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The Association for Gravestone Studies Conference (2023)

Updated: Jul 30, 2023

Written by: Nikki Simon

June 28th, 2023



Hoo boy, can I tell you that I may have just had one of the top 10 best weeks of my life?


...

That may reflect poorly on the type of life I have led thus far - but seriously, my time at the Association for Gravestone Studies Conference was a fantastic experience.

"What exactly is the Association for Gravestone Studies?" You might ask. Here is a blurb from their website to lay it all out for you:

"The Association for Gravestone Studies (AGS) was founded in 1977 for the purpose of furthering the study and preservation of gravestones. AGS is an international organization with an interest in gravemarkers of all periods and styles. Through its publications, conferences, workshops and exhibits, AGS promotes the study of gravestones from historical and artistic perspectives, expands public awareness of the significance of historic gravemarkers, and encourages individuals and groups to record and preserve gravestones. At every opportunity, AGS cooperates with groups that have similar interests."

Pretty great, right? And, every year, AGS offers up the chance for two students to attend their annual conference for free with their Stockton and Slater Scholarships, which include registration, transportation, food and lodging. The caveats are that your research needs to align with the purpose and goals of AGS, and you'll be asked to present your research at the conference; not bad at all.


Now, let me break down my time at the AGS Conference for you! This post is gonna be a long one, so make sure you've gone to the washroom and are nice and comfy!


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My welcome packet

Tuesday, June 20th: There wasn't much going on for me on the first day of the conference. I arrived in Denver just after one and at the University of Denver, where the conference was held, around 2pm. I checked in, and they gave me my room keys, the t-shirt I ordered, the conference lanyard and a packet with basically everything I could ever want to know about the conference. I headed up to my room which was a standard dorm situation - four people in a unit with a kitchen, living room, bathroom and individual bedrooms. I went into this experience certain that I would just be strange and awkward and uncomfortable, but as soon as I entered the room, I was invited to join one of my roommates, Ondi, a cemetery enthusiast from New York, for a meal with herself and her friend Caitlen, who works for the City of Austin Cemetery Operations division, and Caitlen's roommate Nadeya, also from Texas.


In the evening, the conference had a Gravestones 101 presentation for first-timers, overviewing gravestones and cemeteries from 1670-1999, an AGS 101 meeting to learn about the scheduling and events, reconnect and meet new people, and an evening social to mingle and talk cemeteries. I, being me, did not go to any of these. I felt that I already had a pretty good grasp of the history of cemeteries and gravestones, and I was still getting my sea legs among all these new people and nervous about diving right in. I spent my evening checking out the DU campus (which was beautiful, by the way) and going through my information packet for the week, which included a conference schedule, information and maps for the cemeteries we would be visiting, a list and information about local cemeteries we could visit in our free time, a set of preservation briefs, the AGS annual report, and information about each person that was attending the conference and each of the field trips.


Wednesday, June 21st: Wednesday was the first of the two cemetery field trip days. We had our breakfast in the DU cafeteria, picked up whichever lunch packets we signed up for and piled into the bus for a departure time of 9:30am. Our rules for visiting the two cemeteries of the day were as follows:

  • Do not photograph markers that are less than 50 years old

  • Do not bother or otherwise get in the way of any funerals that may be occurring

We headed first to Riverside Cemetery, which, to be honest, was a bit of a nightmare. Riverside Cemetery is Denver's oldest operating cemetery. Established in 1876, it is 77 acres and holds the burials of more than 67,000 individuals. Riverside Cemetery was impressive in terms of the range and scope of the memorialization. Sadly, the cemetery itself was not terribly well maintained. Riverside is located in the middle of a highly industrialized section of Denver that lent a repulsive smell to the area. It was desperately overgrown, covered in fire ant mounds and attracted massive numbers of mosquitoes, leaving most feeling rather miserable by the end despite the impressiveness of the memorials.


The second location we visited was Fairmount Cemetery, the second oldest cemetery operating in Denver. It was established in 1890 and contains approximately 145,000 internments over 280 acres of land. In contrast to Riverside Cemetery, Fairmount Cemetery was exceptionally maintained despite its massive size (which Ondi informed me was relatively small compared to many NY cemeteries) and made wandering among the various memorials an absolute delight. Fairmount contains several landmarks, such as a large and gorgeous historic gatehouse at its entrance and the sweet Little Ivy Chapel. Fairmount also boasts many mausoleums (my absolute favourite), including the imposing Fairmount Mausoleum, which currently houses more than 18,000 individuals. Looking upon Fairmount Mausoleum is an intimidating thing, but being inside brought me a profound sense of serenity, surrounded by exquisite stained glass and the press of memories.

