Cemetery restoration: report on hands-on experience and how-to (cross-post)

The massive stone slab grave cover of Tekla Shkyrpan is lifted, stabilized, leveled, cleaned, and protected. Photos © 2016 Szymon Modrzejewski and © 2016 Jay Osborn.

The massive stone slab grave cover of Tekla Shkyrpan is lifted, stabilized, leveled, cleaned, and protected. Photos © 2016 Szymon Modrzejewski and © 2016 Jay Osborn.

Jay Osborn, of the Rohatyn Jewish Heritage project and Gesher Galicia, recently volunteered as part of a cemetery marker restoration workshop in the south of Poland organized by Stowarzyszenie Magurycz (Magurycz Association).  “It would be a chance for us to learn from their 30 years of experience in the care of stone cemetery markers and other monuments,” Jay writes, in an article posted on the Rohatyn Jewish Heritage web site.

The Magurycz workshops, he writes, “aim to stabilize, re-assemble, repair, and preserve” the surviving markers in Jewish and non-Jewish cemeteries in East Central Europe where there is no longer a local community to care for the sites.

This workshop lasted a week at two cemeteries and four roadside crosses in the Beskid Niski mountain region, adjacent to the Magura National Park and the Slovak border. Jay  joined only the largest project, at the old Lemko cemetery in Małastów — the Lemko ethnic population that had lived in Małastów for centuries was part of post-war Soviet forced deportation; few returned to the region, and their abandoned cemeteries and much of the other built heritage fell into ruin.

The following is a cross-post of sections of his article that describe the workshop and provide details on what he learned about the process of restoring gravestones, and other restoration work. Much of this entail best-practice and how-to procedures that can be applied to the restoration of Jewish grave markers and cemeteries.

Jay writes:

The work starts with documentation, tagging, and photographs. Before I arrived in Małastów, association leader Szymon Modrzejewski had identified eleven surviving sandstone markers, all in various states of decay: typically the taller monuments had topped and partially fallen apart, and some stones were split by corroded iron inserts. Where the several stone elements of each marker were still attached, the team had already separated some to look for hidden flaws, such as iron dowels cemented between stones which would eventually lead to failure.

Then every marker was subjected to a common process, adapted for each one to its specific materials and issues:

  • — careful chiseling to remove hard foreign materials (mortar)
  • — drilling and chiseling to remove iron dowels and their adhesives
  • — shallow digging and soil adjustments to create a new level base in the original marker location
  • — layering of natural stones (from a nearby creek and elsewhere in the area) to raise the marker base above the soil level
  • — re-assembly of the marker stones, typically with a thin layer of sand-and-cement concrete
  • — fine adjustment of the natural stone base layer to correct the vertical alignment of taller markers
  • — deep cleaning and chemical treatment to kill organic material on the marker stone, followed by impregnation with a water-repelling compound to retard further decay

Much of the work is focused on halting and reversing disintegration of the sandstone markers from exposure to soil-borne water. I was at times astonished by the different degrees of damage on individual stones based on which faces had been in contact with the soil.

A huge monument is extracted, cleaned, leveled, and re-assembled over several days, using simply-engineered methods and tools. Photos © 2016 Jay Osborn and © 2016 Szymon Modrzejewski.

A huge monument is extracted, cleaned, leveled, and re-assembled over several days, using simply-engineered methods and tools. Photos © 2016 Jay Osborn and © 2016 Szymon Modrzejewski.

In some cases in the Małastów cemetery, the monument stones were small- or medium-sized and could be lifted by hand by one to three volunteers. More commonly, levers, rollers, and ramps were needed to manipulate and position the stones; these tools were either brought to the site by the team or fabricated from available trees and rocks in and around the cemetery. In one case a 5m-long log was used as a lever, and the weight of three men (including me at the end) was needed to raise a huge monument base to level. The team joked that they work like ancient Egyptian slaves, but their process is engineered to amplify the strength of the workers while slowing stone movements to protect both the markers and the volunteers. It was fascinating for me to observe Szymon in the cemetery; always on the move, the only time he seemed to be still was when he was studying some problem with the stones that needed special attention to solve.

For the largest stones, special methods were required. A 6m-tall site-built tripod was erected in these locations, and a block and chain hoist employed to slowly lift, move, and replace parts of each large monument, all by hand. When work completed in one location, the tripod was moved to another to start work there.

Some of the work was more delicate, whether on large stone pieces or small. In these cemeteries, the top piece of the markers was usually a cross, made of either iron or stone; many of these were damaged when the stones had toppled years ago. The iron pieces were taken offsite for treatment to remove corrosion and to encapsulate them against water (and to protect the stone base when they were re-inserted). The stone pieces were dressed and, where possible, were re-assembled with special adhesives after slow drying to enable a strong bond. On several of the markers, tall stone pieces were fitted with copper-alloy (bronze) dowels to replace the original iron parts but without risk of corrosion swelling.

 

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