Headstone Cleaning Seminar at Riverside Cemetery

Riverside Cemetery in Marshalltown is home to 22,000 permanent residents, all with their own unique stories and pasts. However, Mother Nature has been less than kind to the older gravestones in the cemetery, making the identities and facts about these individuals impossible to decipher for those walking the grounds.

Despite a dedicated team of maintenance and research staff, many graves lay dormant, untouched by scrub brushes and cleaners because of time and budget constraints. Dorie Tammen, the cemetery’s general manager, is asking the public to get involved, volunteering their time and elbow grease.

“The anonymous gravestones break my heart. I would like to have their stories readable and able to be told,” Tammen said.

A cleaning seminar will be held this Saturday, Sept. 5 from 9 a.m. to noon, with instruction led by genealogist and grave restorer Dennis Allen, who routinely performs grave restorations at the cemetery. Participants will first attend a short classroom session, held in Riverside’s chapel, wherein Allen will instruct those in attendance on proper cleaning and safety methods. Then, the group will journey out to the cemetery where Allen will demonstrate how to clean a headstone. The group will then break up to cover more ground and test out their new-found restoration knowledge.

Most of the graves requiring cleaning date back to the 1800s; however, some stones from as recently as the 1940s have proved hard to read from aging. Tammen said headstones of the past would be made of marble and limestone which are no match for the aggressive takeover of lichens, mold and natural weathering. Nowadays, people prefer to invest in granite tombstones for their loved ones.

This build-up of lichens, which is a composite organism made from algae or cyanobacteria living among filaments of a fungus, as well as black mold, make many stones illegible.

Sometimes, simply spraying the stone with water and using a soft bristle brush is enough to start seeing improvement. For more stubborn weathering, Simple Green spray is applied. The stone will then be rinsed to flush away the cleaning solution. Afterwards, all-purpose flour is rubbed against the text. Flour works better with wording that is ingrained in the stone, rather than lettering that is raised. Photographs taken to document the stone before and after the cleaning often provide a stark contrast in appearance.

The whole cleaning process can take as little as 15-20 minutes to complete.

“You clean it off and there’s this whole story,” Tammen said.

Attendees can expect to stumble upon the forgotten graves of soldiers, children, former movers-and-shakers of Marshalltown, and lesser known folks, all worthy of proper grave upkeep in the afterlife. Those interested in aiding in the restoration efforts should contact the cemetery at 641-753-7891 to sign-up before Saturday. A $10 registration fee covers cleaning supplies and light refreshments. If enough interest is expressed, the staff is willing to conduct a second cleaning class that afternoon.

Contact Sara Jordan at 641-753-6611 or sjordan@timesrepublican.com