Leveling a Headstone in Union Cemetery

If you’ve visited Union City Cemetery on the weekends recently, you may have seen a group of men and women working on the headstones — cleaning them, repairing them and, in some cases, digging up ones that have fallen over and resetting them so they stand upright again.

It’s the kind of work that often draws long and concerned stares, admits Marc Houseman, one of the volunteers carrying out the work as part of the Franklin County Cemetery Society (FCCS).

But, he said, it’s also the kind of work that is surprisingly rewarding, in its own quiet way.

“It’s just a piece of stone, but it’s the only tangible hard evidence that this person lived and died,” Houseman remarked. “You can’t dig up a body and breathe life back into it. The only way to memorialize the dead is to honor them.”

Houseman and the other FCCS members don’t mind when people become curious about their work. In fact, they welcome you to come ask questions. It gives them a chance to inform the public about who they are and what they do.

Organized in 2006

The FCCS was organized in summer 2006 with just over a dozen people attending the first meeting.

Half of those original members are still active with the group, which has now swelled to about 40 members.

The group’s principal desire is “to research unmarked burials, clear or clean up small cemetery plots, repair or reset tombstones and record any findings not formerly documented,” its website, www.cemeterysociety.org, reads.

“The aim of the group is to record and restore as many of the small burial plots as possible.”

Houseman said his interest in cleaning up cemeteries and repairing broken headstones goes back to his childhood, when he used to visit cemeteries and clean them up — resetting fallen headstones and clearing away twigs and brush — on his own just for fun.

As an adult, he dreamed about organizing an official group to do more extensive work, but assumed he was the only “weirdo” who liked doing such projects.

Yet his work as director of the Washington Historical Society brought him in contact with like-minded history buffs who see the value and wealth of information included on headstones, and six years ago they banded together.

742 Cemeteries in Franklin County

There are some 742 cemeteries around Franklin County — many of them small, family cemeteries with only a handful or so graves — but members of the FCCS know where they all are. Over the last 20-plus years, Houseman and others at the Washington Historical Society have spent time identifying the location and what is known about each one, including the conditions.

In the last six years, the FCCS members have worked on about 30 cemeteries. Some of those included just one headstone. Others had 10 to 15.

The Union cemetery is by far the largest that the group has tackled so far.

The condition that the cemetery is in when the group arrives determines in what order they work. Some are so overgrown with brush that members first have to clear the land in order to begin probing for stones.

Important Discoveries

The group’s most exciting discovery to date came in summer 2011 when it uncovered the headstone of William Owens, husband of Washington’s founder, Lucinda Owens, in Krog Park at the intersection of Highway 47 and East Fifth Street.

“We knew about where the stone should be,” said Houseman, noting the ground where Krog Park is located was the public cemetery for the former town of Bassora from 1836 until it was closed as a cemetery by the city of Washington in 1882.

When the land was turned into a park, the graves were kept in place and the tombstones buried in place, said Houseman. But before they did that, they took measurements of where they were.

Still, the project required a lot of probing — sticking a long metal probe into the ground to see if it hit a hard surface that could indicate a coffin.

Once Owens’ headstone was located, about 10 volunteers spent six hours digging it up. It was substantial in size, Houseman noted — 8 feet tall and in four pieces.

The project was a joint effort between the FCCS and the Washington Historical Society.

The headstone was reset and rededicated in Krog Park earlier this year. Other stones that were uncovered that day were photographed and reburied.

The old Cole Cemetery in the South Point area of Washington was another interesting project, said Houseman, noting it was well known that about 40 years ago the property owner removed the headstones from the cemetery there and threw them into a ditch.

Many people may not realize it, Houseman said, but all cemeteries are public grounds, meaning anyone can visit them, even if they are in the middle of someone’s private property.

Today the property has a new owner, who agreed to let the FCCS members work to put the headstones that had been found back in place.

“A neighbor had found a couple of the headstones and kept them,” said Houseman. “And a lady in Krakow called to give us a headstone that she had in her barn from that cemetery.”

In the end, the FCCS worked with the property owner to keep the cemetery more secluded so it wouldn’t invite strangers driving by to stop and come on his property for a look.

It was a particularly rewarding project, said Houseman, because the FCCS members reassembled something that had been lost to history.

