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Cleaning A Cemetery

Initial Cemetery Clean Up
Restoration projects reflect our respect both for our ancestors and for history. Keep in mind that cleaning up a neglected cemetery takes a village. Change will not occur overnight. After all it took the cemetery years of neglect to obtain its current appearance. In a few days with a group of supervised volunteers you will turn an eyesore in to a community asset.

You may have done a general survey before this initial clean up. See our survey page for more information about surveys. An initial cleanup should occur before undertaking any other preservation measures.

Advance Planning
Advance planning is the key, be sure you are prepared for the clean up day. At least a month before the planned day of clean up, start putting together needed supplies. You may need to schedule a portable toilet if no toilet facilities are close by. Be sure to ask the company if they will donate or at least give you a discount on the rental price. Determine what work needs to be done, and what equipment will be needed to get the job done. You can ask volunteers to bring work gloves, rakes, gas weed eaters and any brush-clearing tools that are available to them.

A week before the clean up day walk the cemetery grounds. Use flags to mark the area so that volunteers know the work zone. Since you don’t know exactly how many volunteers may show up, have several plans of action ready. The last thing you want is to have volunteers hanging around waiting to be told what to do or feeling unappreciated. Be sure to provide volunteers with refreshments, snacks and water. You can have them break at lunch time to go find lunch or ask them to bring lunch with them. If you anticipate large numbers of volunteers or the work is spread out over a large area, consider recruiting team leaders who are familiar with the site, the cemetery rules and the work needing to get done. You may want to have nametags or coordinated clothing for the team leaders. Make up a back up plan in case rain or other circumstances alter your event.

Keep In Mind
This cleanup will consist removing dead limbs, picking up trash, cutting back grass and brush. You may even have to remove some trees. If the site has been neglected for a long period, you will need to carefully remove growth by hand or with clippers. You don’t want to damage any un-seen marker. You should not use herbicides, pesticides or fertilizers on or near the gravestones, the stone may absorb the substance and suffer adverse damage. Try to have someone present who can identify heirloom vegetation, often planted as a memorial to the deceased maybe heirloom species. If you find a grave depression on the ground but no head stone, don’t fill them in until you have a chance to research who might be there and find a way to mark the grave.

The Day has Arrived!
Arrive early and have everything set up at least 30 minutes before the scheduled start time. Many volunteers tend to show up early and are ready to get started. During the clean up be sure to make yourself available for any questions or additional directions as necessary. Walk around and talk with the volunteers and extend your appreciation for all their help. Take pictures of the volunteers and the work in progress. After everyone has departed, check the grounds for items that may have been left behind and that everything has been put away and secured.

Pre-Clean Up Briefing
When volunteers arrive start by thanking them for coming and let them know how important their help is. Pass around volunteer release and Liability Forms and have each volunteer sign them and be sure to get an emergency contact person phone number. Point out where the restrooms are located and where they can find refreshments, snacks and water. Go over with them the plan for the day. Explain what needs to be done. Also tell the volunteers where they should place the debris for removal. Make sure all volunteers have the proper equipment and know how to use it safely. Introduce the volunteers to the team leaders if applicable.

This is also a good time to mention the “dos and the don’ts” of the cemetery, for example, what to remove and what to leave alone. Explain how to work around the monuments, curbing, fencing and other features and highlight the importance of care for their preservation. Care should be given to leave all markers and footstones where they lie. If you have a fragmented stone, simply place the bits and pieces near the parent stone. Assume unmarked graves exist and avoid disturbing either the ground or someone’s remains.

The cleanup can include immediate safety concerns, make note of any possible safety issues, such as loose or leaning markers, rodent holes, bee hives, poison oak, etc. These areas should be noted with yellow caution tape and discussed at your pre-cleanup briefing.

Follow Up
Follow up makes for a more successful day on your next clean up event. Over the few days following the clean up, take some time to personally thank your volunteers, Co-sponsors, merchants who made donations or provided discounts and anyone who helped to make your cleanup a success. You may wish to thank people in person or with thank you notes, phone calls or emails. Thank donors and volunteers publicly in the local paper, letter to the editor, city council presentation, organizational newsletter, website or social network pages. This is also a good opportunity to use some photos from the clean up. Take down your flyers and notices about the clean up. Merchants really appreciate it and are much more agreeable to post them in the future. Good luck and remember to have fun and enjoy making some new friends.

What’s Next
Developing a plan of action for continuing the cleaning and fixing the headstones. Develop a list setting priorities for the markers in need of attention. Remember that fixing broken and tilted markers may take a professional. However a team of volunteers can be trained in some repairs and cleaning of the headstone. Routine maintenance is another area that will need to be addressed.

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