Mike Alexander tediously toils at his chosen hobby. With the patience of Job, the Henderson man brings stone images back to life.
Grave markers intended to survive in perpetuity eventually all succumb to the elements and are weathered and the lettering worn away sometimes to the point of becoming unreadable. Other stones become a haven for the growth of moss, while more stones are simply damaged by mowers or vandalism. That is where Alexander enters the picture.
“I’m a cemetery conservator,” Alexander sternly expresses as opposed to other titles laid upon him.
A member of Cemetery Conservators for United Standards, Alexander claims he is the only conservator in Tennessee. He goes by the business name Respect Tombstone Cleaning and Grave Maintenance.
“I don’t see being called a restorer of headstones,” says Alexander. “They are new only one time. I see myself as a repair man and conservator of the monument.”
Alexander states old monuments are just that – old, and have weathered over the years.
“(But) they are part of history, we have to remember that,” he asserts. “You don’t want everything to look new, just better than you found the monument when you start the repairs.”
He started out the hobby/business by cleaning headstones, and then traveled to Delight, Ark., to a cemetery workshop. “Cleaning and repair go hand in hand,” Alexander says. “Each stone is unique. The basics are the same (but) you have to adapt to each repair.
“I am doing my part to restore respect and honor to the loved one’s memory. For me it is a labor love, and each one I work on I want to be better than the previous one.”
He continued, “It is sad to say there are far more cemeteries and headstones here than I will ever be able to repair. I am thankful that I can make a difference. I really appreciate being able to do the repairs to various cemeteries I have worked in, and for cemeteries to have stepped up to have repairs made to conserve the history and memory of the folks who have gone on before us.”
If attempting the restoration yourself, Alexander has some urgent recommendations. Never clean a headstone with a wire brush or nylon grinding wheel on a power tool. Also, do not use chlorine or sodium hydroxide.
Also, cleaning with power washers is not recommended. High pressure water has been known to take layers of skin off of a person. If you can strip paint off of a building, you can strip layers of stone off of a grave marker. Many historic stone structures have had their historic mortars and soft bricks damaged with this process. The two key factors here are the amount of pressure and the softness of the stone. The real damage occurs when overzealous people turn the pressure up on soft stonework.
Sandblasting on the other hand should never be used as a method of cleaning. The main point of sandblasting is to remove unwanted material to produce a new prep surface. This means historic stone material will be removed to achieve this. Removing historic stone material from the surface will destroy a stone’s natural protective skin and cause the stone great harm over a short time.
Alexander recommends to re-mortar a headstone with Portland cement. He uses plenty of water and a soft natural brush.
“Do no harm” is Rule No. 1, and personal safety is Rule No. 2. “I always use a product called D2, a biocide which is what is used on the White House, Arlington Cemetery and the Washington Monument. All products I used have been vetted and proven expoxies, lime mortar, etc.”