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How to Clean an Old Headstone

How to Clean an Old Headstone

A Little Part in Preserving the Past

Cemeteries are where many of us choose for our final resting place. It is the place where our loved ones will return to pay their respects to us. But as time passes, the headstone marking where we rest may become worn, discolored, covered with lichen, or even broken.

If you've been to a cemetery to visit a loved one, you probably noticed many stones, especially older ones, in desperate need of repair or at least a good cleaning. Some may be worn beyond readability, as well. There are steps that we can take to ensure that the place that marks where our loved ones lie can be taken care of so that our children, grandchildren, and great-grandchildren can continue to pay respect to our ancestors.

You may think that because the cemetery is a perpetual care cemetery that the headstones would be maintained under that care. However, perpetual care usually provides for keeping of the grounds and regular maintenance of the overall cemetery. This may include cutting grass, planting and caring for trees, road maintenance, drainage, and sometimes straightening of the markers. Perpetual care cemeteries really only came into existence about 75 years ago and, sadly, many old cemeteries have been lost. Even for those old ones that are maintained, more often than not, the stones are in desperate need of help.

The steps below will help you in cleaning gravestones as safely as possible to prevent further damage to the gravestone.

Types of Headstones

Most headstones are made up of natural stones which are comprised of salts and minerals. The most common types of headstones existing today are made of sandstone, granite, marble, and limestone. Due to its ease of maintaining a cemetery, flat bronze markers are becoming more popular in cemeteries, especially memorial parks.

The natural stone tombstones can withstand varying degrees of cleaning, with most early ones being able to tolerate very little. Limestone and sandstone are very soft stones and were used a lot in early cemeteries because they were easy to carve. (The Mohs hardness scale rates it having a hardness of 3-4.) Unfortunately, gravestones made from these types of stone often wear away faster, with many very old ones being no longer readable; this is due to the many environmental conditions that they're exposed to. Additionally, for many sandstone markers, water or moisture would accumulate in its cracks and when temperatures dropped, freezing conditions would cause the stone to crack or break.

Marble was primarily used for headstones and monuments prior to the 1920s. Its hardness is rated between a 4 and 7. It is basically a recrystallized form of limestone. Some preferred marble because it withstood the elements slightly better than limestone and sandstone but was still fairly easy to carve. The beautiful veining pattern was also a great draw. Unfortunately, environmental elements also affect marble, and as a result, many cemeteries no longer permit marble headstones for outside markers.

The hardest of the natural stone type of monuments that you will see in a cemetery is granite, which is still widely used today. Granite has a hardness of between 7 and 9 and can withstand a little more cleaning than the other types of natural stone; however, it still must be a very gentle cleaning. Most of the upright stones made today are created from granite.

Remember, it's not only the stone itself we need to preserve, but what is carved on the stone. After all, that is how we will all know who rests beneath.

Tools for Cleaning a Headstone

Before you head out to the cemetery, be sure to have some basic supplies with you. These supplies include:

  • Jugs of distilled water (or garden hose if water access is available)
  • Spray bottle / garden sprayer (new, never used for any type of chemical)
  • Natural bristle brush or nylon brush, varying sizes and stiffness
  • Firm toothbrush
  • Sponges
  • Craft Sticks (to gently remove lichens)

Check Local Laws First

Before starting on any headstone that is not a direct family member, be sure to check with local and State laws. In some areas, it may be illegal to do anything to a headstone that is not one of an immediate family member.

Take Precautions Before Cleaning a Headstone

Before you attempt to clean a headstone, you must first check its condition. If there is evidence of any of the following, do not proceed with cleaning.

  • Any stability issues whatsoever
  • The stone or lettering has any evidence of flaking or parts of the stone falling away
  • Fractures anywhere on the stone
  • If anything even slightly suggests that the headstone is fragile or even slightly vulnerable
  • If gently tapping the stone or the base results in any hollow sound
  • A wooden headstone

If the condition of the stone appears to be okay, keep in mind the following basic suggestions when beginning to clean a headstone. It is important to note, that if the only reason to clean a stone is to remove lichens, algae, etc., it is not necessary as it may do more harm to the stone than good.

