Churchyard Monuments

Sally Strachey


  A chest tomb tilts precariously with dense plant growth emerging from the exposed interior

A chest tomb on the point of collapse at Bitton Churchyard, South Gloucestershire

Churchyards provide access to a unique combination of fascinating and varied historic monuments, a record of the social history of the community and a rich diversity of plant and animal life. They are a safe haven for distinctive and ancient trees and are home to a wide range of mosses, lichens and ferns.

Churchyards also provide tranquil green spaces for quiet reflection and provide invaluable resources for community involvement and learning. Increasingly recognised as important public spaces in both rural and urban landscapes, their care and maintenance is now considered alongside that of the churches they serve.

The increasing use of churchyards as community spaces has resulted in a heightened awareness of the health and safety issues associated with churchyard monuments, especially those in a poor state of repair. This in turn raises issues relating to the ownership of these spaces and determining where the responsibility lies for making them safe for the public. English Heritage has provided a thorough analysis of every aspect of churchyard care and maintenance in Caring for Historic Graveyard and Cemetery Monuments (2011).

This article looks at some of the primary decay mechanisms responsible for undermining the structural stability of churchyard monuments and includes a case study that demonstrates some of the solutions.


Given their setting, it is unsurprising that vegetation is one of the chief culprits in the destabilisation and collapse of churchyard monuments. Ivy and other types of woody growth will grasp any opportunity to invade stonework until monuments often disappear completely beneath an exuberant display of greenery and twisted branches. As the growth takes hold the sections of the monument are pushed apart and the foundations compromised.

The next culprit, subsidence, is also closely associated with the setting. Churchyards develop over many centuries and the pattern of burials will often cause monuments to sink and tilt. This causes compression through the side panels resulting in twisting, warping, loss of jointing material, loss of chest lids and, in extreme cases, the collapse of the whole monument into a void. The latter can result in the discovery of human remains which will require an archaeological assessment and an urgent health and safety review of public access to the churchyard.

The stone surface of a chest tomb's side panel separates from the substrate in a thin fragile layer  
West Littleton Churchyard, Wiltshire: an example of surface lamination across an inscription panel resulting in extensive
loss of the stone surface
Elevation view of chest tomb showing extensive stone loss along upper edge of side panel
West Littleton Churchyard: damage to the stone surface (above left) caused by the corrosion of iron cramps. The close-up (above right) shows the extent of the corrosion through the iron cramp and the resulting loss of stone.

The next key cause of surface and structural decay is the presence of iron fixings which were widely used as structural ties in churchyard monuments. Over time the iron is exposed to damp moving through the porous structure of stone and mortar. Iron is subject to corrosion in the presence of moisture and the volumetric increase caused by the corrosion exerts pressure on the surrounding stonework resulting in the opening up of the joints and associated loss of surface. As the iron becomes increasingly exposed to the air, the decay mechanism causing the volumetric increase of the iron accelerates and the monument is subject to a dramatic loss of surface and structural integrity that will eventually cause it to collapse.

The decorated and inscribed stone surfaces of churchyard monuments are also subject to surface decay through weathering and the presence of salt crystallisation in the porous structure of the stonework. Salt deterioration problems are complex and any attempt to remedy them should begin by establishing the nature of the salts present and how they are delivered into the masonry. That said, it is clear that repeated cycles of salts moving in and out of solution impose considerable stress on the pore structure resulting in disaggregation and loss of surface detail.

Lamination of the surface is also associated with salt movement in cases where a section of a sedimentary stone has been inserted into the monument out of its natural bed (the plane in which the stone formed). Loads should always be carried at right angles to the bedding plane, but masons often found it expedient to use slabs of sandstone or limestone in the wrong plane. Moisture ingress and salt distribution will exploit the inherent weakness of a stone bed which is under pressure.


The decay mechanisms described above have an impact on both the monuments and on safe access to the churchyard. Furthermore, if a monument becomes so badly damaged that it can no longer serve its purpose as a dedication to and record of an individual within a community, the character of the churchyard is diminished. Maintaining the vegetation around unstable and collapsed monuments is also more difficult and the balance between the monuments and their setting can be lost.

In most cases where there are concerns over churchyard monuments and in particular where there are several of them, the first step is to request quotes for a condition and recommendation report. The first hurdle for the custodians of the monuments at risk is to obtain funding for this report which then can become an important tool in constructing a forward-looking strategy for the monuments and for making faculty applications. A detailed condition and recommendation report will provide important information on the current condition of the monuments and, where more than one is at risk, should list them in order of priority for treatment. It can also then provide a benchmark against which the rates of decay can be measured.If it does not already exist, a simple numbering system for easy identification of the monuments should be created. This will be an invaluable tool for recording the location, design and condition of each monument in the churchyard.

  Chest tomb which has fallen into void beneath which appears to be at least 3 feet deep
  Buckland Newton Churchyard, Dorset: a monument which has collapsed into a void

The report should also provide budget sums for a best practice conservation programme in order to enable the custodians to begin to apply for grants both for individual monuments and for more wide-ranging programmes of work to groups of monuments or to the landscape of the churchyard. Grants for the conservation of churchyards are now available through a number of heritage agencies (see Further Information).

