Cleaning headstones and other grave markers can range from simple to complex. This article will teach you how to clean a gravestone using your own DIY gravestone cleaning kit. It is designed for less complicated situations where you are primarily focused on cleaning the gravestone and preventing vegetation damage.
Complicated situations, where you are repairing a damaged marker, need to be researched more carefully before getting started. Often you will need permission from the cemetery staff before getting involved with extensive maintenance projects.
When cleaning grave markers, always use the least invasive techniques first. These steps below are all considered safe for stones.
A basic list of tools and cleaners for your kit:
1. A soft nylon brush.
2. Three gallons of tap water in a container along with a simple hand sprayer.
3. Common household ammonia.
4. Orvus W A Paste Shampoo (or similar product) for cleaning horses. This is a mild, pH neutral, synthetic soap. It is available at farm or animal supply stores, or via Amazon (click below).
5. Small gardening shovel.
6. Lots of rags.
Steps to Clean a Gravestone:
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 also use a gentle soap if necessary, such as Orvus.
- 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.
Avoid using household dish soap or products like Simple Green since they can damage the surface of the stone.
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 (4) parts of water to one (1) part clear ammonia.
- Rinse the stone thoroughly with clean water.
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.
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. If you have several markers to clean, this is definitely the best method.
5. Vegetation management. Although it is primarily the cemetery’s responsibility to prevent tree roots and other vegetation from damaging the gravestone, this maintenance is sometimes delayed or ignored. Another issue is that cemetery maintenance staff will often use a weed whip with a thick cord that can damage the gravestone.
Use a small shovel and gardening tools to clear several inches around the grave so that the weed whip does not need to get close. Remove scrub trees (weeds or small 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.
You should ask permission before doing any major landscaping around the gravestone.
Here's an example of a headstone cleaned following this process. You can see where the top part has been cleaned, but not the bottom.
Photo courtesy of Rick Sheridan
Some Final Tips For DIY Gravestone Cleaning
- Test on a small, discreet area of the gravestone first.
- 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.
- Do a final clean up of 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.
- Seek professional assistance, if necessary. Some graves have become so dilapidated that a professional stonemason needs to be brought in to make repairs.
- Do not use household bleach, vinegar, household detergents.
- Do not scrub with steel wool or a wire brush.
- Do not use commercial herbicides around stones. Virtually all of them contain salts or acid that are damaging to most stones.
- Do not seal or coat the stone. It can’t breathe and will decompose faster.
About the Author
Rick Sheridan has worked as a journalist and college professor for most of his career. Rick taught journalism and managed the student newspaper at Wilberforce University. He also taught part-time at Stanford University and California State University, Chico.
Rick works part-time as a columnist for the Dayton Daily News (40-plus columns published). He has also been published by the Chicago Sun-Times, Tampa Bay Times, New Orleans Times-Picayune, and Pikes Peak Senior News in Colorado Springs.