Deep cleaning at the cemetery

Retired Army veteran Dennis Piatt is paying homage to those who served, especially in the Civil War, by restoring cemetery headstones. He gave a lesson in Humboldt for an Allen County Historical Society meeting.

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August 9, 2022 - 2:49 PM

On behalf of the Allen County Historical Society, Dennis Piatt taught a class on how to clean tombstones. Above is an example of how effective the process can be over time. Photo by COURTESY OF DENNIS PIATT

HUMBOLDT — Dennis Piatt’s newest hobby — restoring cemetery headstones — is a treat in many ways, he notes.

For one, it allows Piatt, a retired Army veteran, to pay homage to those who served, especially in the Civil War. Second, it offers a unique look at history, and the people who lived here.

But mostly, it’s fun. “We’ve really enjoyed it,” he said, “especially with the folks we do this for, the interred. They never complain.”

With that bit of levity aside, Piatt, a Humboldt native now living in Wichita, and wife Houi were in Humboldt Monday for an Allen County Historical Society meeting on how to restore aging headstones.

The presentation drew a crowd of about 20 to Humboldt’s Methodist Church before the Piatts took the group to Humboldt’s Mount Hope Cemetery for a demonstration on the proper way to clean a stone without damaging it.

The Piatts started their hobby about two years ago at a Buddist temple in Wichita. Houi, originally from Laos, has several relatives interred there.

That led them to seek out several of Dennis’s ancestors, many of whom are buried in Humboldt.

It was at Mount Hope the Piatts noted the conditions of several Civil War-era soldiers in the Grand Army of the Republic portion of the cemetery.

Those stones were government-issued, an important distinction because it gives Piatt permission to work on them. When restoring stones, it’s vital to determine who owns them, and whether you have permission to do so.

PIATT offered some do’s and don’ts to follow when cleaning a headstone.

Use the gentlest, least invasive method possible to avoid doing any harm to the stone, he stressed. Minimize cleaning impacts and test your cleaner first. 

Use soft-bristle brushes if scrubbing is required, or a wooden stick such as a paint stirrer to ensure the stone sustains no damage. Soft plastic scrapers work well, too.

Never use metal tools, scouring pads or wire brushes. Same goes for pressure waters or power tools.

“I know those little Scotch Brite pads you use on a drill are really, really tempting,” Piatt said. “Don’t do it.”

 Anything more abrasive than a soft bristle or more powerful than a garden hose nozzle is liable to remove a portion of the stone’s surface, he explained.

Dennis Piatt shows tools used to clean the tombstones. Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

A THOROUGH cleaning takes about an hour per headstone, Hiatt said.

The first step is to wet the surface with water, ideally with a garden hose, or with a portable sprayer if necessary.

He then uses a paint stick to scrape off any moss or other dirt buildup. The wood tool is almost certainly not strong enough to damage the stone, but is sturdy enough to help clean away the excess debris. Plastic scrapers work, too.

Piatt also recommended wearing protective gloves and eyewear while cleaning the stones.

From there, it’s important to keep the stone wet, and rinse off any mold or mildew you can before dousing it with a cleaning solution.

Piatt is a strong proponent of D2, a biodegradable solution used to clean stones at Arlington National Cemetery in Washington, D.C., among others.

Leave the solution on for about 10 to 15 minutes before wetting down the stone again with water, Piatt said.

Dennis Piatt sprays cleaner on a tombstone.Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

From there, you can either scrub some more on the stone with the D2 or simply let the solution do its work before rinsing off any excess mold and mildew with water.

The solution will continue to clean and brighten the stone as time passes, Piatt noted. “It keeps on working.”

Most, if not all, of the stones he cleaned over the weekend will be even brighter in a month or so.

The D2 is designed to keep the headstones clean for seven to 10 years, Piatt said.

The Piatts offered a slideshow with several before and after images of stones they’ve cleaned over the past two years, including the GAR stones at Mount Hope, which are striking as visitors enter the cemetery.

Tombstones are cleaned at graves in the Grand Army of the Republic section at Mount Hope Cemetery in Humboldt.Courtesy photo
Tombstones are cleaned at graves in the Grand Army of the Republic section at Mount Hope Cemetery in Humboldt.Courtesy photo

HE OFFERED other tips.

Don’t attempt to clean a broken or leaning headstone.

“If it’s leaning, you don’t want to be working on it,” Piatt said. “It could fall just from you working on it. And if it’s broken, just leave it alone. You don’t want any more damage than what’s already there.”

He also stressed the importance of not using household cleaners or bleach, which could stain the stone rather than clean it.

With any cleaner, it’s important to test a small portion of the stone, perhaps at the bottom on a rear corner, to see how the stone reacts to the solution. D2 is designed to work on pretty much any surface from slate or granite to limestone or metal, Piatt noted.

One other tip: While D2 is biodegradable, it will kill grass or weeds.

Houi Piatt sprays cleaner on a tombstone.Photo by Richard Luken / Iola Register

THE FINAL step, is to take a trash bag to carry away all of your leftover materials.

“Keep it cleaner than you found it,” he said.

The Allen County Historical Society recorded Hiatt’s presentation on the ACHS Facebook page.

Digital copies of Piatt’s slideshow also are available for free by contacting ACHS Director Kurtis Russell at [email protected]

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