Cemeteries are sacred spaces and should be treated with proper respect so if you have ever come across a neglected or forgotten burial site, you might have wondered what the best and safest way to clean the grave markers is.
Due to a recent interest in old grave markers and cemeteries, I have received a lot of questions lately about the best methods and products. And while there are plenty of people with more expertise than me on this subject, I have been cleaning headstones for many years so I wanted to share what I’ve learned so you can avoid common mistakes.
First Things First
There is a lot of misinformation about the best ways to go about this, but there are important ground rules to understand before moving forward.
- Get Permission: Did you know that in most places it’s against the law to touch a headstone without permission from the direct family? Besides that, it’s just good etiquette too. You would be surprised how often I volunteer to clean headstones only to be denied by family members. They each have their own reasons and it’s their prerogative, so it’s important to be respectful when approaching descendants for permission. You should also get permission from the current property owner where the grave marker is. Each state and country will have different laws regarding cemetery access and cleaning so make sure to educate yourself on your local laws.
- Do No Harm Principle: Does this stone really need to be cleaned? It’s important to be as delicate as possible when dealing with historic markers so the less abrasion from brushes/tools, the better. So when cleaning a stone, consider- what is the least amount of work you can do to preserve the stone? It’s also important to consider the impact that you might leave on plant or animal life nearby. In many cases, spraying with water and scrubbing with a soft brush can do a world of good without introducing chemicals that may potentially damage the stone. You may also be able to help preserve a grave marker by removing dead trees and limbs from the area, cutting back weeds, and maintaining the grounds from becoming overgrown.
- How to Read stones without touching them: If you’re interested in reading an old stone that is dirty, don’t do pencil tracings, don’t use shaving cream, try the mirror trick instead!
When Not to Clean Grave Markers
- If you don’t have permission
- If there is a funeral going on in the cemetery
- If the stone is unstable
- If the tablet or base is broken cracking, or chipped
- If the stone is flaking or sugaring
- If there are anticipated spikes in cold or hot temperatures
- If a headstone is broken, do not attempt to repair it yourself
Why it’s important: I had no idea about this until I started this venture a few years ago, but stones are like living things, y’all! They expand and contract as the weather changes, which was definitely news to me. Also, there are many different kinds of stones that have been used for grave markers and some are more porous than others. What that means is that as a stone expands or contracts, moisture, dirt, chemicals, and plant life can be trapped in the pores. This can cause stones to crack and break over time. So it’s almost like stones are alive! And also important to realize is that stones are not actually as stable as they may seem. Due to minimal support at the base, it’s easy to break some stones. So take special care not to lean or sit on stones as the pressure may cause damage or even a complete crack.
Also, remember that weather can significantly impact stones. So if you have a big temperature swing coming, don’t clean the stone until the weather has subsided.
Before You Get Started
Ok, I know you’re excited to start cleaning but before we dive into the steps I take to clean grave markers, I want to make sure you know what NOT to use to clean them.
There is a lot of misinformation out there, and while I know you’re reading this with good intentions in your heart, even the best of us can do irreparable damage if we’re not properly educated. And while I’m no stonemason or scientist, I’ve done a lot of work cleaning grave markers and there is a list of commonly agreed-upon list of products you should NOT USE for cleaning grave markers. If you have used any of the products in the past, there is no judgment as I have too, but as we learn more, its important to share information. So, responsible grave cleaner, I ask you to avoid using any of the following products:
Bleach, toothpaste, Borax, shaving cream, vinegar, household cleaning products/chemicals, acids, waxes, steel wool, and steel-bristle brushes. Some of these products have been shown to cause erosion, yellowing, dissolving, and abrading of the stone. On the topic of the popular product called ‘Wet and Forget,’ many people swear by it, but I haven’t seen any information on the long-term effects of it on stones, so I will refrain from recommending it here.
And while it might seem like a good idea, many stones are far too delicate to withstand high pressure so never sandblast or power wash grave markers.
