Expert gives basics on historic tomb restoration – Clarion Herald
Stucco work (see photo above, performed by a New Orleans Catholic Cemeteries contractor on a grave in St. Louis Cemetery #2) is one of the specialty crafts usually required for the proper restoration of older graves. The walls must be stripped down to the bricks for structural repairs before applying several coats of lime based products. (Photo courtesy of New Orleans Catholic Cemeteries)
By BETH DONZE
When visiting New Orleans’ oldest Catholic burial sites, one sometimes tends to focus on the graves, which are in varying states of disrepair. However, what many visitors fail to realize is that the responsibility for grave maintenance lies with the grave owners – not the cemetery. Additionally, since 2017, nearly two dozen “abandoned” graves have been successfully restored through donations to a fund established by New Orleans Catholic Cemeteries (NOCC).
The Clarion Herald asked Heather Veneziano, NOCC’s director of public engagement and development, to shed light on the sometimes confusing subject of restoring historic tombs. Her interview follows:
What’s the public’s biggest misconception about crumbling graves?
I don’t think people understand that in the absence of ongoing maintenance, it is the property owner’s responsibility to undertake maintenance of his grave. The graveyard functions similarly to a city. We take care of the city’s corridors and infrastructure, but not the “houses” in the city. The homeowners take care of their homes. The option of permanent care has only existed since the 1930s – in which the property owner pays a one-time lump sum that goes into a foundation and the interest from the foundation is used to maintain the grave permanently. When a grave is constantly tended, the cemetery takes care of things like removing excess vegetation growing on the grave, updating the lime wash, and tending to any structural issues that may arise over time. The grave will always appear in good condition and you don’t have to worry if you don’t have children (to inherit the grave) or if you move away. When we sell a piece of cemetery property today, the sale always includes ongoing care. We don’t want to be in the same situation (with so many crumbling graves) that we are in now, 100 years from now.
Can property owners purchase permanent care “after the fact”?
If your grave was built before the 1930s—that is, before the permanent care program—and you are restoring it, it can be included in the program. It is a way of taking permanent care of some of these older tombs. Many of the graves, which are in poor condition, date from before 1930, so there is no one left to look after them.
This leads us to the question: What about graves that do not have a clear owner or whose family is extinct?
Our definition of an abandoned grave is one with no known owner on record and no burials have taken place in the past 50 years. Since 2017, funds have been donated to our Abandoned Tomb Initiative for the restoration of 21 historic tombs (at St. Louis Cemetery #1 & 2 and St. Joseph Cemetery #1). We have a list of tombs that we think will benefit, but it’s difficult to complete them all at once because the money only goes so far. Sometimes we’ll pick one tomb that’s in really bad shape and restore it, and sometimes we’ll pick two or three that aren’t in super bad shape to spread it out a bit more. We recently had donors with family members buried at #2 St. Louis who wanted the surrounding graves to be in better condition, so they asked various family members to donate to the program. We were able to restore quite a few tombs around theirs which was really beautiful!
How many graves require moderate to complete overhauls?
That depends on the cemetery. For St. Louis #2 it’s about 80% (of the grave inventory), but this cemetery was established in 1823, so many of the graves are older and no longer have family connected to them. St. Louis #3 has fewer abandoned graves because it’s a little newer.
Can you give us an idea of the restoration process of abandoned tombs?
Due to the drying times between the different layers of stucco, a complete restoration takes two to three weeks, depending on the weather. The first step is usually a demo where we remove any incompatible materials that may be on the grave from previous repair work, such as latex paint or portland cement. When these products became popular in the 1940s, people didn’t realize that they would trap moisture within the tomb’s internal masonry and accelerate its deterioration. So we’re going to tear down the tomb down to the bare bricks and fix any mortar joints that need attention. Then we apply a “scratch coat” of stucco – a rough coat to allow the (two subsequent) coats of stucco to adhere to. The walls are provided with a lime plaster. Everything we do in the Abandoned Tomb Initiative uses lime-based products to create a permeable membrane on top of the tomb – allowing moisture inside to escape.
May I repair my own Catholic cemetery tomb?
You can work on your own grave, but we always recommend checking with the office first. We have experts on hand to answer questions and go through things, especially if what you’re up to could potentially damage the tomb. If you hire someone to work on your grave, they must come to the office and get a permit. We suggest hiring (NOCC recommended contractors) because they know how our graves work and how best to take care of them.
Are special tools required?
Some of them, like trowels, are readily available commercially. To clean graves, you need soft-bristled brushes—you don’t want hard plastic or metal bristles. We include two soft brushes in our cleaning kit (available at nolacatholiccemeteries.org for personal pickup at two locations) as the harder bristles will damage marble and other stones. It’s the other materials that aren’t as easy to buy – you can’t just buy lime. I personally would prefer families to stick with cleaning their grave and hire someone if they want lime or stucco work done because it’s quite complicated. There are specific mix ratios and drying times, so we always recommend families renting this stage of the restoration.
What about marble tombs?
Marble is a really soft stone that does pretty poorly in our climate and gets stained due to the pollution in our air. Bleach may have been used (incorrectly) to clean in the past, but this weakens the marble. If there are cracks there are different ways to fix it but again we suggest hiring someone as it is a specialty. The newer tombs are mostly made of granite, which is really easy to clean.
What other restoration work is underway?
During a 1980 investigation of St. Louis No. 2, about 150 tablets were collected and stored off-site with the intention of one day returning them to their proper graves. Some of the plaques leaned against graves or in the grass below. Many were torn to pieces. That was in 1980. They remained in storage for 40 years. As part of our Lost Tablets project, we are putting these tablets back together, photographing each one and examining the people (named on the tablets) to find out which tomb they belong to. We also went to the Office of Archives and Records to look at the burial books – to see if there were places listed for those people. So right now we have this huge spreadsheet. We’ve found many of the locations and hope to recover more than half (of the lost tablets) in time for St. Louis No. 2’s 200th anniversary. 2 back to where they belong in 2023.
How can I help restore our historic Catholic cemeteries?
We have a general donations page on our website, or you can use a donation solely for the Abandoned Tomb Initiative. However, it would be most helpful to speak to your relatives to see if you have a family grave in one of our cemeteries as you may not realize this. My main goal is always to reconnect people to their graves. I don’t want abandoned tombs! I want people to realize that these are their ancestors and their property, to reclaim these graves that belong to their family and reconnect with their history. We are available to work with families to find out where their grave may be. We ran a genealogy workshop series on our website a few years ago – six hours of webinar information on how to trace your ancestors!
Inquiries about topics covered in this Q&A can be emailed to nolacatholicc[email protected]. The NOCC website is nolacatholiccemeteries.org.
NOCC will be among the cemetery professionals attending the Historic New Orleans Collection’s “Caring for Your Tomb” special event to be held November 6 from 1:30-3:30 p.m. at the Lake Lawn Metairie Funeral Home and Cemeteries, 5100 Pontchartrain Blvd ., Metairie takes place. A panel will discuss the legal responsibilities for managing your family plot, researching its history and best practices for restoration and maintenance. An optional visit to the Metairie Cemetery follows the program, which is free and open to the public. Pre-registration required at https://my.hnoc.org/11354.