It’s the classic troupe. You get back from summer holidays in grade school, and your teachers make you write about what you did over the summer holidays. We’re not in grade school anymore, but we’d like to bring you a little bit of what we’ve learned over the ‘summer’ while working at monument conservators at Woodland, our best and worst experiences, and maybe a few of our favourite experiences and photos too!
What was your favourite gravestone to work on this summer?
Robyn: I think I’m going to have to go with the Carter Sisters on this one! Originally, we thought they were one stone…maybe a ledger that had cracked in several places or something, but when we took the sod off the stones we realized it was two different stones from the 1850s! They both had the bases in situ, right beside on another too and didn’t need a key made, so we were able to get them standing next to each other again…even if it did take 2 weeks to finish!
Brienna: Probably Maurice’s? Although, it’s hard to choose. I remember feeling really excited uncovering my first completely sunken monument, and Robert Cooper’s stone was also exciting because of its richness in history. I enjoyed working on Maurice’s monument because it felt like there was a surprise with every dig. We decided to work on the monument because we had nearly finished all of the fallen monuments in Section K, and wanted to finish the rest of them. We found Maurice’s monument laying flat in two pieces under a pine tree, and thought, “Okay, cool! Another one to lay down in screening!” But we were so wrong. While digging the monument out, we realized it had broken off, and the marble continued straight into the ground. While we tried to get that up, we realized it was in cement and surrounded by thick roots. While we tried to get the cement out, we realized there was a key underneath. And finally, while we tried to get that out, we realized it was in more cement! We ended up with what I’m dubbing the largest hole on Earth, but that was the exciting part! We never knew what to expect with this stone!
Best gravestone conservation tip for the public?
Robyn: OhhhHHhh there are so many to chose from! Lets go with this: Please do not take rubbings of any gravestones, or add any substance to the gravestone to make it ‘easier’ to read, such as talcum powder, flour, or any other household powder. They all contain substances that leech into the stone and cause internal damage when they get wet…the particles expand, crack the stone, and eventually ruin the inscriptions. Please just take pictures, make notes, and lightly feel the stone with your finger tips to determine letters!
Brienna: Please please pleaseeeee don’t go probing around cemeteries to look for stuff. Even if it’s your families plot, please ask for consent from the institution. For example, if at Woodland Cemetery, you should go into the office and ask the staff. This is for many reasons. Firstly, you could scratch the monument with what you are using to probe the ground. Secondly, you could dig up something that the family intended to be buried with the person. Thirdly, it’s an active site, and you don’t know what’s below the surface. What if the burial is shallow? Or what if that plot is still in use? Please just ask the staff inside, they will be happy to assist you.
What was your favourite animal encounter?
Brienna: Watching a deer give birth! Even though it was a stillbirth and sad, we learned a lot. We found the deer sitting, with a pink sack next to her. Once she was done giving birth, she pulled the sack off of the fawn with her teeth! This looked super gruesome, as bits of the sack and blood dripped from her mouth. It was pretty intense!
Robyn: Definitely going to have to go with Fredrick/Franklin the squirrel for this one! It was one of our first days at Woodland, and as we were going for lunch this young squirrel was chasing us down the road while we walked! After we realized he was a hungry baby and not a rabid creature, we let him follow us over to lunch. We gave him water and a cashew, and he hung out with us for part of the afternoon! He rode around on our shoulders, snuggled inside my jacket, and rode on my backpack for a while. Once we got our golf cart running though, he ran off. I really hope he’s doing ok out there, friendly little guy!
Hardest part of the job?
Robyn: I could go with something physical here, but I think as an archaeologist I’m pretty used to figuring out how to lift large, heavy buckets of stuff (and stones). I think the hardest part of the job was just figuring out what gravestone repairs are the priority for us to work on. You could spend literal years at the cemetery, probably even in only one or two sections, making sure each stone is level, stable, etc., but our priorities need to be to older stones that can be repaired, unsafe stones, etc. It’s so easy to get overwhelmed by the work that needs doing, or excited about X stone here and Y stone and start several projects at once (guilty!), so prioritizing based on need and safety is super important.
