The Grave Issues Squad cleans up headstones as it preserves history

Dozens of volunteers have turned out this summer to help clean gravestones at the City of Kalamazoo’s Mountain Home Cemetery, 1402 West Main Street — part of the Grave Issues Squad. 

The work is part of a Historic Preservation Commission project in Kalamazoo’s cemeteries, and the simple act of choosing a stone to clean can be a great introduction to historic preservation, says Luis Peña, historic preservation coordinator with the City of Kalamazoo.

“I think it's a great entry-level kind of thing to preservation, you know, because a lot of people like cemeteries and there's a lot of cool history to be found in the cemetery,” Peña says. “It humanizes some of the names that we know“ from the city’s history. “A lot of the earlier white settlers are buried (at Mountain Home Cemetery).”

But unlike a simple visit or walking tour, the gravestone cleaning activity also serves as an easy introduction to historic preservation best practices — using the gentlest, non-invasive methods possible, and above all doing no harm.

Peña says volunteers are encouraged to select whatever stones they wish to clean, as long as they are in generally good repair and stable, not tilted or likely to fall or crumble.
Luis Peña, historic preservation coordinator with the city of Kalamazoo, was down to the last bucket of supplies for volunteers who turned out recently to scrub gravestones at Mountain Home Cemetery.Buckets and soft brushes are provided at the cleaning sessions, and the group starts by using plain water, which suffices for most of the work, he says. For more stubborn dirt or moss or lichens, workers use popsicle sticks or plastic paint scrapers to dislodge the grunge.

Special biological solutions that are gentle enough for use on even old soft white marble stones can be sprayed on the most stubborn stains, Peña says.

All materials, equipment, and instruction will be provided, though volunteers are invited to bring their own buckets and brushes if they have them, he says.

How long it takes to clean each stone depends on the size and condition of the stone selected as well as how thoroughly the volunteers choose to clean.

During the August work session, 20 to 30 stones were cleaned.

Volunteer Mark Dunham says he enjoys his work with the Grave Issues Squad.“It can get people into the fold of historic preservation because it's fun and there's going to be also some immediate gratification of seeing the results of cleaning off that stuff,” Peña says.

“And then knowing that you're doing it the right to way to preserve the stones — this might be some people's first foray into historic preservation. So I think that this is a really cool project.”

Peña said cleaning the stones not only allows their inscriptions to be more legible, it also helps signal respect for the people buried there.

And, as a practical matter, cleaner stones are easier for maintenance workers to see as they mow. That can help protect the stones from accidental damage, Peña says.

The “Grave Issues Squad” is a subcommittee of the commission and seeks to assess, inventory and clean headstones in Mountain Home Cemetery. 

Volunteers were invited to wander and choose the gravestone they wished to clean.Mountain Home, a city-owned cemetery founded in 1849, contains the graves of many of the best-known figures from Kalamazoo’s history -- from Gilmores and Upjohns to Frederick Curtenius, Adjutant General of Michigan from 1855-1861.

Residents who are interested in volunteering can contact the Grave Issues Squad at to sign up. Volunteers will receive a confirmation email and information sheet after signing up. 

More information about Mountain Home Cemetery is available here.

The group sessions start in a specific section of the cemetery, though volunteers are welcome to roam, Peña says. The only hard and fast rule is to not work on stones in the cemetery’s Jewish portion at its west edge because it is not owned by the city. Peña says it is owned by the temple, and “we just want to make sure we are following their rules.”

“Once we ask, they might be fine with a cleaning — we just want to make sure,” he says. “We don't want to go and assume anything by going in because it's privately owned there.”

Volunteers were invited to wander and choose the gravestone they wished to clean.Otherwise, volunteers can choose their stones based on their interest. 

At the last cleaning session some people worked in the front, others in the back, and some worked on the stones of prominent citizens. 

“I know that I started work on Volney Hascall’s stone.” Hascall was owner and publisher of the Kalamazoo Gazette from 1846 to 1862.
One of the the chairs of historic preservation commission was working on Charles B Hays’ stone; Hays was a prominent developer who platted most of the Edison neighborhood. His epitaph reads “home builder.”

Peña said volunteers who want to apply their new preservation skills at other cemeteries, perhaps on their own family’s tombstones,  should check to make sure they are allowed to do so.

Read more articles by Rosemary Parker.

Rosemary Parker has worked as a writer and editor for more than 40 years, most of that time in Southwest Michigan.