How to Clean Grave Markers
Remember that we first want to consider, what is the least abrasive way to clean the stone? So I recommend first, spraying with water and a good scrub with a natural bristle brush that is wet.
If the stone needs more than that, the only product I recommend using is D2, which is a biological solution that helps break down dirt and plant matter. I purchase mine from Atlas Preservation where it is sold in single bottles, gallons, as well as full grave marker cleaning kits. There is a lot of information available online about D2 and why it’s so effective for headstone cleaning, but in short, I can tell you that the Department of Veteran Affairs uses it to clean the grave markers at Arlington National Cemetery, and if it’s good enough for them, it’s good enough for me! This product isn’t cheap, but it has been extensively studied and works very well for this purpose. It even continues to work on the stone after you’ve treated it!
- Step 1: Remove dead leaves, twigs, branches. If there is plant life growing from the stone or its base, gently pull it away.
- Step 2: If the stone has a lot of dirt, lychen, or biological buildup on it, you can spray it with water and gently rub it off with a soft-bristled brush. Try removing dirt from the inscriptions with bamboo skewers. If the stone doesn’t have a lot of visible dirt or growth, you can skip to step 3 and skip spraying the stone with water.
- Step 3: Start with a dry stone (or wait for it to dry if you completed step 2). Spray with D2 on all sides, the back, and the base of the stone. Let it sit for 10-15 minutes, and during this time, the D2 will start its magic. Based on the temperature outside, the stone will react differently to the D2. If it’s warm outside, the color of the stone might “bloom” quickly. Depending on the type of stone, it may turn a pinkish hew, but don’t worry- this is only temporary and a sign that the D2 is working. If it is cold outside, the D2 will need longer to take effect on the stone.
- Step 4: After you have let it sit, use a soft-bristle brush (natural fibers only!) to scrub the dirt, mildew, or growth off of the stone. If there is lichen or green matter, you can use a plastic scraper to try and remove it. Make sure your brush is wet and keep the stone continually moist while you’re scrubbing. Only scrub with as much pressure as needed and if you notice the stone is pilling away, rinse off what you can and stop work on the stone as you may be causing more harm than good.
- Step 5: Spray the stone with water again and watch the dirt wash away.
- Step 6: If needed, you can continue to wet the stone and scrub it, but it isn’t recommended to apply another layer of D2 on the same day. Remember, it continues to do its work after you’ve left so the results will improve considerably from what it looks like on the first day.
- Make sure to rinse your brushes and scrubbing tools throughout the process.
- Depending on the condition of the stone, its age, and what kind of stone it is, it will take a bit for the D2 to take full effect. So after you’ve given it some TLC, revisit the stone in a few weeks to see the progress you’ve made.
What’s in my Headstone Cleaning Kit
- Water: BRING MORE WATER THAN YOU THINK YOU NEED. In most cases, you won’t have access to running water or a hose. So you will need to transport all of your water in your car, and then from your car to the gravesite. I use 1-gallon sprayer like this one and backup water in 5-gallon collapsible containers.
- Brushes: Must be natural bristled brushes. I always have a big ‘block brush’ as well as smaller brushes for more fine-tuned cleaning
- Scraping tools: wooden sticks and paint scraping tool.
- D2 in a spray bottle: D2 CAN ONLY BE PURCAHSED FROM ATLAS PRESERVATION. It’s powerful and a little goes a long way. I like to use a handheld sprayer. Mine is like this one.
- Buckets: I use a collapsible bucket like this one.
- Tool belt: You will have lots of things to keep up with and I find this one helpful to make sure I don’t leave any items behind
- Notepad: If you’re surveying
- Camera: Or use your phone to take before and after photos
Once You’re Done
So you’ve gotten through all of that and I want to say thanks for your service! Cleaning these stones is important to preserving our history and you have directly contributed to that effort. I would love to see your work so be sure to tag #savethegraves with your before and after photos! Also, make sure to reference Find A Grave and upload the grave marker photo if it isn’t already there.