Highland Monument Conservation's Burke Greear is cleaning up history

J. H. Osborne • Feb 19, 2019 at 9:03 AM

As a youngster in Southwest Virginia, Burke Greear never feared the cemetery near his home. In fact, he’d sometimes spend time waiting for the school bus imagining himself a guard, of sorts, over the cemetery — like those at the Tomb of the Unknown Soldier.

As an adult, Greear became a National Park Service park ranger and today his work at Andrew Johnson National Cemetery in Greeneville includes keeping clean each and every one of the more than 2,200 markers and monuments there.

He’s gone through training to make sure the job is done right — to make sure the cleaning process does no harm. Preservation and conservation are the goal. And there is a right way. Cleaning old, or new, markers the wrong way can damage them. Using household cleaners, for example, can make them look cleaner ... for a time. But they also can harm the stone and actually “feed” the organisms that discolored marble markers in the first place.

Greear has started his own business on his days off from the National Park Service. It’s called Highland Monument Conservation.

The Times News caught up with him on Monday as he worked on a job at Oak Hill Cemetery in Kingsport, where he was cleaning a marble monument. Greear calls upright markers “monuments,” and flat markers “markers.” We didn’t hear him say the words so many of us use: tombstone, headstone, or footstone.

Greear says he enjoys conserving all markers — he also works on the flat ground-level bronze markers that dominate many cemetery landscapes these days — but marble is his favorite. Why? Because a proper cleaning produces such a dramatic change.

He showed us some before and after photos to demonstrate, because although there was definite immediate improvement in the monument’s appearance as we watched him working, he explained the cleaning solution he uses continues to work well after he’s left the scene.

“Come back in about a month and the difference will be jaw-dropping,” Greear said. 

The cleaning solution he uses is the same used by the National Park Service at national cemeteries across the nation — and on stone components at the White House, the Washington Monument, the Lincoln Memorial and other such sites.

“It’s amazing what it’s capable of,” Greear said of the solution, which he buys in bulk since officially starting Highland Monument Conservation.

The public’s growing interest in genealogy has helped spur interest in cleaning cemetery markers, Greear said. “As people research and discover relatives, and the graves of their ancestors, they often are surprised and dismayed at the condition of their markers and monuments,” Greear said. “They want to do something, but they’re afraid to try ... they don’t want to ruin it. And you should never use a pressure washer or bleach or commercial detergents. Those things might make it look better at first, but in the long run they can cause more damage. If you use the wrong chemicals you can damage these stones. And these stones are pieces of art.”

Greear said he always gets permission to work on a monument or marker, either from the family or — in cases where no family are left or can be located —  from the office of a commercial cemetery. Private cemeteries can require extra effort to find someone with the authority to grant permission if a family member isn’t involved, Greear said.

Giving price quotes is based on the job in question, Greear said, but as examples he said a small stone marker (like a footstone) would average $30, while a large monument like the one he was working on at Oak Hill on Monday would be in the $120 range. Greear cleans markers and monuments of veterans and infants free of charge. He travels to cemeteries throughout Northeast Tennessee and Southwest Virginia.

Highland Monument Conservation can be reached at (423) 571-2835.

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