Restoring a Cemetery
Begin with some groundwork
Verify ownership of the cemetery if possible. Obtain permission from owners of surrounding land
if the cemetery is landlocked. North Carolina state law requires that permission to cross private
property in order to study, maintain, or repair an historic cemetery be granted for a mutually
Consider how much you can realistically accomplish.
And remember the motto of all preservation projects: do no harm!
Study the site
Explore the cemetery thoroughly before beginning any work. Cut as little plant growth as
possible at this stage.
Sketch a map of the locations of each marker and any marker fragments.
Map any depression in the soil that may indicate the location of a grave.
Sketch in the location of trees, shrubbery, and flowers, and indicate any pathways or roads,
gates, fences, etc. Traditional plants, fences, etc., are an integral part of this historic site.
As you begin to remove unwanted weeds and brush, watch carefully for small metal grave
markers or toppled stones that may be hidden by plant growth. Add them to your map.
Don't discard gravestone fragments or unreadable markers. They can provide valuable
information for researchers. Mark each one on your map and leave it in place as you found it
(some experts recommend that fragments be buried where found for future restoration, but
unless a cemetery has “friends” and regular care, this may not be advisable).
Photograph the cemetery as it is. Mark the camera locations on your map for future reference.
If possible, provide copies of the photos and map to your local historical society for safekeeping.
Learn about care of old gravemarkers. Many broken or toppled markers can be repaired and
reset if proper materials and techniques are used.
Learn how to identify types of stone used for gravemarkers in your region.
Some types of stone are very fragile, some are soft and easily erodable, others deteriorate in
damp conditions or are damaged by freeze/thaw cycles.
Not all grave markers are made of stone. Some are cast metal, they sound hollow when
Identify plants in the graveyard. Learn which ones might be old varieties of
shrubbery, roses, and perennials still surviving there. Leave them in place.
Identify heritage trees, too. They all are a living part of this museum; mark them on your map.
Identify native plant species. Some may be rare. Plan to protect them.
Note native wildlife and birds in the area. Your cemetery may provide essential habitat for them.
Then, begin work
Always use great care as you work in any old cemetery. Gravestones are heavy and can topple.
Some stones might be upright but not anchored in any way to a base.
Trim grass and weeds around markers and curbs with hand shears.
Use great care as you remove weeds and invasive plants such as brambles, additional graves
and markers may be hidden among them.
Research proper methods of cleaning stones (consider some lichens and mosses as a natural
part of your outdoor museum.)
Seek advice from experts on appropriate repair of stones and markers.
Consider old markers as historic artifacts worthy of your gentle handling.
Just a few “don'ts”
Never clean gravestones or markers with bleach, wire brushes, or any harsh or abrasive
material. Power washing or sandblasting old grave markers can do great damage.
Don't risk damage to soft stone by cutting close with weed eaters or power mowers. Never
drive a power mower or riding mover over fallen stones or markers, or over sunken areas which
might indicate gravesites.
Consider the future
Photograph your progress and re-map the cemetery when you have finished the cleanup.
Make an extra notebook with photographs and maps for your local library or historical society.
Let local authorities and the media know about your project and invite them to tour the cemetery
with you and see the results of your work.
Register “your” historic cemetery with the Duplin County Historical Society.
Help enlist local volunteers for the long term care of your cemetery.
Join a cemetery preservation organization, and keep learning.
And, please remember ...
First, do no harm
When in doubt, ask an expert
And enjoy your project
Return to North Carolina Cemeteries Home Page