Replacing Damaged Civil War Headstones


Allan Day

Note: This is the second half of Tuesday’s post, Tracking Down Civil War Veterans.

Congratulations! You finally figured out the veteran’s name on that severely damaged headstone way over in the far ends of the old cemetery.  Now it’s time to finish the job by replacing the marker. It should be a piece of cake, right? After all, the Veterans’ Administration has that nice web page about how to go about obtaining a replacement stone.

How hard could it be?

Well, if you’re a family member of the deceased (and this includes both immediate and extended), all that’s needed is completion and submission of VA Form 40-1330. As long as the stone is damaged and unreadable, the VA will pretty much warrant its replacement.

The challenge comes when the family is no longer around to submit the replacement application, a situation David Waggoner and his wife, Barbara, know all too well. They’ve been working with Linda Hjelm to re-discover all the Civil War veterans buried in Hillside Cemetery up in Issaquah, Washington.

So far, they’ve found approximately 17 veterans, and David believes there are still several more out there.

However, “If there are no family members in the area, that doesn’t mean they don’t exist,” says David. In cases like this, he recommends checking local historical society records as a way to track them down, noting that this method paid off for 9 of the damaged stones.

Currently, David’s only received one replacement stone (see the photo at the beginning of the article). It’s a small victory, but David’s determined to obtain as many as he can. To that end, there are a few tricks he’s willing to share with those of us who might feel a little overwhelmed at the thought of taking on the VA behemoth.

Tips for completing the VA Form 40-1330

  1. When signing the form, attest that it was completed to the best of your ability.
  2. If no immediate or extended family members are around to submit the application, include a statement to that fact.
  3. Include a photo of the marker that clearly shows the damage and illegibility of the headstone inscription. Keep in mind that the VA does not consider a stone illegible if there is any lichen or moss on it. If this is the case, consider using a good cleaner or two, and move on to the next headstone.
  4. Send in the request, and keep your fingers crossed.

Tricks for adding ‘oomph’ to the request

Want to make a bigger impact? David suggests getting someone who’s directly connected with the VFW, American Legion, or Disabled Servicemen of America, etc., involved in the request because it tells the VA your group is taking the replacement seriously.

“Because I’m associated with a local VFW post and am a veteran service person, this designation’s been very helpful in expediting matters,” he says.

Another suggestion is to add a letter of support from local elected officials. For example, David writes a cover letter from himself (as a VFW member), and obtains a second cover letter from the mayor to attach to the application.

Right away, the VA is put on notice that this request should be taken seriously.

One final trick is to have a local funeral home attest the document and request that the replacement stone be sent there, and not to the researcher’s (or family’s) private residence, for proper storage and preservation until the actual replacement ceremony can occur.

Why?

Because it shows your desire to respect the stone through proper handling versus simply storing it out in the dusty corners of a garage or tool shed.

Appeal the initial rejection

Unfortunately, the VA often rejects the original request.  When this happens, don’t give up. Instead, consider sending an appeal that includes a statement regarding the amount of due diligence completed on the family, and why you had no luck finding them.

Next, get someone who’s connected with the VFW (or who is a local elected official) who can attest to your appeal if you didn’t do this with the first submission.

Ultimately, if you…

  • Do your due diligence,
  • Are persistent,
  • Use the local historical society and mortuary funeral home to find family members,
  • Clearly communicate the purpose of behind the application and why it’s being done, and
  • Don’t take the first rejection as gospel,

…There’s a decent chance of getting a spiffy replacement headstone.

Nevertheless

Still, more times than not, the VA will say no to your request/appeal. What then?

Well, just because you can’t get a new stone doesn’t mean the original can’t look as good as possible. In Hillside’s case, Eagle Scouts come in to clean and straighten stones under the supervision of cemetery restoration experts.

And lest the Girl Scouts feel like they’re missing out on all the fun, David adds that, “We’d also love to work with the Girl Scouts. The research, tracking, maintenance, restoration–it’s a wonderful learning experience.”

Success!

You did it! You successfully negotiated with the VA and now there’s this beautiful replacement headstone just waiting to be set into the ground. So what do you do with the old one?

Destroy it, of course. A good sledgehammer should do the trick nicely. And since many cemetery headstone re-setting projects have teenaged Eagle Scouts helping out, I’m sure they’re more than thrilled about this part of the task.

But I digress.

Burying the old headstone in the veteran’s grave is a big NO. Instead, the VA directs that the original must be completely destroyed, down to the pebble level.  Why? Well, what happens if someone digs up the grave and finds the second stone or if flooding causes the second stone to re-surface?

There’d be a lot of interesting questions swirling around if that happens.

Of course, the best thing about the reduction-to-gravel process is that when it’s complete, you can either toss the remains onto the grave or instead of concrete, use it as fill to help support the new stone when it’s placed.

It’s certainly a nice way of honoring the original stone.

If you do use the gravel, keep in mind that 1/3 of the stone goes into the ground while 2/3 remains above ground. Use a level to keep the stone straight throughout the process of putting into the dirt, pebbles, and water. Tamp it all down, rinse and repeat.

Then take a moment to admire your work.

P.S. #1. Many thanks to David and Linda for taking the time to share their hard-won expertise with the BTG readers. If any one else has some good hints that we missed here, please feel free to share them in the comments section.

P.S. #2. Ever wonder where the veteran headstone marble is quarried? Check out the profile on the Granite Industries of Vermont.

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Filed under Commentary, Damages, Restoration

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