Brienna: I think just getting used to the conditions. I had not exercised much in a while prior to starting the job, and my body was in for quite the shock! Haha. I had a few muscle cramps at first from all the lifting and digging, but they quickly went away. And similar to Robyn, I also had difficulty prioritizing projects and accepting the fact that there’s no way we can fix everything. Once Thomas said, “You can’t get saviour complex for the cemetery!” Which is so true, but hard to accept! If we had more hands, there are so many easy fixes lying around Woodland. I’m happy that this program exists every summer though, so I can hope future monument conservators will get to them.
Best part of the job?
Robyn: Besides meeting and working with all these amazing people? Getting to work in a historic cemetery, of course! I’m a huge advocate of public archaeology and heritage, so getting to work in a public site where we can answer questions from interested members of the public is huge! We have worked really hard this summer to up our online presence as a way to interact with people too, but it is so much more rewarding to be able to answer questions in person. I want everyone to know how interesting historic burial sites are!
Brienna: So many things!! Our team was amazing to work with; the job was essentially stress-free (well, unless you count stressing about the heat?); and our Tuesday visits to the gluten-free bakery across the road for baked goods were always amazing. I also really loved getting to choose what projects to do, based on what which repairs we preferred and which stones spoke to us. This allowed us to complete whole areas and family stones, areas in the shade, and really ambitious week-long projects (looking at you, Hugessen)! Finally, it’s an amazing feeling to find a completely sunken monument, and raise it so that their memory is restored. We’ve conserved and restored quite a few stones that weren’t visible to the public just 2 months ago, and now so many more people can acknowledge these people and their history, and perhaps do more research in their own time.
Tips for working outdoors in *This Heat*?
Brienna: Drink 3x as much water as you think you need, and don’t feel bad for taking breaks! If you work your body to the point of exhaustion in this heat, your work will be subpar anyways. So, it’s better for you and your productivity to sit in the shade every once in a while! Robyn and I were lucky enough to have access to popsicles and freezies in the break room, and eating those made for fun breaks!
Robyn: Get yourself an ‘archaeology’ hat (ugh can you hear me groaning at that joke from here?) to keep the sun off your face, ears, and neck! Trust me, it will save you! Also, look up the signs of heat exhaustion and heat stroke so you can take a rest if you feel one of them coming on. Heat is dangerous, especially if you aren’t prepared!
Most surprising part of working in an active cemetery?
Robyn: I study burial grounds so I wasn’t concerned about being around graves at all. In fact, I find them rather peaceful! However, I wasn’t sure how I’d feel being around the contemporary deceased, since everyone I research has been dead for a long time. When we got a chance to shadow in the crematory, I was a bit surprised to find that I’m fairly comfortable in that environment as well (archaeologists often don’t go beyond bones), and was/still am very interested about that kind of work. The burial process is fascinating.
Brienna: There were a few times throughout the summer I’d forgotten that we were working in an active cemetery. When you’re working on monuments from the Victorian Era, dating as far back as 1851, it’s so easy to remove yourself and forget that those were people just like us. We often referred to the stones as if they were the people they commemorated (“Robert, why are you so dirty!?”), or spoke of them as if they were still alive. I found myself being reminded that the people of the monuments we were working on were deceased when we could see services nearby, or when we visited the crematory.
How do you feel about death & dying after working at Woodland?
Brienna: I think I’ve started thinking more about how sudden my death could be. As I just stated, it’s easy to remove yourself from situations at the cemetery, and to create a mental dichotomy between the dead and the alive. But that could change at any moment! This hasn’t made me more worrisome or cautious, because life happens, it’s just made me think about it.
Robyn: I’ve always heard that it is healthy to think about mortality, that considering your own finite time on earth allows you to live more fully. I didn’t come into this job scared of mortality, but I feel like I’m leaving with a better understanding and respect for the individuals who work in the funeral industry, providing support, compassion, and guidance to bereaved families during their time of need. It takes great strength to work in this industry, to be with these individuals during their last moments on the surface, or before cremation, and those moments are also part of the death & dying process in our world today. I feel privileged to have had this experience and a chance to be part of those moments too.
Thank you so much for joining us on this journey in monument conservation. We’ve loved working on these blogs and bringing the history, and the conservation processes to you this summer! Keep up with Woodland Cemetery History here on the blog, and on social media all year round to find out more about the exciting work being done at the cemetery, and to get info on upcoming tours and talks. Au revoir!
-Robyn & Brienna, 2019 Monument Conservators