Basic Gravestone Cleaning
Last summer I attended a Cemetery Restoration Clinic in Springboro, Ohio. We spent an entire day restoring an old church cemetery that had not been maintained for several decades. Although part of the day was spent learning advanced repair techniques, such as rebuilding the gravestone bases, we learned some basic restoration techniques that anyone can do to effectively clean and maintain gravestones. Steps: When cleaning graves, tombs or the stone markers, always use the least invasive techniques first. These steps below are all considered safe for stones. Jump to step #4 if you have the equipment available. 1. Brushing- The gentlest approach would be to simply brush the stone with a soft nylon brush (a brush you would wash your car with). Add water if necessary. 2. Hand cleaning with gentle soap- Follow step #1, but use a gentle soap if necessary. One of these is Orvus soap mixture (A Proctor & Gamble product for horses, known as a non-ionic detergent), available at farm or animal supply stores. Mix two ounces to one gallon of water. Do not use household dish soap or products like Simple Green since they can damage the surface of the stone. Use your brush to scrub the stone. Rinse thoroughly with clean water. Try using a spray bottle or garden hose to soak the entire headstone with water first. Wetting from the bottom up is recommended to prevent streaking. A toothbrush works OK for small details, but never use a wire brush or steel wool pad. Do not expect dramatic results from either of these first two steps. 3. Hand cleaning with ammonia- If steps #1 or #2 are not effective enough, try this next technique.. First, wet the stone with plain water. Then brush with a solution that has four parts of water to one part clear ammonia. The advantage of this ammonia mix is that it is an effective cleaner and it will also slow down the growth of algae and bacteria. Be sure to wear gloves and eye protection, and do not breathe the fumes. Rinse the stone thoroughly with clean water. 4. Use of a soft nylon brush on an electric drill with the ammonia and water mix. This is just like step #3 except that you have the added power of a drill (see illustration). If you have several markers to clean, this is definitely the best method. Some final tips: 1. Do not use household bleach, vinegar, household detergents. Do not scrub with steel wool or a wire brush. 2. Use a nylon weed whip for close trimming around the stone. This can help prevent mower damage from the maintenance crew who often get too close. 3. Don’t use commercial herbicides around stones. Virtually all of them contain salts or acid that are damaging to most stones.
4. Plant small ground covers near the stones and other hard-to-mow areas (with permission of the cemetery staff). This can also help protect the stones from potential mower damage. 5. Remove scrub trees, roots from overgrown vines and other dense foliage to prevent damage to the stones. Tree roots can dislodge stones from their base and cause other damage. Dense foliage can keep stones damp enough to accelerate their deterioration. (once again, with permission of the cemetery staff). 6. Do a final clean up the entire area. Replace any gravel that was inside a grave curb. Be sure to document your efforts with a digital camera. This is something that you will enjoy looking at later. 7. Don’t seal or coat the stone. It can’t breathe and will decompose faster. 8. Seek professional assistance, if necessary. Some graves have become so dilapidated that a professional stone mason needs to be brought in to make repairs. The groups listed below can help you locate a competent professional in your area.
A few terms: We have included the terms below that relate to the parts of a cemetery that you could apply these basic cleaning techniques to, as long as they are a stone or masonry surface. For best results, practice on an unobtrusive part of the marker first. Exedra- A permanent bench, often made in masonry that is used in cemeteries as part of the landscape design and as a type of tomb monument. Family stone- a gravestone that marks the entire family’s plot instead of just one individual’s grave. Footboard- a flat, slab-like marker placed at the foot end of a grave. They are usually only used in conjunction with a headboard and are usually smaller and less ornate. Grave curb- a low border, usually of stone or concrete, surrounding a grave or plot. A grave curb is open in the middle and the central area is often filled with gravel or lawn. Gravestone- a stone grave marker, including tombstones and other monuments. Ledger stone- a grave marker that is flat on the ground. This style of marker is required in some modern cemeteries and is popular with maintenance workers because of the ease of mowing around it. Obelisk- a gravestone that is tall, slender, square and pointed at the top. Obelisks are often large and indicate the wealth of the family. They originated in Egypt. Sarcophagus- a stone coffin or monument chamber for a casket.
Slab- any grave marker that is a thin, flat piece. Often the flat dimension of the coffin below. Tomb- anyplace that a body or bodies are stored above ground in drawers. A burial receptacle, often looking like a small building. Resources: Association for Gravestone Studies: http://www.gravestonestudies.org/ International Association of Cemetery Preservationists, http://www.iacpinc.org/ California Office of Historic Preservation, http://ohp.parks.ca.gov/ National Park Service, Historic Preservation Program, Preservation Briefs http://www.nps.gov/history/hps/tps/briefs/presbhom.htm Guidelines for Evaluating and Registering Cemeteries and Burial Places http://www.nps.gov/nr/publications/bulletins/nrb41/nrb41.pdf Saving Graves – references on all aspects of historic cemetery preservation and care http://www.savinggraves.org/education/index.htm The Graveyard Preservation Primer, by Lynette Strangstad (Available on Amazon)