So, How Do You Clean a Headstone?

  1. Using water with different kinds and sizes of natural bristle brushes will require some patience, but it is the most natural and safest way to clean stones.
  2. To begin, thoroughly saturate the headstone with water. By using a spray bottle or even a pump sprayer, you can use less water and ensure a clean rinse each time.
  3. Begin cleaning the stone starting at the bottom and work upward. This will help to prevent any streaking and/or any additional staining from occurring than if you worked from the top down. Be sure to rinse the area cleaned often with the water.
  4. It is best to begin cleaning with the softest brushes possible and only gradually move to stiffer natural bristle brushes if needed. Remember, never use a wire or metal brush.
  5. If there are lichens or moss growing on the stone, gently scrape it with your wooden or plastic scrapers. Often times, will come off fairly easily, other times, it may need to be repeated.
  6. When using a brush on the stone, use random circular motions which also helps with keeping streaking at a minimum.
  7. It is possible to use non-ionic soaps to further aid in the cleaning, but the types that can be safely used are minimal. Unless you thoroughly research the type(s) and how to use it, do not use anything other than water and gentle brushing.
  8. Rinse the cleaned area often and thoroughly rinse it when you've completed the cleaning of the headstone.
  9. Repeat for all sides of the marker.

What Not to Do When Cleaning a Headstone

When you follow the steps above, you'll be well on your way to preserving someone's marker longer.

What we do not want to do is anything that will accelerate the wearing of the stone, discoloring of the stone, etc.

What You Should Not Use to Clean a Headstone

  • Wire bristled brushes
  • Metal anything
  • Abrasive pads
  • Pressure washers
  • Sand blasters
  • Power tools
  • Bleach
  • Acid or acidic cleaning agents (especially on marble or limestone) - should only be used by those properly trained working on non-calcareous stone [1]
  • Household cleaners including soap, detergents, Borax, TSP, anything you'd use to clean your home [1]
  • Any type of sealant

Rememberusing improper cleaning materials can cause permanent and non-repairable damage to the headstones! Our goal is to preserve the headstone, not give it an accelerator to make things worse sooner than later.

So, now you have basic guidelines that will assist you in helping to maintain the headstones of your loved ones. Remember, though, that despite your best efforts, tombstones will rarely look new again. And for certain types of stones, such as marble, limestone, and sandstone, it is recommended that they not be cleaned more than once every ten years since each time a stone is cleaned, it essentially washes a small layer away.

I believe it's important to get our children involved and help them to understand the importance of keeping up the resting place of our loved ones, after all, they're the generation that will be keeping up ours.

Take A Quiz

For each question, choose the best answer. The answer key is below.

  1. Is it okay to pressure wash a headstone?
    • Yes
    • No
  2. What is the best kind of brush to use when cleaning a headstone?
    • Wire bristled brush
    • Natural bristle brush
  3. Which is the best direction to clean a headstone?
    • Start at the top and work your way down.
    • Start at the bottom and work your way up.
  4. What kind of cleaning agents can be used to clean a headstone?
    • Bleach
    • Acidic cleaning agents
    • Water

Answer Key

  1. No
  2. Natural bristle brush
  3. Start at the bottom and work your way up.
  4. Water

Interpreting Your Score

If you got between 0 and 1 correct answer: I'd highly recommend going back and reading through the article again before heading to the cemetery. Utilizing the incorrect methods could cause faster degradation to a headstone. Come back to the quiz and try again!

If you got 2 correct answers: I'd encourage you to read through the article again before heading to the cemetery. Utilizing the incorrect methods could cause faster degradation to a headstone.