Once we finished our tours, around 3pm, we headed back to DU for the opening reception and dinner. After dinner was the notorious AGSC late night, where attendees were invited to share 10-minute snippets about their research, local preservation work, favourite cemeteries, or anything in the AGS wheelhouse. This happened to be in an area on the way to my room, so I stuck around to watch a presentation on the Tomb of Job, a series of photographs from some of the cemeteries surrounding Istanbul from one of the scholarship winners, Ikbal, and images of various tombs from a student trip to Greece from Perky, the vice-president of AGS.

Thursday, June 22nd: Thursday was panel and workshop day for me. After breakfast, I headed over to the silent auction that had opened the day before; this contained tons of books, clothes, grave rubbings, photographs, D/2 Biological Solution and other odd paraphernalia related to death and cemeteries. A couple of books caught my eye, but I decided to play the game and hold off on bidding for a bit.

At 9am, I moseyed on over to a classroom for the first half of the preservation workshop with Jason Church (of the National Center for Preservation Training and Technology), Rusty Brenner (of Texas Cemetery Restoration), Joe Ferrannini (of Grave Stone Matters), and Ted Kinnari (the inventor of D/2 Biological Solution). It was fun listening to the banter around the room as these four taught us all about the causes of damage and deterioration of monuments, including hard water and mowing, and the reasons and best practices for preservation and conservation, including surveying and proper documentation of the grave and surrounding area.


Imagining of what James Gordon Bennett's tomb might have looked like

The preservation workshop ran until 11:30, just before lunchtime, and after lunch, I attended three panels. The first was presented by Joy Giguere on the evolution of the rural landscape-style cemetery to the landscape lawn-style cemetery. I heavily cited Dr. Giguere in a paper I wrote during my honours - so I was, admittedly, a little starstruck. The second presentation was by Lauren Donker (another Canadian, woohoo!) on the St. Thomas White Bronze Company and the demographics of those purchasing white bronze monuments. St. Thomas isn't far from where I grew up, so learning something new about the area was a delight. The last presentation was given by Elizabeth Broman about James Gordon Bennett Jr., a notable figure in the history of New York, and his legendary giant owl-shaped tomb that never came to be. Personally, I was on board with Mr. Bennett's plan; I, too, would like a giant owl-shaped tomb.


After these three panels, Ondi and I became better acquainted with Wilhelmine and Ikbal, the other two of Caitlen's roommates. From New York and Turkey, respectively, they were the Stockton and Slater Scholarship winners. That being the case, they were lined up to present their research that evening and were somewhat nervous. So, we all decided to skip out on the panels a little early, give them some time to look over and refine their notes and head over to a little place called Tarasco's Restaurant so that Ikbal could get a taste of authentic Mexican cuisine (including, to her surprise, soft tacos!).

Once sufficiently stuffed with tacos, we returned to DU for the last round of (formal) presentations for the day. Ikbal got the ball rolling with her presentation on two extramural cemeteries in Istanbul, Mokius from the Byzantine Period and Eyüp from the Ottoman period, and how they helped define spatial and social boundaries. Wilhelmine presented next, exploring the relationship between photoceramic gravestone portraits and immigrant religious identity, specifically Italian and Jewish Catholics. Both presentations were very well done and well received by the audience. Everyone had so many questions - I was awed by their poise and control and so proud of them; I would have been terrified in their place!

I decided to skip the late-night sessions on Thursday in anticipation of Friday, which was sure to be an exhausting day.


Friday, June 23rd: Friday was dedicated to the practical portion of the preservation. I was so excited about this, you have no idea, this was half my reason for coming to this conference. After an early breakfast, those of us who had signed up for the preserv

ation workshop climbed into the van for 7:45am, and we headed over to Evergreen Cemetery in Colorado Springs.


Evergreen Cemetery is Colorado Spring's oldest continuous cemetery and is particularly well maintained. Founded in 1874, it covers 220 acres with over 90,000 burials and a lovely little chapel which featured a casket lift in the basement. Something enchanting that we learned about Evergreen involved the dozens of trellises that could be found hooped over headstones all over the cemetery. We were told that, once upon a time, those trellises had all been covered with roses until, one day, their upkeep became too much. We were shown pictures from the 1950s of the roses all in bloom and assured that efforts were being made to restore the roses to Evergreen.

Evergreen Cemetery in the 50s, covered in roses

At Evergreen, we met up with Jason, Rusty, Joe and Ted again. Most of our morning was spent taking a tour around the cemetery with Jason and dealing with some minor rigamarole resulting from the cemetery lacking spigots throughout, something not very conducive to cleaning headstones. Jason took us to different stones with different issues and in various states of decay, teaching us if and how those problems could be dealt with. We looked at zinc markers, markers falling into animal burrows, delaminating markers, markers that had split off their base pins and fallen over, and mortise and tenon stones made with insufficient support for the tenon. We very quickly learned that you have to pick and choose your battles. The most important thing to remember is that you want to do no harm. Sometimes a repair is just not possible, and in many circumstances attempting to repair a stone or even mitigate further damage might do more harm than good.


