What Can I Do?


Is there a cemetery in your family or in your neighborhood that is overgrown and neglected? You can help. On this page, we’ll give you some ideas of where to start, what you can do to find out more about the people whose loved ones buried them there many, many years ago, and how the West Virginia Cemetery Preservation Association can help you bring the cemetery back to the place of beauty and fond memories that it was meant to be.  If it's a historic church that you're concerned about, at this time we recommend contacting local and State preservation offices for guidance.  While these structures are of great interest to WVCPA, to date we do not have the expertise necessary for restoration projects of buildings.  There are, however, many qualified experts in the State of West Virginia, many of whom are associated with the National Trust for Historic Preservation. If saving a church building is in your sights, check out the National Trust for Historic Preservation site and follow the links for "The National Trust In Your State" to see the latest "major players" in historic preservation in our state.

When considering cemetery preservation, there are two main areas to think of: the physical, and the historical preservation of the site.  The physical, of course, being the appearance of the site, involving the “yard work” aspect of the preservation, such as mowing the grass, pruning back vines and trees, and mending fences.  The historical aspect would be the learning about and recording the stories about those buried there, or sketching out a map of the layout of the cemetery (whose grave is next to whose – surprisingly important when trying to discover the relationships between people there, as spouses are generally buried alongside one another, and their children and grandchildren are often very close by).  Let us first talk about the physical preservation, or “rescue” of the cemetery, as we call it.

Physical Preservation

All too often, as family members become elderly and no longer able to tend a family cemetery as they would wish, and the younger ones move away from the family home leaving few, if anyone, to take care of the family or neighborhood cemetery.  This is especially true if no perpetual care plan has been set in place by the family or community to assure that the cemetery will remain tended, with perhaps an appointed caretaker that, when necessary, will pass on their role to the next caretaker, etc., keeping the cemetery always under the watchful care of someone for the family of the departed loved ones buried there. When that happens, the once well cared-for burial grounds begin to get overgrown and tombstones and graves fall into disrepair.  The time is ripe for a cemetery rescue. 

Get Permission

Now, it’s important to mention here that if the cemetery in question does not belong to your family – even if it is on your property, or if there is a caretaker that is just not performing their duty as they should, you do need to obtain the appropriate permission before proceeding with any sort of restoration of the cemetery.  Think of it in terms of your own front yard – how would you feel if one of your neighbors decided that they thought your yard should be better cared-for and just up and started mowing and pruning your trees and shrubs back one day without so much as a knock on your door to ask if you would mind them helping out? Some of us might think that would be a wonderful thing, but others might take offence and become quite agitated about your trespassing and disturbing your yard.  It’s the same sort of thing with a family cemetery.  It’s a personal place, worthy of all the honor and respect that is due it as a hallowed family cemetery. If you don’t know who is responsible for the cemetery, you’ll need to do some research.  First place to check is with local elderly neighbors.  They may know who was last known to tend the cemetery, or may have clues for you as to who to contact for more information.  If that approach doesn’t produce any solid results, you might try checking with the county assessors office to see who is listed as the taxpayer for that property.  If the cemetery ground is actually deeded to you, you should look into uncovering the tombstones sufficiently to identify who is buried there and then trying to contact living descendants of some of the people buried there to let them know your intentions to restore the cemetery.  Many times this will result in family volunteers offering to help you out in your endeavor – if not personally with willing hands and weedeaters, perhaps with financial donations to help repair a broken fence or help pay for the gas for the mower. For more ideas on how to find living relatives of the deceased, see the section on “Historical Preservation”.

Tackling Nature

If you catch it early enough, you may only have to deal with mowing some tall grass and pruning back greenbrier on the fence line.  Often, though, there may be fallen trees to cut up, or others to cut down if they are either a safety hazard or obviously not meant to be growing around and swallowing up “Granny Olson’s” tombstone. Just don’t go crazy cutting down every tree and bush in sight – look at the situation with a gardener’s eye.  Perhaps that overgrown lilac bush was planted by a particular grave because it was a favorite plant of the dear one buried there.  Or that rose bush gone wild on the back fence – is it, too, perhaps planted there in memory of someone?  Try and find out.  And, if possible through careful pruning, can you keep the plant in place? If not, is it possible to either replace it with another younger plant, or can a slip be taken of the existing plant to grow into a replacement plant to be put in place another year?  We have personally seen many beautiful older varieties of roses and other flowering plants and trees that are just not readily available anymore. Think before you cut.

