Where Do Gravestones Go To Die?

sculptural detail of family with features worn away on marble grave monument, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

This one’s not going anywhere…until it does. Marble monument detail, Allegheny Cemetery

Generally, when one plants a couple thousand pounds of hard stone it stays put…but not always. With around 134,000 long-term residents over 300 acres of land, Allegheny Cemetery would make up one of the larger neighborhoods in the city all on its own. Some of these folks–dead or alive–are going to move around.

There are all sorts of reasons for this: separately-buried individuals are consolidated in family plots, a spouse chooses to spend eternity next to the husband or wife who departed first, buried caskets are migrated into a mausoleum, bodies are disinterred to other facilities across town or way out-of-state.

marble grave monument with details eroding, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Last week we ran the story “A Graveyard for Gravestones”–a look at the strange world created by a cemetery’s recycling lot. It was meant as humorous look at an unusual, fascinating scene, along with a polite nudge at one of our favorite places in the world to clean up one of its (very few) rough edges.

We had no idea about the reaction this story would generate. Within hours of its initial publishing we heard it from all sides: the cemetery felt it had been misrepresented, neighbors got wild ideas about what was going on within its stone walls, readers called it “nuts”. At the mere suggestion that retired grave markers might find a reuse outside of the cemetery we were tarred as “grave robbing” and “the lowest of the low”.

SO, in this most teachable of moments–for us here at The Orbit along with our readers, neighbors, and anyone else who’s ever wondered about the behind-the-scenes workings of a large, historic cemetery–we talked briefly with David Michener, a man who knows his stuff as president of both Allegheny and Homewood cemeteries.

simple headstone with three names, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Shared (replacement) grave marker, Allegheny Cemetery*

First of all, the vast majority of items that have ended up in the cemetery’s recycling area are not grave monuments. In the piece, we mention “dozens of…gravestones”, which is accurate–there are maybe 30 or so total stones currently retired to the lot. But the stacks of other material in our photos could be misconstrued as many more.

“Ninety percent of what’s [removed/recycled] is foundation,” says Michener. Foundations are, as the name implies, poured concrete structural elements that are buried under the surface and used to anchor the visible, sculpted portion of the monument. As markers are removed, so is the foundation, and it all ends up in the same place.

broken porcelain doll on base of marble grave monument, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

“For dust thou art, and unto dust shalt thou return,” goes the passage from Genesis. It turns out this applies to retired monuments as much as expired human beings. As we saw, when a grave marker has reached its, ahem, “end of life” (sorry) it is removed by the cemetery’s grounds crew and taken to a kind of purgatory in the recycling yard. At this point, when the stone has been divorced from its grave and retired from service, it will eventually have any identifying information (the deceased’s name) ground down, defaced, or otherwise removed.

“At that point,” says Michener, “they’re just stones.” Allegheny Cemetery does all it can to recycle these no-longer-used materials into its own infrastructure projects–they’re deployed as foundations or supports and added as clean fill to stabilize land areas.

As for why there is an obvious delay in processing the retired markers, Michener says, “Our concern is taking care of the place where burials occurred and not our recycle yard.” Anyone who’s ever visited Allegheny Cemetery’s immaculate landscape knows this is true.

granite headstone with names for "father" and "mother", Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

Two become one: shared (replacement) grave marker in Allegheny Cemetery*

A couple of the more outrageous criticisms we heard were that families would be shocked to find out the state of their loved ones’ markers and would want to be notified so they could come pick them up. “They just need the descendants of the original owner to pay the cemetery to have them put back”, was one statement. All of these are patently false.

First, families are the only ones making the decisions on the movement of graves and retirement/replacement of grave markers. “We never–by our own volition–remove a monument”, says Michener. If a gravestone has ended up in the recycling yard, it was at the request of the family.

Second, grave markers weigh from hundreds to thousands of pounds. No family takes mom’s granite stone home in the trunk of their Buick. “They are entitled to them–they own them”, says Michener, but do families ever claim the marker as a memento? “Very very rarely.”

grave monument featuring two sculpted figures with both heads broken off, one of them has a bird's nest where the head would be, Allegheny Cemetery, Pittsburgh, PA

To sum up: most gravestones are going to stay right where they are until they crumble to dust all on their own. A very small proportion of them will be removed and retired at the behest of the deceased’s loved ones. If the family declines ownership–which is what happens almost every single time–the cemetery takes ownership of the monument and processes it back into raw material to be born again. May we all be so lucky.


* The identifying information [surnames] on these monuments have been intentionally obscured in the photographs at the request of Allegheny Cemetery.

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