Joe, showing us all how to be mortar pros

After our tour, we got split into three groups one was to be with Jason for cleaning, one with Rusty for resetting and one with Joe for repair and patch work. My group was with Joe first; we were taken to a mortise and tenon headstone, where the top portion of the stone had fallen out of its base and split in half. Joe taught us first how to properly mix and apply mortar to reaffix the top to the base and then how to properly mix and apply epoxy to repair the break where the top portion of the stone had split in two. Once the repair was made to the break, we were shown how to clamp the pieces together to maintain proper alignment until the epoxy dried. Joe then took us over to a different headstone to teach us how to use mortar to repair and stabilize surface cracks and areas of loss.


After our time with Joe, it was lunchtime - ironically, a taco bar supplied by the Evergreen Cemetery crew. I spent my lunch at the cool kid table with Jason, Rusty and Ted; I needed all the inside info I could get.

Our group was assigned to Rusty next, helping to reset an obelisk that had separated into three pieces, two base portions and the obelisk. Sadly, the first group didn't get to do any resetting as they encountered a giant tree root where the base of the obelisk had to go. This ended up being great for our group, though! Rusty taught us the proper types of materials to place underneath the base for support and how to make the base stone as plumb and level and in line as best as possible with the rest of the markers in the surrounding area. As part of this process, we learned how to operate and center the hoist, as well as how to wrap the stones for lifting to prevent damage. Rusty then showed us how to mix and apply the proper consistency and thickness of mortar for this type of repair, implementing wedge lead between the two pieces of base stone to act as a barrier while the mortar is setting so the two pieces don't completely squish out the mortar.


Jason teaching us proper cleaning techniques

That was as far as our group got with Rusty before the next group showed up, and we were sent off with Jason to clean stones. Jason taught us the importance of checking the markers first to see which ones are stable enough for cleaning and, depending on the stability of the material, to make conscious decisions about which cleaning method is most appropriate. We learned two methods of cleaning and implemented D/2 Biological Solution for both. For markers that are delaminating or otherwise unstable, we were taught that it was best to spray with water, spray with D/2 and walk away, letting the D/2 do its thing. When a stone is stable, and a little scrubbing can be used, it is okay to do so. Still, restraint does need to be shown, as too much scrubbing will consistently remove base material. D/2 is a solution that kills, removes and deters biological growth and can take several weeks to months to show results. Despite this, it will do its job with or without scrubbing, and the results will usually be stunning.

Once Jason showed us the ropes, we got our buckets, water sprayers, D/2 and brushes and set to work, it was getting close to the end of the workshop by this point, but each of us managed to get a couple cleanings in before we had to leave. A few of us went into the workshop thinking that cleaning would be the most exciting/enjoyable aspect. But, I was surprised to find just how much I enjoyed every part of the process and how much my upbringing, which included many a renovation in our century home, had lent me so many skills valuable to preserving and conserving gravestones.


After the workshop and a disastrous bus ride home that almost made us late for dinner, I went straight to bed, exhausted, only to stay up until 2am prepping for the late-night presentation I had stupidly decided I would like to do on Saturday.


This was absolutely, bar none, the best day of the entire trip for me.

Saturday, June 24th: Saturday was technically the second of our cemetery field trip days. Just as a sidebar, something that I should probably note is that everyone who did not sign up for the workshop on Friday had options for other things to do! They weren't just stuck in the dorms all sad and left out; there were panels all day on Friday for those who didn't feel like scrubbing stones. Also, AGS records all of the lectures/panels so that those who miss them, like those of us at the workshop, can go back and watch them later!

On Saturday, attendees got to choose between two different tours, one centring around Colorado Springs and one centring around Central City. I had already visited Evergreen the day before in Colorado Springs, so I had breakfast, grabbed my lunch packet once again, snuck my bids in at the last second of the silent auction, and got onto the van destined for Central City.

Central City was very much a mining town, and, despite the introduction of a handful of casinos, much of Central City's historic facade has been maintained, unlike its sister city Black Hawk. This alone made Central City worth the visit. As we drove past historic homes backing right onto the mountain, we were told that the houses had entrances inside that went right into the mines so that prospectors could protect their claims. SO cool. What we came for, though, were the cemeteries. Central City boasted not one, not two, but FOUR (or more?) cemeteries on its outskirts and one a short jaunt up in the mountains nearby.

I only managed to get a thorough look at two of the cemeteries. The Central City cemetery was the first and, in my opinion, the best. Central City Cemetery was chock a block full of aspen trees; only the narrowest of footpaths were scattered through what was now a forest where burials just happened to be. This made the experience ethereal and otherworldly, with the wind rushing through the trees speaking for the souls of those interred there. It was a joy to see that this was clearly still a well-visited cemetery, with many gravestones bearing gifts for the dead.