When clearing away the greenery from the cemetery, be careful around the tombstones.  Many of the older stones can be quite delicate, and weedeater line or stones thrown by a lawnmower can damage even sturdy looking ones.  Clip away grass next to the stones by hand as needed.  If stones are toppled over or “in the way” of the mower, don’t move them.  Leave them lying where they are, at this stage of the process especially.

Mending Fences

Mending fences is important in the preservation and ongoing protection of cemeteries in rural areas.  Especially where it’s known that cattle are kept in the vicinity.  We’ve seen some pretty badly damaged stones and trampled graves where cows were allowed to graze in graveyards and use tombstones to scratch whatever itches because of broken fences.  In more suburban areas, more aggressive fencing can help deter any vandalism – though, realistically, if someone is set on vandalizing a cemetery, they’ll figure out a way over just about any fence.  We’ve encountered cemeteries that even we, as descendants of those interred there, have had to ask around many places before we found someone with a key to let us into the cemetery to visit our loved ones graves.  It just doesn’t seem right, does it? 

If you have a cemetery that is surrounded by, for example, a wrought-iron fence that will be difficult or too expensive to repair right away, try to at least get something in place to replace any missing sections of fence to keep any livestock out.  Broken latches on gates can be replaced with a length of rope or chain with a simple clasp at the end – and try to avoid locking a gate up with a chain and padlock if you can – you don’t want to make it more difficult for loved ones or researchers to visit the graves than it may already be.

Seeing What You have

So, with the vegetation under control and the fence, if any, securely back in place to protect the cemetery, it’s time to assess what you have to work with.

The first thing that we would recommend doing is to find the “artistic” person on your cemetery rescue team, and have them sketch out a diagram of the cemetery.  On the diagram, note North and South, where the gate or gates are, and where the path to the cemetery lies.  Then, begin to plot out where the various graves are located in the cemetery.  Get as detailed as you like.  The important thing to get here is an idea of where particular family plots are, and being able to identify where the graves lie relative to one another.  Many times the very old graves may only be identifiable by a sunken area in the ground, possibly with just a fieldstone for a marker. 

While you do this, another person can be reading the stones that have inscriptions and recording that information down on a tablet of paper.  When doing this, it’s helpful to write down the inscription exactly as it is written on the stone – misspellings included.  If there are any decorations on the stone, you may want to note them as well.  Don’t forget to look at the back and sides of the stone.  Many times inscriptions for another family member are located there, or epitaphs for the deceased may be located on the back of the stone.  If you have a camera, do photograph the stone.  Photograph as close as you can while keeping the whole stone in view.  With larger stones, it may take one “overview” shot, and another close-up to capture the text.  Depending on the angle and direction of the sunlight hitting the face of the stone, the text may be more or less visible.  Try different times of day (some of our best photography of tombstones has been done early in the morning or with the setting sun, overcast days can be good too).  Experiment with your timing and technique if necessary.  It even took us a few hundred photos before we started getting the knack of it! Some folks will use a mirror to reflect sunlight onto the face of the stone to catch the shadows on the carving, though that generally takes an extra set of hands to accomplish.  Watch out, too, for the odd foot or leg of someone getting in the picture. It happens to the best of us!  If you have a tripod to use with your camera, that can help a lot for getting rid of “wiggles”. 

Some people advocate using shaving cream or chalk on the surface of the stones to bring more contrast into play when trying to read them.  We DO NOT ADVISE doing this! Such materials, while they may seem harmless, can be harmful to the stone surface, causing irreparable damage.  If a stone is so deteriorated that it is near impossible to read, the technique we first use is to get down at eye-level to the stone and feel your way along whatever carving you can find with your fingers.  Reading aloud then, to another person with a pen and paper, you can sometimes get at least guesses as to what the inscription is by making out a letter or number here and there.  If that doesn’t give you much to work with, you may want to try looking at the stone a different way. 

