Often in our cemetery visits, we come across gravestones that could use a good cleaning. But immediately we are faced with questions...
- Is the stone cleanable?
- What cleaners and tools are safe to use?
- How do I clean the gravestone?
Here are some guidelines to get you started:
Decide if a headstone is cleanable.
- DO NOT CLEAN: Wood markers; a stone that is chipping, flaking, or has a grainy surface that is falling away; a stone that has significant fractures; a stone that is brittle or at risk in any way.
- Marble, sandstone, and limestone have all commonly been used for gravestones. However, these are softer stones that should not be cleaned too frequently. Once every ten years should be sufficient.
- Granite markers are a harder stone and can withstand a more vigorous cleaning.
- Cast iron and bronze markers can be cleaned. However, do not try to remove rust or flaking metal.
- Before cleaning any gravestone, you should always get permission from the lot owner or next of kin if you are not a relative of the deceased.
Safe-to-Use Cleaners and Tools.
- The most important thing to remember: improper use of cleaners or tools can irreparably damage gravestones!
- DO NOT USE: wire brushes; metal tools; abrasive pads; acid or acidic cleaners; household cleaners (such as soap, detergents, Borax, bleach, 409).
- Always have plenty of water on hand. A portable pump sprayer will give you a source of clean water, which is vital. Don't rinse the stone with dirty water from your cleaning bucket.
- Bring a wide variety of soft, natural-bristle or plastic brushes. Always start with the softest brush to see if it will do the job. Automobile detailing brushes are a good choice. Do not use old brushes that have been contaminated with unapproved cleaners.
- Non-ionic cleaners are safe for nearly all cemetery stones. They have a neutral PH that will not harm the stones, and are sold as a photography product (such as Photo Flo - a Kodak Product, Trion-X 100, or lgepal). Mix 1 ounce to 5 gallons of water.
- Do not use shaving cream. The high levels of alcohol and menthol have been found to damage the stone.
- Do not use sand as a cleaning agent. It will scratch the surface of all stones.
- Begin by saturating the stone with clean water. Rinse often with clean water to monitor for damage or flaking of the stone.
- Start with a clean water rinse, which may be sufficient. If more cleaning is necessary, progress to the softest brush that will be effective. Scrub gently in a circular random motion.
- Some conservators recommend beginning at the bottom of the stone and working to the top. This prevents residue from staining as it dries.
- Don't let cleaners or residue dry on the stone. Streaking and staining can occur if you allow the dirty water to evaporate. Rinse often with clean water as you work.
Every time a stone is cleaned, part of that stone's surface is removed. NAMES IN STONE recommends a thorough evaluation of the stone's composition and condition before proceeding.
Gravestone Preservation.info: Cleaning Gravestones, Monuments, & Stone Sculptures
The Association for Gravestone Studies: Tools and Materials for Gravestone Cleaning Projects
International Association of Cemetery Preservationists: The Proper Way to Clean a Headstone
Everlife Memorials: Cleaning and Preservation of Tombstones, Headstones, and Gravestones