12 September 2019

Cleaning Up With the Guardian Angels

I am one of the organisers of the 'Guardian Angel' cleaning programme at South Brisbane Cemetery. About once a month (during April-November) we call for members of the public to come to the cemetery, arm themselves with spray bottles, buckets, brushes and gloves, and get to work cleaning some dirty old headstones. It is, without fail, a much more rewarding experience than you might imagine.

Lunchtime with the Angels, September 2019. (C. Dawson)

We are always surprised by the dedication of the attendees, and how far some of them come (30-80 km is quite normal). We usually get about 20-30 people there (sometimes more), and as you might imagine, the type of people who give up a Sunday morning to volunteer manual labour looking after a heritage place like this are always very pleasant to meet. Some have relatives interred in the cemetery, and so have a personal connection, but many others just do it of the goodness of their hearts. And they come back because they enjoy it.

Headstone cleaning itself is - as one attendee put it so well - a cathartic experience. After you have wet a dirty stone, carefully scrubbed it with a hand brush, and then sprayed it with more water, it is a great feeling seeing the gunk wash away to (hopefully) reveal the clean stone beneath. Some of the monuments have decades worth of grime and pollution on them, and not every headstone comes up as sparkling white as you might hope, but they're always a lot cleaner than they used to be!

We have regulars who all have their own styles. Some like to meticulously clean every square inch of a grave, others like to clear pathways, some just focus on the stone itself. Their combined efforts always get excellent results.

Of course Rule #1 is 'do no harm'. Not to yourself, and not to the monument. We have a team of supervisors (Marleen, Alicha, Rachael, Tracey and myself) ready to work with small groups and make sure everything is okay. What type of stone to clean, how to do it safely for yourself and the stone, where not to stand, etc. It is a system developed over time and it seems to work.

We are strict about which monuments can and can't be cleaned. We avoid sandstone, which can be easily damaged by brushing, and focus mainly on marble or granite. We use mostly just water and elbow grease, although a water/white vinegar solution can be used to try and clear some of the more stubborn staining. We don't go for perfect white results, just getting the surface grime off is good enough.

South Brisbane is a pretty big cemetery, and we have only covered a certain percentage of it over the last couple of years. There are some sections we haven't touched yet but need a serious tidying up. We will get to these in time, hopefully. Of course many hands would make light work. Details of upcoming events can be seen here.

A few random results from the Guardian Angels can be seen below, and a full list of galleries can be viewed here.

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