SOLON — Sometimes a person will notice something needs to be done, and then goes ahead and just does it. No fanfare, no ‘Hey, look at me!,’ just somebody doing what needs to be done.
The object in-point: a simple granite gravestone, dirty, covered in moss and lichen, and stained from decades of marking a veteran’s grave in the Oakland Cemetery, just west of town.
The case in-point: A young man, Aaron Schultz, who has taken on a one-man crusade to professionally and lovingly clean veterans’ headstones. Aaron is from Cedar Falls but currently lives in North Liberty with his parents. Since last fall, he has made it his mission to clean off gravestones, which have become discolored over the years.
“I was walking around the cemetery visiting someone when I saw a veteran’s headstone and how black it was. It was covered in moss and it just made me really sad in how national cemeteries, you see them (grave markers) pure white, and how the government keeps them that way, but here in local cemeteries they don’t look that way.” Moss and dirt tend to accumulate on non-polished stones, he said noting moss in particular tends to grow in the shade. “And when nobody cleans it, over time it just multiplies and gets bigger and bigger and in ten years, it will just engulf the tombstone.”
First, the headstone gets sprayed with ordinary water then scrubbed with a soft bristle brush to get the looser dirt off. Moss is simply scraped off and washed off. “Eventually,” he said, “it will get back to normal.”
If more intense cleaning is needed (dark stains), he applies a cleaning solution called “D2,” which he orders from www.gravestonecleaner.com, and is used by the federal government to maintain those white crosses and Stars of David in the national cemeteries. He noted those markers are cleaned annually to preserve their bright white appearance.
Aaron’s self-appointed mission started with a bit of research into his family’s history in 2017. “I never really got into visiting cemeteries until I would walk around (looking for his family’s graves and photographing headstones for www.findagrave.com).” So far he’s cleaned about a dozen in Oakland, plus several others in Iowa City and Coralville. “You just walk around and you find one, and you do that one, and there are a lot them out here so it keeps me busy.” At Oakland he is concentrating on veterans’ graves, but not exclusively. “If I see one that I’d like to do, that’s not a veteran, I’d do it (too). But I mostly do veterans.” He also has uncovered flat gravestones, which have sunk down into the earth over the years and become almost, if not completely covered over with grass. “It was very sad and heartbreaking when I discovered that, and to think nobody has been out to take care of it for a very long time.”
When he’s not restoring gravestones or attending classes at Kirkwood in Cedar Rapids, he also works part time for Memorials by Michel, in Solon, where he designs headstones and helps with installation. Aaron acknowledges his age and interests are a bit outside the norm. “You don’t see a lot of people, especially my age, doing this. Its really a mentality of what you think about cemeteries. Some people just think its really morbid and really creepy because there’s all these dead people all around. But I think it’s a really cool place to learn about the history of the community to see who lived here before you did, and especially to honor veterans.”
Once he’s finished cleaning a veteran’s headstone, he places an American flag. Most veteran’s grave have a metal grave marker (many heavily oxidized and corroded), which have brackets on the back to hold a small flag on a wooden stick. “I just really value history, and I think it’s a great thing to honor people, especially veterans. My father is a veteran of the U.S. Navy and my great-grandfather was a Major in the Marines, his uncle was a Brigadier General who served in WW1 and WW2.”
Although he’s gotten a lot of practice, Aaron notes anybody can properly clean a headstone by using the right equipment (soft bristle brushes only, to avoid scratches and damaging the surface).
“I hope to inspire people to go out and research their family history and really value history more and go out and if they see a headstone like this (darkened, covered in moss) learn how to clean it and give back to your community this way. Someday, we’ll be in the same position (lying in a grave) and we’ll have a headstone, and we’ll want people to remember us, and maintain our headstone too.