If you got 3 correct answers: Pretty good score. Be sure to go back and read through the section for the question(s) you missed before heading to the cemetery. Utilizing the incorrect methods could cause faster degradation to a headstone.

If you got 4 correct answers: Perfect score! You have a great understanding of what you should and shouldn't do when cleaning a headstone. Many people utilize incorrect methods which can cause a headstone to degrade quicker. Enjoy helping to preserve your loved ones' headstones!

References

[1] Walther, Tracy C. Review and Evaluation of Selected Brand Name Materials for Cleaning Gravestones.

© 2012 Keely Deuschle

Eileen Buckham on September 16, 2019:

Gold writing is fading it’s 15years old can anything be done please

Mattosmonuments.com on April 23, 2019:

Thank you so much for putting out such quality information. As a retailer of monuments and headstones in the bay area, people always try to just go at the stone thinking its just rock. These are delicate pieces of art, thanks for showing the love you need to keep these headstones beautiful. www.mattosmonuments.com

Keely Deuschle (author) from Florida on July 10, 2018:

Lou Parks, putting a stone back together would be something to talk to a monument company or someone who specializes in that sort of thing. I won't recommend attempting to reassemble one without professional help as to not further damage the stone.

Keely Deuschle (author) from Florida on July 10, 2018:

John Dove, I belong to a few, but I do recording of cemeteries locally and sometimes when I travel. And yes, I am on Find A Grave.

We have a very large cemetery here with almost 90,000 burials going back to early 1800s. Whenever I do photo requests for Find A Grave, I record the entire section of the cemetery and add them to Find A Grave. I don't, however, clean the stones there as they provide that service to families.

Keely Deuschle (author) from Florida on July 10, 2018:

Gloria, no! Please don't paint or put anything on the stone! Anything, including chalk, flour, etc, should not be added to a stone. And rubbings using paper and pencil or crayon should not be used.

One thing you may be able to try is to very carefully place aluminum foil over the headstone. Do not affix tape to the headstone, rather affix it to other aluminum foil. The thinner aluminum foil is best. Then, very gently, using a small brush such as a makeup brush or other small brush, gently brush over the areas where the lettering is and you'll get a relief of the stone which can help you read it.

Another thing to try is to photograph it with light coming from different directions. In photography, lighting straight on (such as with a flash) will make everything seem flat and the depth of the lettering will not be as visible. Try lighting from different angles or different times of day.

Gloria on July 10, 2018:

Is it OK to retrace the writing with dark paint so, it stands out?

lou parks on July 06, 2018:

how do you put old markers back to geather

John Dove on October 17, 2017:

Great Hub! You must have an ample supply of patience as well. Are you associated with any organization, e.g., genealogical society, that has a project the recording of cemeteries? Are you active on findagrave.com?

dick hohenbrink [email protected] on July 28, 2017:

Thank You for Your article. I have been noticing Markers being painter{ Old Sandstone} Can You give any input on the subject. My Grand Parents marker is from the late 1890 . Thank You.

Shelby Hinson on July 06, 2017:

I'm not sure, but I think the monument in question is granite or soapstone . It is the gravestone of my great grandfather who was in the Great Civil War.

ALISTAIR BAKER on September 09, 2016:

Thanks for the info. I am researching my family here in the UK, and have found various head stones dating back to the mid 1880's. They all seem to be of a sandstone variety, some very well preserved due to location in cemetery, ie protected from the elements. Others have not been so lucky, worn and faded letters , plus cracked and eroded faces.

I will follow your instructions on the more durable ones and see what results I get. Good point to ask for permission from Local Authority/Town Council before progressing. Because of age they may well be protected and you could fall foul of local byelaws. So will make the call this Monday and start the ball rolling or not.Regards

Jim mc neill on August 14, 2016:

Would Oxyclean work

SmurfsAunt on May 12, 2016:

You should never ever use any type of brush on any type of headstone.

Louise Greene on April 07, 2016:

Thanks for this article. I have a stone to clean and had no idea how to go about it.

