, or the foundation has crumbled altogether, Walters said.

When resetting marble or limestone, Walters said, the most common mistake is the use of concrete poured around the base of the stone to offer support.

“The marble is so soft compared to the concrete that if someone barely bumps it, it will snap because it has no give,” Walters said.

“If we need to build a base, we build a wide slot for the stone and seal it with mortar that is compatible with the marble or limestone.”

Modern-day stones are nearly all made of granite, a weather-resistant mineral first used in the early 20th century, he noted.

Walters uses before-and-after photographs, as well as a numbered grid of cemetery plots to document each renovation. Keeping a detailed record is an important part of the process because it allows others to see what type of work was done so the restoration may be repeated years later.

Once he completes his work in a particular area, Walters passes the records on to the township or cemetery trustee with the instructions that they should clean the stones again in three to five years using a scrubbing brush and water, he said.

He also hosts regular seminars to educate caretakers on the proper ways to care for gravestones.

“There’s so much work to be done from 50, 60, maybe 70 years of neglect that there’s no way we can fix it all by ourselves,” Walters said. “So we’re hoping we can get an army of restoration people to work together.”

With the availability of information through the Internet, Walters said. an interest in genealogy — the study of one’s ancestors — is growing in popularity.

“Now, people can actually find where great-great Grandpa Joe is buried,” Walters said. “But no one wants to go out there to find that the cemetery is in a deplorable condition.

“This is so important because this may be the only record of something from the mid-1800s, when records were so poorly kept,” he said. “It’s just like an outdoor museum.”