“How do you clean a headstone?”
That question has caused quite a commotion in the cemetery world. While this article focuses on cleaning granite headstones, it’s important to know how to work on cleaning any kind of headstone.
Jump ahead to these sections:
Gravestones are made of many materials such as marble, granite, limestone, sandstone, bronze, slate, iron, concrete, and more. Each of these handle cleanings and subsequent cleaning products differently. If you’re making the effort to clean a headstone, you obviously want to do it right.
Unfortunately, there are some well-meaning people out there who don’t know how to clean a headstone and may damage it in the process. Let’s help you avoid that outcome.
Headstone Cleaning Rules
When you go to a cemetery, after deciding what to leave at a grave you’re visiting, you realize that the headstone of one of your relatives has lichen all over it. But before you start grabbing cleaning supplies and scrubbing away, you need to know the rules and follow them. They aren’t suggestions – headstones can easily be damaged.
As a note, these rules are critical to follow, and they are for every type of grave marker. Here are some considerations to help you get started.
Ask yourself if you really should clean the stone
Sometimes the headstone you want cleaned is in a condition beyond what general cleaning can remedy. So you need to ask if it’s worth the risk to clean it. At a certain point, the lichen, moss, or other things that have grown on it are now part of the marker. Fighting lichen that has been growing in and on the stone for 100 years may not be a fight you can win without causing major damage.
Also, if you’re thinking of cleaning a stone in a very old cemetery, will it stand out awkwardly among the other 200-year-old gravestones? Perhaps a lighter cleaning would be best in this case.
Check if you can clean the stone
It’s always a good idea to check with the cemetery’s staff to make sure you’re allowed to clean the headstone(s). If the stone doesn’t belong to a close family member, the cemetery may not allow you to clean it without permission from a close relation.
Do NO harm
You definitely want to avoid scraping or using harsh chemicals. Many things can harm a gravestone. Take great caution when working with them.
Never use high-pressure washers
Power washers or sprayers can severely damage a headstone. They can break off pieces of the monument, remove the polish or coating, cut into the stone, especially softer stones like marble, or even knock it over.
Avoid using bleach and other chemical-based products
Leave the bleach and household cleaners at home. They can stain the stone, eat away at its protective coating, or otherwise damage the monument.
Don’t use natural, organic or biodegradable products, either
Even these can cause problems. Don’t use cleaners that may seem safe. Some people have incorrectly recommended using dishwashing soaps, regular soaps, detergents, wax, polish, etc. Even unapproved biodegradable or natural/organic products should be avoided unless they are made specifically for monument cleaning.
No wire brushes
No brushes or other tools made of wire or even stiff, hard bristles should be used, as they can scratch the stone. Go to the store to buy soft or natural-bristle brushes. In a pinch, look in the pedicure and bath section of a store for small brushes.
Avoid cleaning headstones on holidays and during extreme temperatures
On holidays such as Memorial Day and Veterans Day, cemeteries are busy with family members and friends visiting their loved ones. There may also be events that take place on those days.
Cleaning during extreme temperatures is not good for the stone and frankly, isn’t very good for you either.
Check your expectations
Unless cemetery monument cleaning is your profession, do not expect the stone you’re working on to once again look like new. Even newer headstones may not look exactly like they did the day they were installed. And this is one area where “putting some elbow grease into it” is not a good thing. Gentle is the word.
Cleaning Granite Step by Step
Now that you are aware of the basics, it’s time to get to work.
Step 1: Gather your supplies
Before you head off to the cemetery, you’ll need to gather up your supplies. Most of the supplies you’ll need are basic, such as the following:
- Lots and lots of clean water. Many cemeteries have water faucets on the grounds visitors may use.
- If the cemetery doesn’t have water available, bring multiple full gallon-bottles of water.
- Bucket(s). If the cemetery has water faucets on the grounds, you can fill your bucket(s) there.
- Hose. These are optional, but you may be able to attach it to a faucet nearby and spray the stone from it directly.
- Hand-held spray bottles.
- Backpack sprayers with hand-pumps. Make sure they’ve only been used with water and not chemical cleaners or pesticides
- Natural and/or soft-bristle brushes. Boar bristles or nylon brushes work well here. Make sure to bring small sized ones so you can get into small areas.
