Preserving our history: Tombstone restoration

Marietta and Washington County is rich with history, and residents need look no further than local cemeteries to find historical figures and accomplishments unique to the area, that made Marietta a special place.

“You look in Mound Cemetery, and right beside it, within 20 to 30 feet of Rufus Putnam’s grave are the graves of several free blacks,” said local historian Jean Yost. “You didn’t find that across the river a mile away.”

As rich with history and unique accomplishments as the local cemeteries are, not all of them remain in the pristine condition they were when Putnam and the original pioneers established Marietta as the first organized settlement of the Northwest Territory.

In fact, many of them are experiencing the ravages of time, and stopping Father Time is part of the goal for Mark Martin, owner/operator of Gravestone Guardians of Ohio. Martin will be in Marietta May 20 to present a class on tombstone restoration. He hasn’t yet worked on any area cemeteries.

“You guys have the old stuff,” Martin said. “That’s where the Ohio Company came through. If there’s the oldest tombstone in Ohio, it would be in your area.”

Protecting history is the goal for Gravestone Guardians, which will physically restore historic cemeteries by repairing tombstones and removing agents that can damage the markers, such as tree roots.

But preserving a cemetery and its markers doesn’t start there.

It begins with historical research by Martin, who analyzes records on the cemetery to determine original locations of stones, the boundaries of the cemetery and the original look and feel of the site.

Martin’s work, which has spanned multiple states to include Indiana and New York as well as Ohio, focuses predominantly on sandstone and marble tombstones and their restoration. Those two stones were the popular form of construction during America’s early years, and will often degrade into poor condition and be cracked or even have pieces missing.

“That’s kind of one of my favorite parts, is probing for the missing pieces,” Martin said. “They fit together just like a jigsaw puzzle.”

Once a stone’s pieces have been located, Martin will clean each part and put them together using specially formulated epoxies created in Europe and Germany. Cracks are filled with a void mix, which is similar to a mortar.

After the stone is completely restored, it is then reset in its original location, or as near as can be determined based on historical records. The entire process can take several days, and Martin uses an assembly line process to keep the project moving forward throughout restoration of the cemetery.

Along with the restoration of individual stones, Martin will also work with the party having jurisdiction of the cemetery, typically townships, to maintain the integrity of the overall site, which can lead to removing trees or other hazards.

Cost varies according to how much damage there is. A single break is $100 to $150 and multiple breaks are $150 to $250.

In the end, the goal is to preserve the last resting place of America’s early residents and doing so requires expertise and commitment, Martin explained.

“If you’re not sure what to do with it, ask somebody like me or somebody else that’s doing this,” Martin said. ‘Do some research before you run out to the nearest cemetery and accidentally destroy a tombstone.”