How to Clean Different Types of Headstones

Published August 4, 2020
old gravestones on a graveyard

Knowing how to clean a headstone can help you protect the memories of your departed loved ones and ancestors. Even though they are made of materials that seem impervious to nature, headstones can become dirty, moldy, or covered in lichen. Over time, this can make them impossible to read and even do permanent damage. However, it's important to clean gravestones the correct way to avoid damage to the engravings and the stone itself.

Before Cleaning a Gravestone

Before you clean any gravestone, there are a few things you should check. Don't proceed until you do the following.

Get Permission

Ensure you have permission to clean the gravestone before you begin. If it is your family member or direct ancestor, you may proceed with the cleaning. If not, do some cemetery research and try to contact a family member to confirm they are comfortable having the stone cleaned.

Check the Condition

Confirm the stone is stable and will not present a danger to you when cleaning it. If it seems to be loose or tipping to one side, have it reset before you proceed with cleaning it. Make sure all sections of the stone are secured to one another. Then, check the surface of the stone for cracks, flaking areas or delamination, or a crumbled appearance. If you encounter condition issues, invest in a professional restoration.

Identify the Material

There are many different headstone designs and materials. Examine the surface of the marker to figure out what material it is. According to Gravestone Preservation, a site dedicated to cemetery preservation, these are some of the most common headstone materials used throughout the years:

  • Slate - Although colors can vary, most slate headstones are grey. They are smooth and thinner than marble stones, and they are mostly immune to the damage from acid rain. They were popular from 1650 to 1900.
  • Marble and limestone - These sedimentary rocks are white or grey in color and were very smooth when first placed. Some of the most beautiful cemetery monuments are crafted from marble, but many marble headstones suffer from softening or damage from acid rain. They were popular from 1780 to 1930.
  • Granite - The most popular headstone material used today, granite is a very strong stone with a speckled appearance. It is one of the top choices when selecting a grave marker, and it has been popular since about 1860.
  • Bronze - This metal is often used with granite headstones to create a plaque that gives the details about the deceased. It's brownish gold in color, but it can weather to deeper tones.

How to Clean a Headstone Made of Stone

The best cleaning method you use depends on the materials of the headstone. The following processes can help you restore the stone's beauty.

Washing tombstone with brush

Things You'll Need

Gather the following tools and supplies before you begin:

  • Bucket and water
  • Clean rags
  • Wooden spatula or non-metal scraper
  • Soft, non-metal scrub brush
  • Toothbrush or non-metal grout brush
  • Gentle stone cleaner, such as D/2 Bio Solution

How to Clean a Granite Headstone

Granite is an incredibly durable material and with proper care and cleaning, the inscription should be clear for many lifetimes. If a granite headstone is in good shape, it's fairly easy to clean.

  1. To get started, soak the headstone in water and allow it to rest for a few minutes. This will soften up lichen, moss, and debris.
  2. Use a wooden scraper to remove debris and vegetation from the surface of the stone.
  3. Apply the stone cleaner undiluted and allow it to sit on the stone for 10 minutes, adding more as needed to keep the surface wet.
  4. Gently scrub the gravestone with a brush in a circular pattern, rinsing often to remove excess soap and dirt.
  5. Use a small grout brush or toothbrush to clean the engravings and any other hard-to-reach areas.
  6. Rinse thoroughly and buff dry with rags.

How to Clean a Marble Headstone

Marble is much softer than granite and is prone to damage from environmental stress. It must be cleaned very gently. The process is similar to cleaning granite, but it must be done with extra care.

  1. Soak the headstone in water, allowing the water to soak into the debris for 15 minutes. Continue adding water to keep the debris moist.
  2. Very gently remove the debris with a wooden scraper, using care not to dig the scraper into the marble. Keep the scraper nearly parallel with the stone. Do not try to remove vegetation or debris that is in small cracks or engravings. The stone cleaner will help kills this.
  3. Spray stone cleaner over the headstone, concentrating on the dirtiest areas. Let it soak in for 10 minutes, spraying periodically to keep it wet.
  4. Scrub the marble very gently with a brush only in areas that really need it. Use a small brush to get into crevices.
  5. Rinse thoroughly and dry with rags.

How to Clean a Slate Headstone

A slate headstone is more durable than marble, but not as durable as granite. If you're cleaning one of these headstones, avoid scraping at debris. Slate is prone to flaking. Follow the other instructions for cleaning granite, including scrubbing the stone all over as needed.

Removing Stains From Headstones

If a headstone has stains from lichen, prolonged exposure to moss, or bird droppings, the Cemetery Conservators for United Standards (CCUS) recommends using D/2 Bio Solution as described above and then reapplying the D/2 Bio Solution to the stained areas and giving them more time to soak. Gentle scrubbing can help. The CCUS also notes that the D/2 Bio Solution will continue to work within the pores of the stone, so it may take a few days for it to remove the stains fully.

Washing tombstone with brush

How to Clean a Bronze Headstone

Bronze plaques and headstones can become dull from exposure to the elements, but a good cleaning can help. Again, the key is to be gentle. This process, recommended by the CCUS, can help you bring back the shine.

Things You'll Need

Gather the following tools and supplies:

  • Gentle cleaner, such as Orvus Paste
  • Bucket
  • Water
  • Soft, clean rags
  • Soft bristle brush
  • Bowling alley paste wax and applicator
  • Paint edger

What to Do

  1. Moisten the bronze with water and allow it to soak into any grime for a few minutes.
  2. Apply a small amount of Orvus Paste to the headstone and use the soft brush to clean it gently. Do not scrub hard enough to remove the patina on the bronze.
  3. Thoroughly rinse off the cleaner and buff the headstone dry with a rag. Allow the bronze to dry completely in the sun.
  4. When the bronze is dry, apply a small amount of paste wax to it. Buff it in with another clean rag, removing any excess wax. Use the paint edger to prevent the wax from getting on any stone parts for the headstone.

What Not to Do When Cleaning Headstones

Although they are designed to last for centuries, headstones can be fragile. If you clean with the wrong products or use incorrect procedures, you may damage the monument. Keep these tips in mind:

  • Never clean a headstone with metal scrapers, brushes with metal bristles, or any other metal tools.
  • Never use bleach, ammonia, or harsh detergents on stone or bronze.
  • Don't use power washers on headstones.
  • Do not use drill brushes or other power tools to clean the stone.
  • Never clean with anything abrasive.

Use Care Adding Accessories

Once the headstone is clean, you may want to enhance it with special accessories. If you choose to add a headstone vase or other special touch, avoid damaging the original stone. Attach the vase to the ground near the headstone or use a vase holder or flower pot holder that is designed to avoid damage. If you take care of the stone and any associated accessories, your monument will be a lasting tribute to your loved one.

How to Clean Different Types of Headstones