52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Tombstones


For nearly 20 years I had been watching several tombstones in the lower section of the Jaeger Witte Cemetery become overgrown with lichens and moss. After hearing cemetery conservationist Lowell Herzog speak at a meeting of the Washington County Genealogical Society in October 2018, I decided to do something about it.

I began with the Schlick children. Theirs were relatively new, commercially made tombstones and working on them was far less intimidating than starting with the hand carved limestone structures erected over a century ago. The cleaning process was a greater challenge than I anticipated. The first step was scraping off the loose vegetation with a flat piece of wood, followed by spraying the entire structure with a chemical cleaner called D2 that was purchased from a local funeral home.  The chemical reduced the remaining vegetation to a thick rust colored sludge that had to be wiped off. The most tedious part of the process was using a toothpick to remove debris from the inscriptions and designs carved into the stone. Finally, I rinsed the structure in several gallons of water and voila! Clean! It is very important to note that cleaning the stone will not make it look brand new. And you would not want it to look new! The Schlick children died in the 1800s and their stones should ideally reflect that time period. The stones should show their history.

Cleaning a tombstone is a very intimate thing. This is a family’s proclamation that “my loved one’s story ends here.” As an outsider, it felt almost like I was intruding on personal space. But as ornate flowers and curlicues began to emerge from underneath decades old vegetation, I felt invited to explore their stories. Who were the Schlick children? What were they like? What happened in 1889 that resulted in two of them dying in such close succession?

Agnes, Edward, Oscar, and Nellie were the children of Friederich Albert Schlick and Franciscka Helene Witte. Agnes was born in 1873 and was the third of twelve children. Edward was the next child, born in 1875. Oscar and Nellie came later, in 1879 and 1883. They were the great-great grandchildren of Carl and Marie Louise Hagedorn, the original landowners who established the Jaeger-Witte cemetery.  The family lived in Round Top, TX, where Friederich was both a farmer and a court reporter. Little Edward died in 1877 at the age of two and Oscar died in the summer of 1880 at the age of one. According to oral family history, he died when his high chair fell over. Friederich was elected to the state legislature in 1887 and served a two year term. Both Nellie and Agnes died in 1889, at the ages of 6 and 16. The remaining Schlicks moved to Gonzalez in 1900 and Friederich went on to serve two more terms in the legislature before his death in 1923.

While gathering data for his genealogy books back in the 1990s, Grandpa Henry said that he would often visit cemeteries and listen for the voices of the dead. Sometimes they spoke to him and sometimes they remained silent. After cleaning the Schlick tombstones, I have a clearer understanding of what he meant. No records were left of the children and there is no one alive who knew them. Even the circumstances of Oscar’s death are questionable, as family stories are subject to alteration each time they are handed down. Spending time in a quiet historical cemetery lends itself to asking questions and waiting on answers that might never come. In the case of the Schlick children, there are no answers and so the tombstones take on a greater sense of finality. Four children whose stories end here.

Inscription under Nellie’s tombstone

Each grave is surrounded by a concrete cradle demarcating its boundaries. During my cleanup, I found that underneath the modern looking stone was each child’s initials, carved perhaps by Friederich into concrete at the head of the grave.


All four children (lower left tombstone is that of a child from the Witte family)


Before and After Pictures

Each structure was treated with D2 cleaning agent every month following the initial cleaning. The pictures on the right were taken about 12 months after the pictures on the left. Edward and Agnes’ stones were in much better shape to start with so I did not document the process for cleaning them. (Click HERE for more about the cleaning).

11 thoughts on “52 Ancestors in 52 Weeks: Tombstones

  1. I am with our local Family History Society and have volunteered to do the transcriptions for burials here. We made a CD a few years ago but I hadn’t seen one lately so thought we should keep a record. As you say the tombstone is the only record for some people. This year I have lost 3 uncles and 2 cousins so it is good to see that you are helping to preserve people’s remains and memories. Headstones can leave a lot of information for family researchers.

  2. McKamey Cemetery (Bradley County, TN) is an old, abandoned, cemetery in a wooded area across the street from us. (I’ve heard it dates back to the Civil War, or possibly before, but I’m not sure at this point.) My husband and I (with permission from the land owner) walked back there a few weeks ago. The cemetery is very overgrown with trees and briars (plus, the wooded area is a lot bigger than I thought it was, and I wasn’t sure exactly where in that wooded area it was), so we never found it.

    I’ve known it was “there — somewhere” for quite a few years, but only recently got enough information (including approximate location and landowner’s name) to even try to find it. (I have a better idea of where to look now, but am waiting to return until this winter, after the vegetation dies back and all the copperheads and rattlesnakes are hibernating. Didn’t even think of snakes the first visit.)

    I need to talk to the neighbor who grew up beside it (though it’s not on her property), and who still lives beside it. At about 88, she probably knows more than most of the others in the area.

    I called the county history society . . . it isn’t even on their list of cemeteries.

    What would be the appropriate process for getting it cleaned out? (Besides, of course, getting the landowner’s permission.) An Eagle Scout project? A neighborhood project? I’m clueless.

    1. How exciting!! The county historical society would be the best organization to guide you through the process for Tennessee. It might be similar to what we do in Texas…..in Texas, it starts by filing a Notice of Existence of a Cemetery. I think it costs about $50 for the filing fee and the form is available through the county clerk’s office. After that, we are allowed to start cleaning. Once it is all cleared out, we catalog the burials to the best of our abilities. If nothing else, we just count and assign a number to the graves. Since you’re not able to do the physical work right now, I suggest getting the paperwork out of the way and interviewing the 88 year old neighbor. She will be an excellent resource and at 88 years old, you don’t want t wait longer than you have to. As for the cleaning, I’ve seen Eagle Scouts do this kind of thing for their project. Or you could get some friends and do it yourself. Just watch out for those snakes, haha! Good luck with this.

  3. Deborah Barlow

    George Z, I would like to thank you for the information you wrote. I have been wondering how to do that very thing with a cemetery where i have family buried in Mississippi. I will be making a road trip and calling the county clerks office and seeing what the procedure they have there. Thank you!

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