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
- 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?
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- 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.
- When using a brush on the stone, use random circular motions which also helps with keeping streaking at a minimum.
- 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.
- Rinse the cleaned area often and thoroughly rinse it when you've completed the cleaning of the headstone.
- 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
- Acid or acidic cleaning agents (especially on marble or limestone) - should only be used by those properly trained working on non-calcareous stone 
- Household cleaners including soap, detergents, Borax, TSP, anything you'd use to clean your home 
- Any type of sealant
Remember—using 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.
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 Walther, Tracy C. Review and Evaluation of Selected Brand Name Materials for Cleaning Gravestones.
This content is accurate and true to the best of the author’s knowledge and is not meant to substitute for formal and individualized advice from a qualified professional.
© 2012 Keely Deuschle