Seaford Monumental Inscriptions Group

Choosing A Memorial

Monument Materials
Click to enlarge
Commonwealth War Graves: relatively long-lasting Portland sandstone, but deteriotates after c 15 years

Rough Rock
Inscriptions on rough-hewn granite become hard to read once the paint has come away

Ironically the later (2002) paint in the lettering on the nearer polished marble memorial has flaked away far sooner than in the earliest (1990) inscription

An exception: while the white marble of this headstone has not survived well, the quality cutting of serif lower case & italic lettering has. The protection afforded by the 'roof' is evident.

However ...
However: remember that for any memorial to retain its meaning, it needs to remain visible!
SeaMIG are primarily engaged in reading and recording inscriptions, rather than writing or creating them. Nevertheless we've seen a good few now, both ancient and modern, and this experience has enabled us to come to some conclusions, which we hope might be helpful when faced with the choices offered by funeral directors and monumental masons.
When commissioning a memorial and its inscription, one wants the text to serve for a goodly number of years in commemorating persons or events, and as far as possible remain legible without constant care and costly repairs. It is therefore worth considering both the material and the font or typeface to be used.

They were specially designed to be long-lasting as well as respectful, but the Commonwealth War Graves Commission's Portland stone needs replacing after a number of years, due to erosion. The durability of all sandstones varies hugely. A few may retain their clarity (if not colour), seemingly unaffected by weather and time, while others around them crumble. Even very recent white marble memorials can soon lose their sparkle, and turn into quite dirty greys and blacks.

Granite is a much denser, impermeable stone which does not suffer from black spot. Where the inscription is on a polished flat panel (rather than the "rough-hewn" bulk of some granite monuments) it is undoubtedly the best surface, being easily cleaned of any superficial lichen and other debris which may build up.

We would recommend avoiding kerbing as a design upon which to place memorial inscriptions as they have proved to be vulnerable. Although modern grave-construction standards are stricter, they are still at risk. This does not rule them out for marking the edges of plots, of course.

After only a short period any memorial close to trees or other vegetation will acquire a covering of algae and lichen, and if left unattended black spot (which coexists very happily with lichen) will start penetrating most stone surfaces. With the exception of granite all natural stone is permeable to some degree, permitting the ingress of water (which can cause surface cracking when it freezes) and infiltration by tiny algae. What may seem very clear when new may thus become obscure within just a year. Every memorial has its own micro-climate, which cannot be predicted in advance (even if set in an area free of shrubs or trees), and this affects both its long-term appearance and the legibility of its text. For example, one side of a marble slab with a peon ledger, may remain almost as clear and fresh as the day it was installed, whilst the other side's paint erodes, the characters fill with debris and the main surface is dulled by a mixture of algae and grime. The prevailing sunshine and wind directions do not provide reliable guides to how any given memorial will survive.

Most modern monuments are either marble or granite, offered in a range of colours and finishes. Ideally one needs a polished finish, which offers the fewest opportunities for both algae and airborne dust to gain a foothold. Inscriptions fare best on vertical or steeply sloping faces, simply due to rain run-off. Horizontal or gently sloped surfaces may look impressive in dry weather when freshly cleaned, but inevitably collect debris between spring-cleans. Even heavy rain is not particularly helpful, especially on horizontal surfaces, as it tends to just splash dust around and cause streaking.

The plainer the design, the better. Intricate designs will, unless regularly cleaned, soon all but disappear as debris collects on scrolls and tracery. Cremation tablets offer little choice, but headstones with curved or angled tops (helping rain run-off) and bold designs are just as impressive as they ever were, and maintain focus on their purpose for being there.

The Inscription Font or Typeface.
Like the stone itself, to remain legible it should be as simple as possible. It follows that italic lettering does not stand the test of time, as surface debris all too easily collects inside the slopes of this lettering (and around raised or lead letters, where used). A majority of memorials avoid it, except maybe for a line or two of a quotation towards the end. Nor is lower-case used very often, for the same reason.

Capital letters are best. Where there is a choice choose a sans-serif font (ie one without any lines at the end of strokes, or the flourishes sometimes referred to as Gothic script). They may lack the artistic grace of some typefaces, but are more practical. Being cleaner cuts, they offer fewer opportunities for wind-blown dust and lichens to find a home, and are much easier to clear up periodically than characters with serifs or flourishes.

In practice a 'bold' font makes very little difference, except immediately after the memorial has been erected. Mere dust takes the edge off 'boldness' within a short time.

The foregoing applies whether the letters are painted or not. As so many letters do eventually lose the paint which makes them stand out (gold, black, white or any other colour), one’s best hope is simply to bank on good luck making it stick longer. Letters which have begun to lose paint are hard to clean without removing further paint, so require regular gentle washing and use of a light brush to remove debris before it can stick to and affect the paint.

To summarise:
  • Choose as plain an upright stone as you can, preferably with a polished surface;
  • Expect the original fresh colour of the stone to change;
  • Use plain capital letters throughout in a sans-serif font, such as Arial, Tahoma, Times, Verdana (but not eg Comic Sans with additional curves);
  • Use size variations to emphasise names - avoid lower case and italic;
  • The larger and deeper the cut characters, the longer they'll remain legible;
  • Don't expect painted lettering to remain painted;
  • When laying out the text, avoid beginning and ending lines of text close to the edges of the memorial - leave a decent margin as edges tend to collect the most algae and dirt.

The above assumes minimal after-care will be available. Being realistic, family graves are often regularly visited in the weeks and months following a bereavement, but in most cases this is likely to become an annual event, or even less frequent. Once the last close relative has perhaps died or moved away, a memorial may only be visited at infrequent intervals by more distant family and friends when and if they can. On arrival, they may well find that the sharp, clear text seen in a photo has significantly deteriorated, regardless of the quality of the materials and workmanship.

Where regular care is available on a fortnightly or monthly basis, little effort is needed to keep an average grave monument in good condition. A soft brush will remove dust and other debris before it has a chance to become attached, and the occasional wipe and polish with wet and dry cloths will remove anything the brush doesn’t. A plastic bottle with spray (as sold for watering house plants) is handy for applying water. The cleaning intervals for polished granite are much longer, but dust and debris will still accumulate.

The next care (or remedial) stage is the cleaning procedure described in Reading Inscriptions. The dark lichen and general dirt which attach to white and coloured marble over time can be removed to a good degree by simply spraying on water to soak them, giving the surface a gentle brush to loosen them, and continuing to spray and brush, taking care not to scrub the lettering itself or damage the overall surface. A pump-action spray makes washing off loosened dirt easier.

If lichen, and particularly Black Spot, have become embedded in marble or sandstone it is almost impossible to reclaim the original surface. If the gravestone is your responsibility then some restoration can be tried using a chemical Black Spot remover, designed for natural stone. Test it on the back of the stone first.

We often regret, when revealing inscriptions to record, that we do not have the time to give gravestones a full clean, as the difference a fairly quick effort to clarify text can make is remarkable and it would be wonderful to give each memorial a complete makeover!   These measures should ensure that what is intended to be a lasting memorial remains sufficiently legible to be exactly that.

Finally, and most obviously, having taken all that trouble to choose the right material and wording, think hard before you order a favourite shrub to accompany the memorial. Some can be suitable, provided they will be tended at regular intervals, and watered in dry summer months. Cemetery staff are only required to cut back overgrowth where it impedes grass-cutting or poses a danger to passers-by. The final example, above, shows what can happen if a rose is left to grow naturally, and is joined by wind-blown seeds which thrive in the rose's potting soil! Somewhere, underneath, is the memorial.

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