I receive calls to clean headstones – moss, lichen, ground in dirt all detract from the beauty of the stone, leaving it looking forgotten….or does it?
My uncle is a very nature-focused man: he has an immense vegetable garden; he works with wood and stone. He is an artist. His take is that cemeteries, and headstones, are all part of the circle of life, which naturally includes death.
When we walk through a cemetery, there is a peaceful feeling; one of rest, one of quiet respect and contemplation. For some, like my uncle, seeing a gray stone with lichen growing on it symbolizes our return to the earth: “ashes to ashes, dust to dust”. We feel at one with the history, with those who walked before. We marvel at a stone that bears a date from 1875 and wonder about the life of the woman buried there: did she have children? Did she grow up in town, and is her family still around the area?
At the same time, if it is our loved one, we can feel like we are not tending well to their memory if we let their stone fall into “disrepair”. It is a testament to their life, and to the care we took to select just the right stone, with just the right symbol or bible verse on it. We still want to honor those we love. What does it say if we let lichen grow in the lettering?
As much as I love the beauty of old graveyards, I know that this organic material wears away the details, as the plants hook their roots into the pores of the stone. Over time, flowers etched into granite become obscured and it’s harder to read the dates – was he born in 1866 or 1883? When we are searching our family history, these details matter! Do we have the right John Smith? Is it our ancestor, or are we at the wrong site?
In the end, it is personal choice. It may not matter to you that your great, great uncle’s headstone is being swallowed by nature. But it may matter that you honor your favorite grandmother with a clean stone and flowers on her birthday. I’ll leave it for you to decide.