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Wisconsin Gravestone Preservation Company Helps 'Reset The Clock,' Give History More Life

Jarrod demo gravestone cleaning at cemetery walk2.jpg
Image courtesy of Jarrod Roll
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Jarrod Roll shows a group how to properly clean a gravestone at a Wisconsin cemetery. Roll has been cleaning gravestones and leading workshops since 2006 through his company Save Your Stones.

Cemeteries serve as a final resting place and a memorial for the living to visit. But time and the elements can erode gravestones, especially if they’re not maintained. And while little can be done to undo damage or bring back original markings, cleaning a gravestone can help stop further damage — if done correctly.

"Many people just have an assumption that because something is made of stone, it’s very strong, very resilient and it's gonna last forever, but the truth is that a gravestone is not the same as a granite countertop, even though they’re made out of the same materials," says Jarrod Roll.

He's owner and operator of Save Your Stones Cemetery Preservation Services in Onalaska, Wis. Roll will be leading two gravestone preservation workshops at Forest Home Cemetery in Milwaukee on Saturday.

Roll says, "[A gravestone is] a historic record and it’s an artifact, so we have to treat those things differently than we would a stone patio or even statuary in a park."

Roll has been traveling throughout the midwest to clean gravestones and teach others how to do it since 2006. He says the common lesson he shares with others is that the cleaning products found in hardware stores or in people's homes may not be the best materials for cleaning a gravestone.

Marble, granite and limestone are the most common materials used for gravestones in Wisconsin, and Roll says absolutely no bleach, vinegar, wire brushes or pressure washers should ever be used to clean them.

"It's not about making it look like it did when it was brand-new 100 years ago for us today," he says. "There's no point of trying to clean something if you're going to damage it worse than what's growing on it is."

My goal is to help people learn how to do it right so that we can help kind of reset the clock and give it some more life.
Jarrod Roll, Save Your Stones Gravestone Preservation Services

"My goal is to help people learn how to do it right so that we can help kind of reset the clock and give it some more life," Roll adds.

The most common damage you'll find on gravestones is biological growth that blows through the air, accumulates on the stone and can discolor and trap water when conditions are right, he says.

Roll says that lichen is the most common growth — ranging in colors from green, black, yellow and orange, or even resembling alligator skin. "If done right, cleaning and removing the lichen can help preserve the stone and also will help remove that growth so that you can read the information better, which was the purpose of the stone to begin with," he says.

The tools needed to clean a gravestone are pretty low-tech — brushes with polyester bristles, a plastic scraper like a plastic puddy knife, a wooden skewer to get into the inscriptions and lots water, Roll says.

"You want to make sure you saturate that gravestone with water because that marble, that limestone, it's very thirsty and it's going to absorb that water. [It's] very porous," he notes.

Once the stone is wet, the lichen is scrubbed off with the hand tools, rinsed and then cleaned again with D/2 Gravestone Cleaner. Roll only suggests this cleaner since it was tested by the National Parks Service and will safely kill the leftover organic matter growing on the stone.

Despite good intentions, Roll says people need to get permission of the overseeing body of a cemetery to clean a gravestone that is not your family in the state of Wisconsin. "I get permission in writing from anybody whose gravestone I'm going to go out and clean. Because it's not my property, it's private property and you need to respect that legally and this is also true for when you organize large cleaning projects," he notes.

For Roll, this work goes beyond seeing a rewarding "before and after" transformation. "There's some sort of heart connection that we have to cemeteries," he says. "There's a value that we put into cemeteries that goes beyond just physical markers of the dead. And so, for cleaning a gravestone and being able to reveal once again who is buried here, there's something very rewarding in that."