Death of a Headstones
This web page describes some of the causes of deterioration of headstones in Newfoundland and offers a few suggestions for slowing the process.
Why Are Old Headstones Self-destructing?
During the photo work for this project, several wooden grave markers where discovered that were about 100 years old! Why are they outlasting some of the stone markers? Many of the beautiful old headstones of Newfoundland were carved from a low grade of stone that made easy work for the stone masons because it was soft. For the same reason they deteriorate relatively quickly.
The white headstones common around Newfoundland are similar to giant sugar cubes with words carved on them. Each time a sugar cube is dipped into water, a little more of the surface melts away. Because what melts away also includes the areas "down in the lettering", a lot of surface thickness may be lost before the inscription becomes unreadable. This photo is an excellent example:
If the solubility of the sugar (or hardness for stone) is not uniform across the surface, then it will melt more quickly in some areas than in others. The photo at the right shows an extreme example of this type of non-uniform melting.
The above comparison of stone to a sugar cube discusses melting, but there is a second way that a sugar cube wears away: the individual grains of sugar fall off. With headstones the "glue" that holds the grains together is slowly dissolved away by water. The photo at the left is of a spider commonly found on Newfoundland headstones. Notice the large particles in front of the spider that will soon fall off leaving the stone just a little thinner than it was the year before.
Porosity of the stone resulting from the washing away of the "glue" leaves it susceptible to a far more devastating problem. Water gets into voids, freezes, expands, and rapidly tears the stone apart. Nature's freeze-thaw process will eventually reduce a stone to little more than a heap of white granules.
The author of this page is unaware of a good solution to this problem. A number of stones observed during this project had been painted. It would seem logical that painting is a good idea, but it may not be the best solution because it often makes stones more difficult to read.
Why Do Headstones Fall Over?
Besides occasionally being push over, the vast majority of headstones found on the ground in Newfoundland fell over very slowly due to lack of a stable foundation. Two things that influence the stability of the foundation are:
The first photo illustrates a problem with the quality of the foundation itself.
- quality of the foundation materials,
- stability of the soil that supports the foundation.
The other major problem is the stability of the soil around the foundation.
The base of this stone is balanced upon a concrete foundation that was too small to begin with. The concrete is crumbling on the right side perhaps due to having been improperly mixed. (See the page on repairing headstones for information about mixing concrete.)
There are several occasions in the "life of a headstone" when the soil supporting its foundation becomes disturbed:
Soil is like "Silly Putty", a semi-liquid plastic that flows slowly over long periods of time. Under the influence of the force of gravity, soil flows in an attempt to become uniformly dense and level. When a hole is dug and then covered, the soil placed back into the hole is relatively loose compared to the well-consolidated soil around it. The higher density soil adjacent to the "disturbed" soil will slowly flow in the direction of the center of the hole.
The dark-colored fracture in this stone suggests that it has already fallen once. No doubt it is on its way down again, but very slowly as the soil beneath the left side of its foundation flows away under the tremendous weight of the stone.
The use of wooden caskets is common throughout Newfoundland, and it is probably the major cause of falling headstones. The larger the volume of the casket, the greater will be the void created as it decays. During the project, it was observed that on average a wooden casket collapses in 25 years.
- when the casket is buried,
- when the stone is erected,
- when a wooden casket collapses,
- when adjacent graves are dug,
- when stones are erected on adjacent graves,
- when wooden caskets in adjacent graves collapse.
What is the solution to the falling headstone problem? There are several things that can be done to lessen or eliminate this problem:
Without intervention, the nice stone that was erected over this grave will likely fall over in the direction of the grave, and perhaps into it. If it is too heavy to be lifted, grass will eventually grow over the top of it. This is how a grave buries its own headstone!
If your goal is to straighten up the stone on a grave where the soil has not been disturbed in many years and nearby wooden caskets have fully collapsed, then the soil has probably stabilized enough that no additional problems will occur. Pour a new concrete base for the stone as described on the web page for repairing headstones. When the soil is stable, a deep foundation is not necessary, but it is always a good idea to make the foundation broad enough that it extends several inches beyond the headstone in all directions.
- Many of the newer cemeteries around Newfoundland are putting in continuous concrete footings spanning the length of entire rows of graves. These provide excellent stable foundations for the stones.
- The use of long-lasting concrete or plastic vaults for the casket will prevent problems associated with the collapsing of the soil over the grave as the casket decays.
- When headstones are installed at graves without continuous footings and long-lasting vaults, perhaps the best thing that can be done is to construct a foundation for the stone that is deeper than the bottom of the grave. This might be accomplished by using post-hole diggers to dig several deep holes to fill with concrete. A single "pour" or concrete would be best so that the deep-hole footings and the concrete base for the stone are all one.
- At the first indication of the collapse of a wooden casket, soil should mounded over the top of the grave to lessen the opportunity of the soil beneath the headstone from flowing into the void.