Headstones among boulders and carnations on shady hillside

How to Properly Clean a Headstone

May 22, 2023 4:57 pm Published by Leave your thoughts

Headstones serve as enduring symbols of our connection to the past; they stand as silent witnesses to the lives lived and the stories told. With the passing of time, the elements can gradually diminish their beauty and clarity. To honor and preserve the legacies of our loved ones, it is essential to learn how to properly clean a headstone. Breathe new life into cherished monuments through effective and gentle cleaning methods — in a simple seven steps from the expert team at BONNEY WATSON, Washington’s continually-operating funeral home.

Step 1: Make sure the stone is secure.

Old gravestone bases may become unstable after hundreds of years. Make sure the marker you’re working with is secure and isn’t going to fall. Remember: you want to remain safe throughout the process.

Step 2: Check the outdoor temperature.

In hot weather: Touch the surface of the gravestone with your bare hand. Is the stone hot to the touch? If so, do not clean it with cold water — this could cause cracks. Consider covering the stone until the temperature lowers. If waiting isn’t an option, use warm water to clean the headstone in hot temperatures.

In cold weather: Don’t attempt to clean a stone when there’s any chance of freezing temperatures in the forecast. Water expands when it freezes, so the water could get inside the minuscule cracks in the stone and grow.

Step 3: Look for plants stuck to the stone.

Your first instinct might be to pull plants off the stone as soon as you see it — but expert stone cleaners caution against this practice.

Instead, cut the plants (particularly ivy) at the root and periodically along the vine. Some plants’ suckers can damage stones. You can remove the suckers but it’s best to wait until the plant is dead to complete the cleaning.

Step 4: Inspect the stone.

Stop and scrutinize the stone before you begin the cleaning process. There may be indicators that you need to call in a stone preservationist to handle the job of cleaning the monument. Here are some things to look for on the stone:

  • Delamination: Some stones are layered. Do not begin the cleaning process if you see that the stone’s layers are starting to separate. This is a job for a professional.
  • Hollow sounds: Do you hear a hollow sound when you tap lightly on the stone? If so, don’t attempt to clean it.
  • Large cracks: Whether the stone is cracked from an intrusive tree root or another source, do not attempt to clean the stone. The fragile stone may chip easily and should be repaired before cleaning begins.

Step 5: Wet the stone with water.

First, it’s worth noting that you should never use a power washer to clean a headstone. This would do irreparable damage. Instead, use a pump sprayer set on a mist setting.

Gently wet the stone with clean water and watch as it dries. Look for stress cracks on the stone. If there are many cracks or they seem unusually wide, don’t continue the cleaning process.

Step 6: Gently scrub the headstone.

Have you determined that the stone is in good enough shape to be cleaned by an amateur? If so, you can move on to the next step. Soak the stone and wait for a few minutes. Scrape the moss and other plant growth off the stone with a wooden or plastic scraper.

Step 7: Rinse the stone.

Rinse the gravestone of any debris that you brought to the surface from your gentle scrubbing. You will notice that there was no mention of any cleaning products in this article. Most sources recommend not using any cleaning products until you have received training on which products will not harm the stone or the surrounding vegetation.

Additional Tips for Cleaning Headstones

Professionals in the past used the following products and tools to clean monuments. Unfortunately, experts today agree that you should never use these products to conserve gravestones:

  • Bleach
  • Wire brushes
  • Power washers
  • Power tools

Special cleaning instructions for Granite Gravestones:

Granite can become very hot in the summer and cleaning it on a hot day may be problematic. It’ll be difficult to keep the surface wet when water evaporates so quickly. The monument could end up looking streaky.

Special cleaning instructions for Bronze Gravestones:

Bronze is different than cleaning granite, slate, or other natural stone. You can use the same steps when you clean a bronze monument — just add an extra step at the end. Some experts recommend adding a protective coating to a newly cleaned bronze monument, while others recommend adding a thin layer of wax paste. Buff the surface to a smooth finish once the surface dries.

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This post was written by Cameron Smock

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