Many people do not realize that the early or "colonial" era gravestones of the United States are in fact much larger that what you see above ground. Because of the thickness of these early gravestones half of the length will be found below ground level. This was not only done to ensure that the gravestone would remain straight and sturdy, but for other reasons such as the frost over many northern winters would push the gravestone up. A gravestone with a shorter base would over time be prone to falling over. The use of the long base would prevent this. With the turn of the 20th Century, gravestones gradually became thicker & heavier eliminating the need to set so much of the stone below ground. A concrete foundation was simply poured to keep the stone in place.
There are numerous reasons why one of these early gravestones might start to lean. Sometimes the tilting of the gravestone was caused by the grave collapsing over the years, and the settling caused the stone to tilt in that direction. Adverse weather conditions such as the winter frost as mentioned above or abnormally heavy rain seasons could lead to this.
You will also discover that stones of this nature are still in use today. Government issued veteran gravestones are 42 inches long, with half in the ground.
Resetting one of these stones is not an easy process to undertake and the following things should be kept in mind when working with this type of gravestone:
- Before attempting anything of this nature be sure that if at all possible you have written permission.
- Research local laws or cemetery rules and regulations to be sure that this type of work is legal in the cemetery. You may discover that some local governments will not the use of specific tools such as A hoe shovel, or pick except by cemetery workers.
- Attempting to straighten the gravestone by pushing or rocking can and will cause it to break off at ground level. This should not be done.
- You should first have some idea of what caused the problem in the first place, the type of stone, and be able to gauge with accuracy the degree of wear the gravestone has undergone. In the case of the type of stone if you're dealing with a gravestone from another era, it's probably not made of the durable granite almost universally used today. Red sandstone, commonly used during the American Colonial Period, and marble, which became popular during the 19th Century after quarries were opened in Vermont, are among the historic materials which are very vulnerable to erosion.
- To properly align the gravestone you will carefully need to excavate the base of the stone. Keep in mind that the stone will be quite heavy and unless you have the proper tools and equipment to heel the stone in place during the excavation process you may end up with a larger problem that you started out with. For more information on this area, please see Lifting Stones With A Tripod Hoist.
- Once you have the gravestone reset in it's proper position, you must be sure to repack the soil surrounding it hard enough to support the gravestone. Take into account that a good rain may come along and loosen the dirt causing the stone to start tilting all over again.
You may discover that it may be for the best to simply leave the tilting stone as you found it and not take the chance of doing further damage. If you are not experienced in this type of work it is highly recommended that you do not attempt to re set the stone. The state, county or local historic society or museum should be able to advise you and provide you with the names of restorers in your vicinity. Some museums are even directly involved in gravestone restoration, with experts on the premises. If the damaged gravestone is from the modern era, any local monument business should be able to repair it. In the case of a crooked/sunken stone, the cemetery may be responsible for providing a new foundation, especially if the burial involved a "perpetual care" fee. Again, the costs will vary; don't hesitate to ask and shop around.