Corie Neumayer on March 17, 2015:

We discovered an old family tombstone...granite or sandstone . The words are flaking off. Is there anything we can do to preserve what is left?

Joe Fiduccia from Monroe County, PA on February 01, 2015:

This is honestly something I had never given much thought to. I appreciate the detail you went into, and will even ne sure to share your advice with our dad in Poland, who cares for several headstones that are in serious need of a face lift. Thank you!

RWW on October 21, 2014:

I have been cleaning and restoring old grave markers for a number of years. When the product Wet and Forget became available [in the USA] I was skeptical about using it on old sandstone or marble markers. I talked to the technical folks at Wet and Forget. I tried it on some old marble foot markers. It was very effective with no damage. It takes 3-6 months to see results and the results are dramatic.

Keely Deuschle (author) from Florida on January 16, 2014:

Vivian-tmt-hnp, thank you for your kind words!

Keely Deuschle (author) from Florida on January 16, 2014:

Hi LWhip, very, very true, especially with carved wood markers. I don't know if you had seen the other hub I wrote about recording a cemetery, but especially in a case like yours, this is something that might be helpful if it doesn't already exist.

LWhip on January 14, 2014:

Interesting article. Many of the old grave markings in our family cemetery are carved wood so we are very reliant on oral and recorded history, some of which is unfortunately incomplete now.

Vivian-tmt-hnp from USA. on August 16, 2013:

8:21am Friday 16 August 2013

Dear KDeus,

I really appreciate your sincere and precious essay.

Vivian

Keely Deuschle (author) from Florida on August 15, 2013:

CCCBit, I'm so sorry that you had the experience you did. I would have never thought about that hazard, but thank you for sharing it for others to consider and prepare if they think they may be affected. Couldn't hurt to carry gloves and an allergy mask in the kit. Thanks again for sharing your experience and tip!

Keely Deuschle (author) from Florida on August 15, 2013:

Pgill, excellent tip. I have updated the article to reflect distilled water. Thank you for taking the time to comment!

Keely Deuschle (author) from Florida on August 15, 2013:

Barbara, I'm glad this information will help you to clean your mother-in-law's grandmother's stone! Good luck with your project.

Keely Deuschle (author) from Florida on August 15, 2013:

Raitu Disong, thank you very much. I'm glad you've found this useful.

Keely Deuschle (author) from Florida on August 15, 2013:

marion_langley, thank you! Please just don't use too much elbow grease!

CCCBit on August 15, 2013:

I would like to caution anyone doing this to take great care not to hurt yourself! After cleaning an old stone with water and a soft cloth, without gloves, I inadvertently wiped my face with the back of my hand and blew my nose (with clean tissue!) before washing my hands. Soon thereafter I developed a severe rash on my face, not unlike poison ivy (and I had not encountered any plants that day). I had to take Prednisone for a week. I do have a respiratory sensitivity to mold, so I suspect it was carelessness on my part and some type of mold. So, use gloves, take care not to touch any part of your skin, and maybe wear an allergy mask if you suspect you might be susceptible to mold allergies. Otherwise, great tips!

Pgill on August 15, 2013:

Thas for a great article.... I would also go as far as suggesting to only use distilled water when cleaning stones which will also help against staining....

Barbara on August 15, 2013:

Thank you for the wonderful information. My mother-in-law was just asking me if we could help clean and straighten her grandmother's headstone. I know I have info on leveling a headstone but did not have this information.

Raitu Disong on July 23, 2013:

HI Kdeus, this is a very useful hub!

Thanks for sharing:)

marion langley from The Study on July 03, 2013:

Thank-you for the helpful encouragments to apply a little elbow grease safely. The pictures were great! voting up!