Right beside the Central City Cemetery was the Knights of Pythias Cemetery, which I only glimpsed before being swept up by circumstances to the Bald Mountain Cemetery. Bald Mountain Cemetery delighted my senses but in ways different from Central City Cemetery. As soon as I entered, the smell of pines washed over me, and the shine of quartz and pyrite covering the ground delighted my crow brain as I collected a pocketful. I wasn't the only one, as it turns out; Ikbal had filled her backpack with the stuff. Most impressive to me in the Bald Mountain Cemetery were the fence surrounds - so many intricately stunning examples of craftsmanship in one small area.


Once I had finished exploring Bald Mountain and arrived at the bottom again, there was only enough time left to quickly pop into the Masonic and Catholic cemeteries. This was fine; there was one feature in each that had caught my attention from the roadside. In the Masonic Cemetery, it was a headstone in the shape of a miniature log cabin. We had seen a slightly more intricate one at Riverside Cemetery; I just hadn't expected to see another so soon. What was beautiful about this new cabin, though, was, despite being made of the same material throughout, the lichen had grown over this one in a way as to make the chimney look just like red brick. In the Catholic Cemetery was a large structure of double-walled red brick resembling a beehive. I had been told by Jennie, our local guide/bus driver/co-host of The Ordinary, Extraordinary Cemetery podcast, that this structure had been used to hold the deceased over the winter until the ground thawed enough for them to be buried. This intrigued me as it is something you hear about often enough in the snowy north that is Canada, and I just had to check it out. Sadly, it was in disrepair; the entrance had significantly widened, and I learned that transients often used the space to keep warm. But there was a lovely little shrine at the very back to show it was still visited.


Then it was time to head back to Denver for the evening festivities. After a bit of confusion, we all ended up in our respective vehicles and returned to the university with just enough time to shower away the dust of the day and prepare for the awards dinner.

The awards dinner formally recognized the student scholarship winners, but also the winners of the Harriette Merrifield Forbes Award and the Fred & Rosalee Oakley Certificate of Merit. The Forbes Award was presented to Peggy Barriskill Perazzo for "more than 25 years dedicated to furthering our knowledge of stone, its extraction and utilization in cemeteries and the nation at large (...)."* The Oakley Award was presented to two individuals/groups, Sally Hunt Royster for her work towards the preservation of the gravestones in Mount Harmony Methodist Church in Polkville, NC, and The Friends of Ancient Cemetery, "a volunteer organization dedicated to preserving, protecting, and promoting the historical and cultural significance of Yarmouth, Massachusetts's oldest burying ground."*


After the awards dinner was the last of the late night presentations, which I had spent most of the evening panicking about. Before my presentation was one by Lynette, another (super knowledgeable) first-timer, about the Knight of Pythias, apt as the day had included a Knights of Pythias cemetery. I was up second. Now, if you know me, you know I act under the general (if faulty) assumption that no one cares about my research. Still, though I was anxious, I did my best talking everyone through what I had learned about Klondike Gold Rush burials. All my new friends were behind me; I garnered a few laughs throughout and questions and compliments at the end, which was so so lovely. Wilhelmine left just after that; our small group gathered outside to say our goodbyes and well wishes. Then we went back inside, caught the tail end of late night, helped tidy up and went to our rooms to pack for tomorrow's departure.

Sunday, June 25th: Sunday was a day of goodbyes and homecomings. At least half of the attendees had left Saturday evening or early Sunday morning, so breakfast was a reserved affair. Throughout the morning, we eventually all went our separate ways. I caught my flight at 2:30pm, and after 6 hours, I was back in Vancouver again.


I met so many genuinely delightfully interesting people at the AGS Conference. There were only 100 or so attendees, but every single one was so kind, accepting and encouraging. Every encounter, no matter how brief, felt like a new friend made.


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In total, it cost me about $1,420(CAD) to attend this conference, not including any optional purchases I made. Broken down a bit, that's $640 in registration fees and $780 for my flight. It seems like a lot; I'm right there with you. Still, considering those registration fees include your accommodation and food (5 nights and 6 days), workshops and field trips, it is a great value. The cost of flights is what really gets you; one of the downsides of AGS being primarily based in the States.

Even after ALL of this, you're still not sure about the AGS conference; they offer memberships which include their monthly newsletter (digital), quarterly bulletin (physical), and yearly journal, Markers (physical). Additionally, if you do decide you'd like to attend the conference, the fees are reduced! For students, the membership fee is an extremely reasonable $25 a year.


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For more info:

Association for Gravestone Studies: https://www.gravestonestudies.org/


*These quotes were taken from our Annual Reception & Banquet programme.

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