Making A "Gentle" Rubbing Of A Tombstone

When you can't read a stone outright, or even make out the letters by touch, there are two PREFERRED and RECOMMENDED methods advocated by preservation experts. 

Method 1: Using Aluminum Foil - buy the cheapest, thinnest, generic brand aluminum foil - being thin is the key here. Place the shiny-side towards the surface of the tombstone so that it does not reflect the sun into your eyes. Taking a damp kitchen sponge, GENTLY press the foil against the inscription, being sure to fully support the stone from the back if it's at all wobbly, and magically the inscription will appear in a 3-dimentional form. You can flatten and reuse the foil two or three times, or bring along poster board and lay the sheets in-between and take them home, or crumple the foil into a ball and place it in your recycle bag.

Method 2: Using a large mirror reflect the sun onto the tombstone to highlight the inscription. Generally having the light hit the inscription from one side or the other is more effective, rather than straight-on.  Try different angles until you find the clearest image. On a cloudy day, bring along a large flashlight to enhance the reflected light. This method usually takes two people to handle the mirror and take notes.

Again, the following methods are now widely DISCOURAGED and NOT RECOMMENDED by preservation experts:

Rubbings - Not recommended - Some people utilize butcher or other paper and a pencils or chalk to make a rubbing. While this method does not add any chemicals to the tombstone surface and is generally well-tolerated by newer stones (that are usually legible anyway), on brittle or gritty markers (like sandstone) it does not make a clear image and the rubbing can cause more damage to the stone.

Shaving cream, chalk dust, dirt/mud, etc. - NEVER USE SHAVING CREAM to fill-in the inscription! Shaving cream contains perfumes, alcohol and other emollients - even the "unscented" varieties, which can leach into the pores of the stone and cause permanent damage. Even when thoroughly flushing the shaving foam out of the inscription you will never be able to get all of the chemical elements out of the stone. Using other items to fill in the inscription will also cause damage if they are not flushed out. You cannot fully flush out items because there is usually no running water or water hose to provide sufficient volume and force, and if you did have such a source of water, the force required would also damage the stone.

A photograph is NEVER worth the risk of damaging a tombstone by using shaving cream!

For expert information on the topic of the use of shaving cream and other agents on tombstones, visit the PRESERVATION section of the Association for Gravestone Studies at: http://www.gravestonestudies.org/preservation.htm

Repositioning Tombstones Properly

Before you get too eager now, more often than not it’s better to let the stones lie where they are.  For their sake, and yours.  They’re really quite heavy, and without the appropriate equipment and technique, you can seriously hurt yourself and/or the stone. With that caveat in mind, there are instances where straightening or repositioning a stone is an appropriate thing to do. 

Often tombstones are actually a set of two stones; a base and the tombstone itself.  If a base settles more on one side than another, over time this can cause the tombstone to tip off of the base, or nearly do so.  An appropriate repair in this case would be to level up the base and then reposition the tombstone onto the base.  Very small stones (and we mean very small!) can be lifted into place by one or two strong people.  Anything more extensive than that, we recommend contacting a local monument provider for advice or assistance in up righting a fallen stone.

Sometimes, after years of settling, tablet-type stones, like those frequently seen for Civil War Veterans or infants, may sink into the ground, leaving only a small portion of the top of the stone visible above ground.  When the ground is soft from recent rain, you may be able to gently wiggle the stone up out of the ground to be able to place more soil and or small rocks or gravel into the hole before replacing the stone in the same hole.  Be very careful in the process, however.  We have seen stone break along invisible fractures, leaving you with a worse situation than before.  With particularly hard soil, you may need to carefully remove the soil around the stone, making it possible to lift the stone up without undue trauma to the stone (or to your back). 

