Tuesday, April 7, 2015

Man Killed by Falling Headstone

No, that's not him above being killed by a falling headstone. That's a photo of me (taken by my friend Karen Schlechter) in an abandoned cemetery lowering a temporarily uprighted headstone. Some numbskull had raised it (probably to read the face-down inscription) and propped it up with a stick! I swear to you, this was right next to a playground in Norristown, PA. That stone must have weighed three hundred pounds. Horrific accident waiting to happen, don't you agree?

The title of this blog refers to an article on the WNEP-TV website that reads, “Man Killed by Falling Headstone While Decorating Family Grave … THROOP [near Scranton, in northeast Pennsylvania] — A man decorating a gravesite for Easter [2015] died Monday morning when a headstone fell on him in Lackawanna County.”

Getting past the irony of being killed by a falling headstone, most people who have read this tragic account probably had one of two reactions, either:“Oh my god that’s horrible!” or Tsk, what a shame.” I would venture to guess that very few people read it and think, “How can we prevent such tragedies in the future?

In reference to this accidental death, is it enough that the caretaker of the cemetery says (according to the article) that “each spring when the ground begins to thaw, some of the bases tilt and the stones on top can slip?” If you’re the owner of this (St. Joseph’s in Throop or any other) cemetery, that’s a plausible excuse to give the police. However, the next step should be taken – implementing a method of securing the stones so this does not happen again. Ever. Anywhere.

Accidental c
emetery deaths are not an unusual occurrence. A child recently died while playing in a churchyard cemetery in North Carolina. While attending Vacation Bible School, this WCYB.com story (click for link) states, “the children were running around when a massive cross fell off a tombstone and struck the girl.” 
A child died in Glenwood Cemetery in Park City, Utah in 2012, when a four-inch-thick, several hundred pound tombstone fell on him. According to Fox News, his father was taking pictures at the time (click for link). 

My daughter
That struck a painful chord. I’ve taken my five-year-old daughter into cemeteries quite a few times. For the past year or so, I have been extremely selective and careful about bringing her. I cringed when I found this photo I took of her in 2012.

There is a very subtle phrase in the recent Throop, PA story that I would like to clarify for you. When the caretaker says “some of the bases tilt and the stones on top can slip” what he means is this: When a headstone is installed, a stone base is placed in the ground and then the headstone is placed on this base. It has been done like this in the United States probably since the 1890s. You can see an example of such a n installation in this YouTube video, “How to Install a monument in a cemetery.” Also, if you look at my photo below of a vandalized grave marker, you can see that the headstone is typically not attached to the base.

Fallen headstone, unattached to base
When this practice of setting a headstone first began, it was probably not foreseen that the ground would erode, that the stones may sink and tilt, that there would be earthquakes, vandals, and groundhogs. So now that we KNOW that over the course of a few decades the ground will shift, there is NO GOOD REASON not to pin headstones to their bases as a standard practice! This will also deter vandals from pushing the stones off their bases.

When I say to “pin” a headstones to it’s base, I refer to the practice of setting steel rods into the base so that they protrude up and can fit into holes in the bottom of the headstone. This secures the headstone to the base (which is only a few inches wider that the footprint of the headstone, by the way). This is not done all the time, though I have seen it used for both marble and granite headstones (this is hardly ever done with slate, as the stone is too brittle).

U.S. Government-issues grave markers
An older, alternative method – and one used by the United States Government since the Civil War – is to make what is known as a single tablet slab headstone, installed with no base. Veterens' upright markers, shown at left, are basically a slab of marble or granite with the bottom third buried to keep the stone upright (read more at this link). Obviously, excavating the earth this far down (several feet) involves more work than placing a simple stone foundation, but it does make the stone safe and secure. For additional photos of standing stone grave markers, please see this informative website, Standing Stone.
Ed Snyder with fallen decorative granite urn

Monument off which urn had fallen
One of the most shocking things I’ve seen in cemeteries is decorative granite pieces which have fallen off their monuments. Look at this granite urn I’m kneeling behind. This thing probably weighs four hundred pounds. At some point, it fell off its perch on the monument shown in the photo. Note there are no pins or holes in the base of the urn. It is smooth and flat. It was just sitting up there! Perhaps the monument sank a bit and is off level. So much for terra firma.
To summarize, this is a call to cemetery stone cutters – please suggest to your customers that they pay the extra few dollars for pins to be installed in their headstones and monuments! As for all those millions of unsecured and off-level grave markers out there in our thousands of U.S. cemeteries, I would suggest something on the order of what is happening currently in Scotland. “Considering the delicate balance between safety and compassion, … every council in Scotland is having to respond to the Health and Safety Executive (HSE) which has asked them to conduct safety inspections of all cemeteries within their jurisdiction, in the light of three fatal accidents of children from falling memorials.” While a number of methods of insuring safety have been implemented, probably the most dramatic is that of laying the stone down on the ground, with its inscriptions facing up (read more at this link).

Memorial Park

If all this sounds too complicated and expensive, safety may be the only good reason for the “memorial park” cemetery design: with all the grave markers being flush to the ground rectangular plates, there is nothing to fall on people. The old Victorian "sculpture garden" cemeteries are wonderfully picturesque, however, do exercise caution when visiting.
Follow up story on the gentleman in northeast Pennsylvania who was killed on Easter by a falling headstone: