Cleaning Veterans’ graves without damaging the stone

As a masonry and restoration expert, Lee Labas of Labas Construction had the task of cleaning the headstones of 4,000 fallen Canadian soldiers and Veterans in Edmonton. The delicate job involved removing decades of algae and moss from the granite surfaces.

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Cleaning Veterans’ graves without damaging the stone

“I was working along with my headphones in, I didn’t realize that someone was there waiting to talk to me. Once I took my headphones out, they said thanks!” Lee recalls. “I didn’t think much of it at the time, but then five or six more people came up to thank me for what I was doing. It began to sink in that I was making a difference for these people.”

Conserving memory through new techniques

Veterans Affairs Canada (VAC), through the Grave Marker Maintenance program, inspects and maintains the grave markers of more than 200,000 Canadian Armed Forces members in Canada, hiring contractors to clean the stones and, if necessary, repair damage.

Lee’s company is one of these contractors. Based in Vancouver, the company has been using a new eco-friendly steam-cleaning process.

Most stone cleaning is done either by hand, or with water under high pressure—around 1,500-3,000 pounds per square inch. While this method is very effective, doing it by hand takes time and the high pressure can damage the stone, especially in softer sandstones. Even granite is not immune. Lee says, “The high pressure will remove layers of stone allowing the stone to absorb water and, with our extreme freeze-thaw cycle in Canada, the water expands and cracks the stone.” Eventually, outer layers of stone fall away, leaving blurred inscriptions and in some cases completely breaking the stone.

At a conference at Vancouver’s Mountain View Cemetery, Labas showcased the steam cleaning technique, which uses only 400 pounds per square inch. “There’s a lot of heat in the steam, and that kills the biological buildup on the stone,” Lee explains. “You don’t need the use of high pressure as the steam does a fantastic job without damaging the stone.”

The stones speak

VAC contracted Labas Construction to clean 2,601 headstones at Edmonton’s Beechmount Cemetery, and another 1,513 at the Edmonton Municipal Cemetery. The project took a little over two months to carry out. Lee says that the stones in Edmonton really did need some care. “They were filled with algae and moss, and the surfaces were dark with lichen. A lot of the names on the stones weren’t legible,” says Lee. “Now, that they have been cleaned, they look almost new.”

But the stones were also having an effect on Lee. “When you’re cleaning out alone in these fields, a lot of thoughts go through your head,” he says. “And I’d see the names and ages of these soldiers—some of them 18 or 19 years old—and I felt truly thankful for the sacrifice they made. Without them, we wouldn’t be able to do what we’re doing today.”

Carrying the past into the future

Lee is proud of the work his company has done, and has had further interest from several municipalities about cleaning headstones. He says that Canada is not as advanced as Europe with regards to stone restoration, mainly because we have fewer old buildings—but “architects and owners are starting to realize that there are other methods to clean stone without damaging them. In the end, saving them money down the road on not having to replace the broken stones,” as he puts it.

VAC directly maintains the more than 200,000 Veteran gravesites and grave markers that were provided and installed by the Government of Canada.

If you know of a gravesite that requires maintenance or is unmarked, or you require additional information about this program, please contact VAC at vac.cm-mc.acc@canada.ca or call 902-626-2440.

Date published: 2020-02-10

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