- Toothbrushes, fingernail or bath brushes, soft nylon scrub brushes, and a whisk broom can be considered.
- Soft cloths and/or natural sponges. You may want to avoid ones with dye or rough, scrubbing sides.
- Scraping tools. Look for ones that won’t injure the stone, like popsicle sticks, wood, nylon, bamboo kitchen spatulas, or other similar ones.
- Old towels.
- Protective gloves.
- Trash bag.
- Professionally approved cleaners, such as D-2. These are also optional, in the event that the headstone may need more help.
Step 2: Evaluate the headstone
The most important step in cleaning it is to evaluate it for damage. Even a stone as hard as granite can sustain additional damage if you clean it. If the stone has any integrity issues, you shouldn’t clean it. It may make the situation worse.
You will also want to make sure the monument is stable. Many granite markers made with multiple sections are “held together” only by their weight and gravity. They can move over time, especially if the ground has shifted.
If it’s safe to work with, move on to Step 3. But don’t forget to take a “before” photo so you can compare it with an “after.”
Step 3: Remove loose debris
Use a soft brush or whisk broom to remove grass clippings, dead leaves, dirt, bird or other animal droppings off of the surface of the headstone. Brush softly. If something isn’t loose, don’t attempt to remove it at this point.
Step 4: Water it down
Once the debris is gone, rinse the stone well with water. Keep the whole stone wet during the entire process. It’s best for the stone to be continually moist, even if you only use a basic spray bottle and keep misting it.
Step 5: Gentle brushing or scraping. No scrubbing!
Use your natural-bristle brush or other soft brushes over problem areas. Use a circular motion, but do not scrub hard. Use wooden, nylon, or bamboo implements to gently scrape away lichen, moss, and algae.
Step 6: Bring out the biological stone cleaner, if necessary
Sometimes you need some extra oomph. If the organic growth on the headstone is stubborn, try D2 Biological Cleaning Solution. There may be similar cleaners available, but D2 is well-tested, researched, and recommended by the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.
Step 7: Rinse and gather
Rinse the headstone thoroughly, dry it off with your towels, gather up your stuff, and examine your work. Don’t forget to take your “after” photo!
Did You Know?
On top of all the recommended cleaning steps above, there are some other bits of knowledge you may want to consider.
Headstones shouldn’t be cleaned more than once a year
Professional restorationists agree that gravestones in general shouldn’t be extensively cleaned more than one time per year. Quick washes with water and a soft brush to remove debris and prevent stains such as bird droppings are fine throughout the warmer months are fine. Just use a dry brush when the temperatures start dipping below 50 degrees Fahrenheit.
Granite holds in heat
Granite absorbs heat and “can reach temperatures more than 40 degrees higher than the surrounding air on a sunny day. And the darker the stone, the hotter it gets,” according to the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.
In areas with an extremely hot climate, abrupt changes in temperature can eventually damage a stone even as hard as granite. Consider an area in the southwest with dry, hot temperatures. If a cemetery waters their grounds with cold water, it could fall on the headstones. If the cold water exposure is lengthy enough to lower the stone’s temperature, the stone can get damaged. This is because heat can make it expand, and cold can make it contract.
The Bottom Line: To Clean or Not to Clean?
There may be cases where the headstone in question needs more cleaning than the average person is capable of doing without potentially damaging the granite. In these cases, it’s best to get the help of a professional.
You can do some research online to find someone or ask the cemetery staff if they have any recommendations on whom to contact. They’re also a great resource when you need to find a grave in a cemetery that’s unfamiliar.
- “Gravestones Bite the Dust.” National Center for Preservation Technology and Training, National Park Service U.S. Department of the Interior, 4 April 2018, www.ncptt.nps.gov/blog/gravestones-bite-the-dust/
- Cleaning Gravestones, Monuments & Stone Sculptures.” Gravestone Preservation, 27 November 2010, www.funeralhelpcenter.com/how-to-clean-a-cemetery-tombstone-or-marker/
- “How to Clean a Cemetery Tombstone or Marker.” Funeral Help Center, 10 May 2019, www.funeralhelpcenter.com/how-to-clean-a-cemetery-tombstone-or-marker/
- “How to Clean and Maintain a Granite Memorial Stone.” Columbarium USA, www.columbariumusa.com/how-to-clean-and-maintain-a-granite-memorial-stone/