Thursday, April 16, 2015

Danger in Our Cemeteries!

This is kind of a follow-up blog to the one I posted last week, entitled, “Man Killed by Falling Headstone” ( That was about a poor unfortunate fellow who was killed on Easter (2015) in northeastern Pennsylvania when the family grave marker that he was decorating fell on him.
Perhaps every cemetery should have these sort of signs throughout the property. Perhaps also something should be done to prevent headstones and monuments from falling. The sign is offered by the state board charged with identifying and preserving Oregon's historic cemeteries.

According to the story, (Aug. 21, 2013) “Warning: Historic cemetery ahead:”

The safety signs are intended to warn visitors that historic gravestones can be unstable. If the heavy stone monoliths fall, injuries or even deaths can occur, the Oregon Commission on Historic Cemeteries said. "The Commission tries to focus on practical services and programs for historic cemeteries." noted Commissioner Dirk Siedlecki. "This simple sign will remind people to use caution both for safety and for preservation of the markers."

Signage is important, obviously, but is simply the first step toward a lasting solution. I got to thinking about how to rile up the public enough so that money would be spent shoring up our cemetery monuments so they wouldn’t fall on people and kill them. Normally, if enough people die, something gets done. However, no one seems to be jumping up and down about the safety issues in our cemeteries. Maybe Ralph Nader needs to get involved.

1971 - "Danger in Our Hospitals"
Mr. Nader, as some of my readers may recall, is the famous consumer advocate who published the book, Unsafe at Any Speed, in 1965, which was a critique of the safety record of American automobiles and their manufacturers.

Oddly, I owe my livelihood to Ralph Nader. Currently I am a Clinical Engineer in an academic medical center in Philadelphia, but I began my career as a “Biomedical Equipment Technician.” This job classification was a direct result of something that Nader brought to the public’s attention. One of Nader’s alarming consumer alerts was published in the March 1971 edition of the highly-respected technical magazine, Ladies' Home Journal. To this I owe my livelihood. The issue carried the article, "Ralph Nader's Most Shocking Expose," in which he claimed, "At least 1,200 people a year are electrocuted and many more are killed or injured in needless electrical accidents in hospitals."(Ref.)

Who knows how many people were actually being accidentally electrocuted in U.S. hospitals, but it was a big enough scare that it birthed an entire new career, that of the “Biomedical Equipment Technician.” This person’s role was to keep all the electrical devices (everything from infusion pumps to heart monitors) safe for staff, visitors, and patients in U.S. hospitals. These technicians, who were usually electricians or electronics technicians, were not specifically trained for this new role– colleges and universities had no biomedical electronics degree programs at the time. The people hired for this technical role in hospitals were concerned primarily with keeping the existing inventory of equipment safe (for example, ensuring that every electrical device had a three-prong power plug to keep the chassis grounded). They were not initially involved in the design and manufacture of those devices, only in the ongoing safe use and maintenance of them.

A fallen, thousand-pound headstone

See the analogy to the falling headstones yet? To warn unsuspecting citizens of the potential hazards in cemeteries is one thing, but shoring up the monuments and headstones to ensure stability should be the next step. Not only that, but the manufacturers of these grave markers should be required to design them with a greater emphasis on safety. As I said in the “Man Killed by Falling Headstone” blog, our forefathers may not have expected that the ground would shift, that vandals would push headstones off their bases, or that earth tremors would happen – but we know that now! So why would we not secure new monuments with new technologies? One of the more obvious techniques - pinning headstones to their bases with metal rods - has proven to not be a viable long-term solution, for reasons that my Facebook Friend, David Gurmai points out:

Pin holes in the base of a fallen marble headstone
”The metal pin method causes the stones to degrade sooner. Metal expands/contracts faster than rock (cracking the stone), plus moisture still seeps in at the joint and corrodes the metal. You can tell the pinned stones in a cemetery immediately because their joints are rust stained and they are all cracking/cracked where the pins are. It only takes a few decades for the damage to begin showing.
In the late 19th century they "restored" the Parthenon with the metal pin method. By the 1960's (when the current conservation/restoration effort began) it was in worse condition than if they had done nothing at all."

It turns out that if the 1898 restoration effort had followed the method of the ancient Greeks, the Parthenon project might have been successful. Read more about that here.

So, can our cemeteries be made safer? Of course. All it takes is money, research, and perhaps, Ralph Nader. After all, Nader got the entire country so scared with his hospital electrocutions article that the problem was solved in ten years’ time. It all began with a bit of sensationalism – the opening line in Nader’s Ladies' Home Journal article was, “Too many hospitals are hazardous electrical horror chambers, says America’s leading safety crusader.” In the period between 1971 and 1981, the biomedical technicians (and later, biomedical engineers) along with hospital administrators, demanded safer designs from the manufacturers of electrical and electronic medical equipment. Eventually, medical products became very safe and therefore presented little of no risk to the patient or user.
A fallen, thousand-pound stone that nearly claimed a woman's leg.

The thousand-pound headstone pictured above nearly claimed a woman's leg when it fell on her. Unprovoked, it simply fell over as she walked by. Notice the off-level base. It took six men to lever the stone off her leg. Luckily, the ground was soft and gave a bit, so she did not lose her leg. She has internal pins keeping it together. I witnessed this calamity. You only have to see such a thing once to become a believer in cemetery safety.

So while it pays to be cautious around cemetery monuments, perhaps the monument manufacturers and stone carvers can incorporate new (or even ancient Greek) safety methods in their future designs. The Greeks used iron clamps to hold the Parthenon marble pieces together, but sealed the joints against moisture with molten lead. Molten lead being rather toxic, maybe non-metallic rods can be used to hold headstones to their bases? As an analogy, automobile manufacturers not only strive to make vehicles pleasing to the eye, but they also constantly improve the safety of the vehicles. True, certain aspects of this industry are government-regulated, but hey, if that’s what it takes to design safer cemeteries, so be it. Now if you will excuse me, I must go and see if Ladies' Home Journal is still in publication ...

References and Further Reading:
Read the entire article here: Nader, Ralph (March 1971). "Ralph Nader's Most Shocking Expose;"
Ladies Home Journal 3: 176–179.
Wikipedia article on Biomedical Equipment Technicians