If a stone, especially if it is a larger one, has fallen on its face, you’re better off leaving it face down than turning it face up.  One of the worst causes of damage to inscriptions is from the abrasive action of wind and water over time.  If you are able to lift a stone sufficiently to read the inscription and record it, that’s appropriate.  However, if you cannot correctly identify where it was originally located, you should leave it face down on the ground where you found it.  Now, over time, many stones find themselves in this position, and leaves fall on the stone and dirt and debris accumulate, giving a nice place for grass and such to grow.  So, when you find a grave that appears to have no tombstone, you may want to take a gentle probe of some sort, such as a straightened-out coat hanger or ¼” wooden dowel rod (you may want to sharpen the point a bit so it will poke through the sod more easily), and poke around the area where you might expect a tombstone to be if it had fallen over onto is back or front at some point back in time.  If you do find a stone this way, you can gently remove the topsoil with a hand trowel or shovel.  Then you will need to continue to keep the stone clear of debris until such time as it can be placed back in its original position.  Be wise in this case too: in some cemeteries, stones were designed to lie flat across the top of the grave and not be upright at the head of the grave. “Know what you’re doing” is the watchword here.

Then there are the metal funeral home markers.  What about them? Well, first of all, don’t remove them – even if the name has faded away long ago.  They still serve the function of identifying a grave, even if you don’t know whose it is.  Sometimes just the fact of being able to see which funeral home the marker is from can help decipher who is buried there.  We’ve heard of situations where metal markers (and even stone ones!) were pulled up and stacked nearby so it was easier to mow, with the thought of putting them back in place after mowing, only to realize that it was not known where each belonged after their removal! Yes, it takes more effort, but work around the markers, whatever type they are, when doing the clean up and maintenance of a cemetery, please!

Finally, if you feel the need to clean a tombstone for any reason (again, not usually recommended or truly necessary), do so with the utmost care.  Nothing more than a soft bristle brush (like a mushroom-cleaning brush) and clean, clear water should be used.  No bleach, no glass-cleaner, no baking soda, none of that stuff.  And when you see that lichen and moss growing on the face of the stone? Be extra careful.  Those little plants are hanging onto the stone by winding their little roots into microscopic cracks and crevices in the surface of the stone, and when you scrape them off, you’re likely removing a fair portion of the stone as well.  Dusting off dirt, grass clippings, and rinsing off bird droppings is reasonable cleaning to do – just don’t expect a 150 year-old tombstone to look like it was just carved and placed there yesterday.  It just won’t happen.

Repairing Broken Stones?

In short, a bad repair job is worse than none at all.  We’ve seen the gamut from concrete, to silicone to pieces of tombstone wired together after holes were drilled into it on either side of the break.  All bad repair jobs, and potentially more damaging to the longevity of the stone.  Tombstones are made of differing types of stone, and some take different types of adhesive material to properly put two pieces back together again without causing more damage.  We don’t claim to be experts in this area, and there are few of them out there, we understand.  If you have a stone that you want to repair, do consult with a trusted local monument provider to choose the appropriate method of repairing the stone.  You may even want to consider just leaving the broken stone and acquiring a new marker that displays the same inscription as the broken stone and placing it on the grave in a way that doesn’t detract from the original stone placed there so long ago.  There are so many different situations where repairing the stone or replacing it can be debated, we cannot address them all here.  Use common sense, use your heart, use your head.  Consult with experts where your knowledge and skills lack, and to be honest, most all of us "lack" in this area of expertise.

Shore Up The Banks

The only major issue remaining with regard to the physical rescue and restoration of a cemetery would be areas where the ground has washed out or been dug out – seen usually along the boundary of a cemetery on a steep hillside or alongside a roadbed.  We’ve seen graves that must be all but inches away from being open to the surface, just from years of erosion of a hillside without proper retaining walls being placed and maintained.  This can be a major repair project, but obviously a very important one. Get professional help with this task, if you are not a professional in this area yourself. 

