Moving Gravestones to read Inscriptions

NB:   Neither SeaMIG nor any church or civil authority will accept responsibility for any injuries sustained or damage caused
while stones are being moved, whether or not permission to do so has been granted. Assess the risks first.

Moving Stones in Graveyards & Cemeteries
The best advice is don't!   There is, however, a time and place for everything. It may be that you've read the memorial stones for all the Whitesmiths except Arthur, whose headstone is in fact the lump of something in the grass you keep tripping over, having fallen and lain undisturbed for many years, slowly acquiring a covering of soil and vegetation. Or you've simply come across a partially visible part of a memorial. In such cases some positional restoration of the stones is usually justifiable.

Memorials are intended to be visible so they can be read. However, softer sandstones and older monuments with lead lettering which fall or sink may have their surfaces and inscriptions protected from weathering and grass-strimmers etc. Turning them permanently does risk exposing them to erosion. And some soils may accelerate deterioration. Whether to leave a recorded memorial upright is better than leaving it face down is a matter for local judgement.

If you decide to excacate and/or move such objects, first ask the permission of the site owners, usually the Vicar and churchwardens, or the local Council. Some may be willing to allow misplaced and fallen stones to be raised for the purpose of reading inscriptions, or to replace kerbstones which have moved so that the lettering is once again revealed. Others may object to any disturbance.
Small Stone Repositioning
Footstones, Tablets & Small Memorials
Sometimes these find their way onto paths between rows or even to the wrong plot. Lifting and replacing them where they belong is self-evidently justifiable, but be sure to put them on the right plot! The grass they were lying on will usually recover within a few months.

Smaller stone memorials often sink more quickly than larger memorial elements, which should have had robust below-ground support. They may be heavy! Memorial tablets can fairly easily be raised back to ground level by simply digging them out and packing the extracted earth below them. They will sink again in time, but can easily be cleaned and the inscriptions made legible once more, and cannot fall or become a safety hazard.

Small footstones and other memorials (such as smaller scrolls) should only be restored to a vertical position if they can be sunk back into the ground firmly. If they cannot, leave them lying neatly.
Larger Stone Repositioning
Headstones, Kerbs, Scrolls and Larger Monuments.
All stonework is heavy. Old monument stone can be brittle, and easily damaged. Soil settling and subsidence, and the natural decay of coffins can leave voids beneath the surface. Test for this by probing the ground, particularly around heavy objects such as scrolls, before attempting any digging, as there may be no support which would tolerate movement. Lifting stones out of collapsed graves is a professional task. Fallen headstones and crosses need professional restoring to their original upright positions, due to their weight and height, and the safety hazards they pose if not securely fixed. This should not be attempted, therefore.

A robust garden fork with a strong wooden handle may suffice to raise small and medium size headstones, footstones and parts of displaced kerbing, but should be tested before any hands are placed beneath a stone, and before a stone is raised fully. Baulks of timber should be inserted underneath as soon as sufficient ground clearance makes this possible. They are there to ensure that, should the stone fall, it will not shatter. Taking care not to scratch or otherwise damage the stones is easier using wooden levers. Any raised stone should normally be lowered gently back to its original position. To restore inscription legibility it may occasionally be worth putting displaced kerbs on their bases, if still intact.

With heavier fallen headstones, which cannot be easily manhandled but need turning and moving back to their correct positions (on top of their own graves), placing wooden runners beneath them is helpful in both reducing the effort required and keeping them clear of the ground while doing so.
Broken Kerb
All the far side kerbstones had fallen away, and the inscriptions with them. They had to be cleaned and read to arrange back in the correct order
Kerb fixed
The restored kerb, with its inscriptions in the right order
Two fallen headstones turned to face upward and placed on their respective graves. The soil where they had lain soon grasses over.
lifting a headstone
Lifting and turning a headstone, with fork, wooden levers and wood supports. Note the pointed end of the green lever.
tablet and footstone
Here a memorial tablet has been dug up and replaced in a suitable position. The small footstone was also dug up and was able to be firmly stood upright again.
Click to enlarge
cracked headstone
This headstone had split off, and split in two again on falling.
headstone raising
After removing turf, the first piece is raised. A fork and wood blocks are already underneath as an extra block is inserted.
headstone raising
The largest part is carefully lifted, adjusted, then laid back onto several wooden runners, and levered to its correct position using the fork and crowbar
kerb restoration
The kerb had been forced away by old tree roots, so room is made for it to go back
restoration complete
The restored stones positioned together facing up
Suggested Equipment:
  • Thick gloves and stout boots with toecaps for hand and foot protection.
  • Strong garden fork(s) to get a grip under the stone and raise it enough to insert wooden blocks and levers.
    If a stone is clearly too heavy to lift reasonably easily, the attempt should be abandoned.
  • A crowbar, well wrapped with cloth, to act as a lever. Care must be taken as metal can easily damage stone.
  • Stout lengths of timber (4" x 4") to support the stones while raising them and act as levers. Cutting one end of each lever at about 45o greatly helps slide them underneath, and gives them a point to grip the earth when using them to raise a stone.
  • Spade to remove and then level the earth and enable the stone to be laid back down appropriately. Take care not to scrape a surface.
  • The usual tools and cleaning kit for reading inscriptions.
  • A good helping of plain commonsense and appreciation of when to give up!
In all cases remember that the effort to reveal and record does not include a commitment to fully restore.

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