At this stage it can be beneficial to consider how to involve the community and local schools in the conservation project. Churchyard monuments provide an excellent opportunity to research the social history of the community and the personalities behind the monuments. For example, past projects have involved local schoolchildren creating time capsules to put inside monuments which need to be rebuilt. Such projects give the younger generation a greater understanding of the church and churchyard and can help to create a sense of shared ownership and pride in the local heritage.

Once funding is in place it is important to plan each step of the process and prepare risk assessments and method statements for each stage. Although it is important for the public to be able to view the conservation works, it is essential to create a safe working environment and to protect the public. It may also be necessary to carry out emergency repairs to valuable surface detail before the monument is dismantled.

Apart from the removal of vegetation, the materials and techniques used on churchyard monuments are very similar to those used for the conservation of exterior architectural detail and for interior church sculpture. The procedure typically involves the following steps:

  • dismantling of unsafe structures
  • removal of all iron fixings
  • rebuilding on firm footings
  • installing new core material
  • rebuilding the monument with stainless steel fixings
  • careful cleaning of surfaces
  • repairing surface detail with lime mortars to improve legibility
  • repointing with lime mortars, in some cases adding a final protective lime shelter-coat.

Great care and attention to detail is needed throughout, particularly where monuments are being dismantled and rebuilt.


  Partially buried chest tomb with broken lid and woody growth emerging from within
  The Buckland Newton monument before conservation
  A conservator fits stainless steel cramps diagonally across the upper faces of the side panels and one end section
  Fitting the stainless steel cramps
  The lid is winched back into place; a block core can be seen inside the chest tomb and all upper faces that will bear the lid's weight have had lime mortar applied
  The lid being lowered back onto the monument with the new core inside the chest clearly visible
  The conserved tomb with carved relief to the end section, which imitates the semi-cylindrical form of an engaged column
  The monument after conservation

This monument, at the Church of the Holy Rood at Buckland Newton, Dorset was in very poor condition. In particular, extensive damage had been caused by a large elder tree which had grown up through the west end of the monument, breaking the lid. A detached section of the lid was found by the side of the chest tomb buried in the soil.

The north side panel had also fallen away and was buried in the ground with the inscription side face down. The remaining sections were badly misaligned and unstable. However, the surface of the carvings, although heavily soiled, was in good condition.

Firstly the vegetation was completely removed from around the monument enabling access to remove the remaining section of the lid. The lid had a hairline crack running across the section which required careful monitoring during the lifting process. Once the lid had been removed, the cornice section was revealed to be badly fractured with some elements inside the tomb. These sections were recorded and set aside.

The two end sections and the south panel were then removed. Further careful excavation revealed all the broken sections of the plinth course which had been fractured and buried by the roots of the tree. The broken elements were removed from the ground and set aside. All the elements were recorded, carefully numbered and put in a safe storage area until they could be reinstated.

After the monument had been excavated and completely removed to the storage area, the remains of the tree and root system were removed. The ground was then levelled and foundations incorporating concrete blocks were installed to ensure a sound base for the reinstatement of the monument.

The cleaning programme was carried out before rebuilding the monument. This allowed further assessment of the condition of the stone and allowed the conservators to ensure that they were confident when it came to reassembling the jigsaw of pieces. The broken elements of the buried plinth course were carefully cleaned and repaired before being re-bedded on a hydraulic lime mortar (NHL 3.5) on the new concrete footing.

The east end section and the two side panels were then set in place followed by the west end section. There was evidence of corroded ferrous fixings in the top of the side panels and the two end sections. All remaining fragments of iron were removed and replaced with stainless steel cramps fixed with NHL 3.5 hydraulic lime mortar.

After the broken pieces making up the cornice had been pieced together, one section was found to be missing. This was re-carved in Chilmark stone, which was the closest match to the original material. The next stage was to install a new core inside the monument to act as a platform for the lid (right). This will provide additional support to the cracked lid as well as reducing the load on the side panels. The final piece to be reinstated was the section of lid found buried beside the monument.

Once the monument had been rebuilt, a programme of surface repairs was carried out using lime mortars that match the colour and texture of the surrounding stone. Finally, the joints were repointed to blend in with the overall texture and tones of the monument.

Conserving this beautiful monument has not only restored it to something of its former glory but has also revealed who it was dedicated to and something about her. Restoring the purpose of the monument as a memorial to a lost loved one and a past member of the community, has been the most valuable outcome of the project. The monument’s only inscription, engraved on the north panel, reads:

Underneath lie the Mortal Remains of
of Chester and Daughter of
JAMES KING D.D. late Dean
of Raphoe in Ireland.
Who departed this life, trusting
solely for a Better
In the Merits of her Redeemer
November the 7th 1817. Aged 71 Years.
Her Two Surviving Sons erected this
Tomb in Memory of a Parent
Whose pious Care and Example
early taught them
To love their Saviour and their God.
And whose Maternal Tenderness and Affection
Claimed their lasting Gratitude.


Further Information

Funds for Historic Buildings



Historic Churches, 2013


SALLY STRACHEY is managing director of Sally Strachey Historic Conservation Ltd. She trained as an art historian and was awarded an ICCROM fellowship at the Bonn Conservation Workshops in 1984. She was a founder member of the UKIC stone section committee and of the Nimbus Conservation Group. She is a CPD reader for PACR accreditation and lectures at the Architectural Association and Bath University.

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