Finally, when the “rescue” of the cemetery from the clutches of nature has been accomplished, commit to keeping it maintained.  If you can’t do that personally, work out a method whereby it can be done.  Arrange for a caretaker – that might be one person who lives nearby that would be willing and able to do the work, or it might be a local service group, such as a scout troop, church congregation or a fraternal lodge.  Set up a schedule of regular mowing, weeding and pruning and stick to it, or before long, it will be another major project to fight back nature and reclaim the cemetery.

Historical Preservation

In the case here, we think of historical preservation in terms of preserving the stories, or history, of the persons buried in a cemetery.  Without the stories of their lives, these people can quickly become just names and dates carved into stone.  And, as we know from the previous section, those stones fade and crumble away over time.  The enduring things that remain are what we can know about these folks that were once someone’s husband, wife, son, daughter or just a dear friend.  They, like most all of us, would just want to be remembered by the loved ones they left behind and their descendants that were and are to come.  That’s another area where you can help, if someone hasn’t already. 

Who Were These People?

Were these people buried here because it was a favorite spot on the family homestead?  Was this place once the home of a little country church and the people buried here faithful members of the close-knit community?  Or perhaps it was once the place where two lovers went to be alone and gaze at the view over the valley below, and vowed to one day lay to rest the body of their beloved who passed on before, to be laid alongside themselves when their time came.  These are stories that future generations love to hear and know about their ancestors.  You may be able to help find clues in the cemetery and in the local records that can bring such tales to light.

Written In Stone

While the vast majority of tombstone inscriptions read like “Edward Jones, born Jan. 1, 1872, died May 6, 1937 in his 65th year”, others contain clues as to their parents, where they were born, a beloved poem or insightful message to those left behind.  Sometimes, it’s a hint at the humor they had, or at the grief and loss their lover felt when they left them behind.  You can often find declarations of love, of grief and of faith and assurance of life to come – not always in words, but in the symbolism of the images carved into the stone, such as gates opening to Heaven, a weeping willow tree, or a rosebud with a broken stem (you can find out more about tombstone symbolism from years past by doing a search on the internet on the subject, or checking in your local public library for books and articles that may be available to you there).

Written In Books

In more recent years, following the mid-1800’s, birth and death records were much more commonplace, as were marriage records.  For the most part, such records were and are kept in the county courthouse where the event occurred. Depending on the county, you may have access to original records or copies of them in indexes or on microfilm.  They may even be transcribed into books of local records and historical accounts, such as a county or family history book.  Some facts can be found in census records from years past, and other similar records that are available online with genealogical research organizations, through public library systems, and through military records kept with various national archives.  If you’re fortunate enough to have living descendants available to you to interview, there too is potentially a wealth of information about the people that have been laid to rest in “your” cemetery.

Books hold photos as well – family albums that may have sat on a shelf or in the attic for years, hold clues to stories that go with your cemetery residents. If not in words specifically written on the page, it may be in the words that come to mind as the owner of the album looks at the photos from long ago and recalls a story or two about what was happening in the photo or at that time in their lives. 

When you find each of these tidbits of life stories, write them down.  Find a way to record and preserve the information that you find.  Seek out the help of local and family historians, then pass the stories along to the younger generations.  If they don’t seem interested, if you’ve written them down, perhaps the next generation will be interested in the stories, or the generation after that.  In the process, have fun yourself and enjoy the adventure!  Treasure the past and help preserve it’s richness and uniqueness for the future.  Even if it is just one little cemetery that you save, or one person’s story, that is one more that has been kept from being lost forever.


Do you have questions about some aspect of cemetery preservation not listed here? If so, we recommend visiting our “Resources” page to find out more.  You may also contact us by email or at our mailing address listed on the “Contact Us” page.

If you would like us to post a transcription of “your” cemetery, along with photos of the tombstones to share with family researchers around the country, check out our “Cemetery Readings” page and email us for any further instruction or information you may feel you need in that regard.

As we are able, we do help with restoration projects and recording of cemetery photos and tombstone transcriptions, or know of volunteers in your area that may be willing to help you with your project.  Contact us with the details, and we’ll see what we may work out together!

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 Updated: 11 January 2013