“To be able to take Humpty Dumpty and put him back together again, that’s the cool thing for me,” he remarked.

The FCCS also was involved in piecing back together a pile of broken headstones at the St. Francis Borgia Cemetery at Jefferson and 14th streets in Washington. For years, as headstones at the cemetery would break, they were thrown into a “junk pile,” said Houseman.

Since working with the FCCS, Borgia has established a cemetery committee which checks the grounds weekly to see if any stones need straightening, leveling or repairs.

Houseman said many people may not realize that these kind of services are not necessarily the responsibility of the cemetery. They fall to the descendants, who may or may not even be aware that they have a relative buried in the cemetery.

Yet, even if the family members knew of any damage to a relative’s stone, they likely wouldn’t know how to repair or reset the stone. Houseman said Washington Monument occasionally fields calls asking for help with these very situations, which is why the local business is a member of the FCCS.

‘Knowing . . . About History Is Exciting’

While there is a feel-good attitude that comes from cleaning and repairing anything that is dirty and broken, there is another benefit to the work being done by the FCCS, said member Susan Woodcock.

“Genealogy is such a passion, and being able to dig up tombstones, put them in their rightful spot, that helps a lot of genealogists,” she commented.

There’s also the opportunity to discover lost information. That happened last year while the group was working in the St. John’s United Church of Christ cemetery at Mantels.

Members came across the bottom portion of a broken headstone and, after looking around and probing through the woods, found the top portion, which had an inscription in German.

Houseman knew enough of the language to make out the words “felled at the hands of the rebels.”

The death date was Oct. 3, 1864, the same time that the Confederate army came through Franklin County in what is known as Price’s raid.

“We rediscovered a person who was forgotten,” Houseman said, proudly.

“Knowing something about history is exciting.”

Finally, there’s also the beauty of the old headstones, said Woodcock, noting many are white marble, which was common from the 1840s to 1890s.

Stones older than 1840s are often made of limestone, which over time becomes a tan or light brown color, said Houseman. The more recent headstones, from the late 1890s to present, are mostly granite.

Work Done on Site

Repairs and cleaning of the stone are done on site. There is one FCCS member who is able to make new bases for stones that need it.

To level leaning stones or reset stones that have fallen over often requires a lot of muscle. The FCCS has special tools to help with the process, but they also rely on manpower.

“We use a lot of gravel to level out a leaning stone and dirt to fill in low spots,” Houseman noted.

To clean the stones, members use a product known as D2 that is environmentally friendly, but expensive.

“It’s amazing,” said Houseman of the difference it makes in the stone. “It’s not an instant result, but it continues to clean over time.”

Many stones continue to whiten to the point where they look almost new.

Repairing broken headstones can be the trickiest work for the group, and some stones are beyond repair because too much of the stone is missing or the edges where the pieces broke is worn away too much and they no longer fit together well enough, said Houseman.

Those that are able to be repaired are pieced back together using a void mixture that works like glue, said Houseman. In some cases the breaks are not that evident in the end.

The FCCS learned some of its techniques from a man in St. Louis who has been doing similar work for 15 years or more. He even came out to give them some hands-on help.

FCCS members also have attended workshops, watched YouTube videos and read books on the subject.

“There are only a couple of other groups in the state that are doing this kind of work,” said Houseman.

And it’s safe to say that few, if any, do it for free, like the FCCS.

“We don’t charge a fee, but we gladly accept any donations,” said Houseman.

Although the expenses of this volunteer organziation are not much, they do exist — cleaning supplies, void mixture . . .

New Members Welcome

The FCCS, which meets monthly on the fourth Tuesday of each month (next one is Tuesday, Oct. 23) at 7 p.m. at the Washington Historical Society Museum at Fourth and Market streets, charges members a small annual dues of $10, which also goes toward expenses.

The group recently used its dues funds to purchase an enclosed trailer where they can store all of their tools and materials, pulling them onsite on workdays.

Typically the FCCS meets once or twice a month for a work session, which can last several hours. Not all projects require heavy lifting, Houseman is quick to point out.

“Some aspects of stone repair can be done by anyone, and there is also research and documentation to be completed,” he said.

For more information on the FCCS, people can visit www.cemeterysociety.org, call 636-269-0280 or email preservehistory@cemeterysociety.org.