Keely Deuschle (author) from Florida on July 02, 2013:

Spraying anything on a stone, even if it's labeled as safe, would definitely make me nervous, especially if it's left there to wash off by itself. I don't have first hand knowledge about that product, but will have to look into before I'd feel comfortable acknowledging it's okay. There are several types of non-ionic soaps that can be used, but unless the readers first thoroughly researched which "specific" ones are safe, I did not want to suggest using them since one kind may be okay, while a similar one may not be.

denisefenimore on July 01, 2013:

There is also a product called 'Wet and Forget'. Spray one and let the wind and rain slowly do the work. Very safe, just not instant results.

Keely Deuschle (author) from Florida on June 29, 2013:

Hi LensMan999, Thank you! I hope this guide helps a lot of people! I've seen too many people damage stones by using things that should never be used! Thank you again!

LensMan999 from Trans-Neptunian region on June 25, 2013:

Cleaning an old headstone has now become very easy through your hub. You have provided with simple instructions that can be applied easily. Thanks a lot for sharing this wonderful hub.

Keely Deuschle (author) from Florida on June 23, 2013:

Hi Dream On! That would be an interesting idea!

Keely Deuschle (author) from Florida on June 23, 2013:

Hi Oscarlites, You're more than welcome! I hope this guide continues to help as you come across more family burial plots!

Keely Deuschle (author) from Florida on June 23, 2013:

Thank you, Dream On! Have a great day!

Keely Deuschle (author) from Florida on June 23, 2013:

Thank you, FlourishAnyway! It is so sad to walk into a cemetery that has not been taken care of, or even for those taken care of, how in dire need of some TLC the headstones are. I'm glad that you find this guide useful! Thanks for stopping by!

FlourishAnyway from USA on June 14, 2013:

Great information. Especially with so much interest in genealogy, many people are going back to family plots that had been long forgotten and are finding them in disrepair. This provides some direction in case they'd like to honor loved ones' memories with a clean-up.

DREAM ON on June 12, 2013:

What helpful tips in taking care of something so precious and sacred.Thanx so much.

Oscar Jones from Monroeville, Alabama on May 18, 2013:

Just recently, as I have been involved in photographing family burial cemetaries. I see some turn of the century markers that are already eroded to the point of being non-identifiable. thanks for the hints from heloise, oops, "hints from KDeus" !

DREAM ON on February 20, 2013:

I never gave headstones any thought.I would think after all these years someone would of created a headstone cover to help protect against the elements.This would of perserved some of the older graves that now we can no longer see because of erosion over the years.Have a good day.

Keely Deuschle (author) from Florida on January 02, 2013:

Thank you, J.S.! I am glad that you found this useful! I've heard of so many people trying to clean stones using methods that will damage the stone, so the more education that is out there to help preserve our history, the longer these headstones will last!

JS Matthew from Massachusetts, USA on December 28, 2012:

This is an awesome guide. Very complete. I have wondered what the best way to clean memorials was. Up and shared.

JS~

Keely Deuschle (author) from Florida on December 12, 2012:

Thank you, peachpurple for commenting! Sometimes, if the moss doesn't come off easily, even with the plastic scrapers (they wear away before they damage the stone), you can even try a poultice that can help to soften the moss and lichen even more!

Keely Deuschle (author) from Florida on December 12, 2012:

Thank you, Millionaire Tips! I do the same as you do when I photograph markers for transcribing a cemetery. I keep a "cemetery bag" in my car with all my "tools" which includes several brushes I use to brush away dirt, ant piles, etc. It took some time to become comfortable with cleaning a marker, too. Thanks for sharing your comments!

peachy from Home Sweet Home on December 12, 2012:

Useful tips on cleaning the headstone. Never thought so much about it. We usually use cloth and green scrubs with water to clean off the moss. Thanks. Great hub

Shasta Matova from USA on December 12, 2012:

What a thorough well, formatted article about how to clean headstones. When I take photographs, I don't clean the headstones at all, except to gently brush away any leaves or debris so that I can take the photograph. I am too afraid of causing more harm than good.


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