Thursday, May 21, 2015

Tips to Clean Cemetery Headstones and Grave Markers

Find out who owns/manages the cemetery you have chosen. Learn what cemetery district you are in and contact your local municipalities to obtain permission to volunteer your time. Many historic pioneer cemeteries are out of perpetual care funding and are unable to afford to maintain their sites. Your request to volunteer, will often be welcomed with gratitude.   

Cemetery maintenance is a time consuming. What is most important is that you feel good about your work. Try to have fun, and pace yourself. It's better to do a little bit of rewarding work each week than to burn yourself out doing in a marathon weekend of drudgery. 

Volunteering in the Cemetery: Cemetery Etiquette

  • Choose a reasonable time to work. (Limit yourself to hours of operation.)
  • Do not clean near mourners who are visiting or while nearby a funeral taking place.
  • Do not leave waste behind.
  • Do not bring pets to roam freely on site while you work.
  • Do not move or remove fresh flowers or recently placed tributes from grave sites.


About Cemetery Stones: Granite vs. Marble

Many private cemeteries require the use of granite for monuments, but for those who allow marble monuments and headstones, it's best to request a "honed finish" rather than a "polished finish". The matte surface of the "honed finish" is helpful in hiding acid etching. 

Additionally, the denser the marble the lower its absorption rate, making it more resistant to wear. White marbles are some of the most resistant, and the best come from Carrara, Italy and Danby, Vermont.

How to Clean Headstones and Grave Markers

Because of age and wear on cemetery headstones, one must take the utmost care when cleaning, mending, or resetting headstones. If a monument is falling apart, appears brittle, or it’s surface seems especially delicate to you, we recommend that you DO NOT handle the artifact as it may be unintentionally damaged in the process. In such cases, it is always best to leave these restorations to professionals.

Below are some DOs and DON'Ts for safely cleaning headstones and grave markers:

Do bring supplies: Large bucket, Natural Bristle Brushes of various sizes, Water, Colorless Non-ionic soap, (Liquid or paste), A wooden scraper, Gardeners pumping water sprayer, Apron, Dust mask, Ammonia (For cleaning marble or limestone – One tablespoon of ammonia can be mixed into your solution to remove grease and oil.) Don't expect every stone to come completely clean. Vigorous scrubbing can damage your artifact as every cleaning removes some surface material from the memorial stone. It is always better to maintain the integrity of the material over achieving an immaculate finish.
Do thoroughly wash off the stone with water, keeping it wet throughout the entire cleaning process. Don't clean wooden headstones.
Do mix a bucket of non-ionic soap. Don't use flammable or corrosive materials for cleaning.
Do use a natural bristle brush to thoroughly wash off all faces of the monument working from the top down. Don't use bleach to clean as it may stain monuments.
Do use lots of water and keep the stone wet through the entire washing process. Don't sand or scrape with files or wire brushes.
Do use a wooden scraper to remove algae/lichens and other harmful growth. Don't use ammonia to clean metal or bronze surfaces.
Do consider sodding and seeding Don't use high pressure hoses, sand blasters or abrasive chemicals to clean monuments or graffiti.
Do consider wearing headphones. Don't clean a monument more than once annually with the exception of lightly rinsing away dust and bird droppings.
Do keep away from active dig areas. Don't move or remove fresh flowers or recently placed tributes from gravesites.
Do keep your vehicle on paved pathways. Don't work in areas with pests or wildlife


Additional Cemetery Cleaning Precautions

  • Vandalism – Report recent vandalism/graffiti to cemetery management and police department.
  • Graffiti Restoration – Because the most common tool for removing spray paint from surfaces is a pressure washer with a mixture of sand and water, we do not recommend it for tombstone cleaning. In cases of tagging we recommend you seek the help of a professional.
  • Spraying for insects – We do not recommend that you take it upon yourself to spray any kind of pesticides while working on site. Always avoid wasps nests and beehives.
  • Mausoleum flies and other pests should be dealt with by professionals.
Have you cleaned cemetery headstones or grave markers? What advice can you share with others for safe cleaning? 


  1. Thanks for the advice on cleaning headstones. After my grandmother died I've realized how important it is to keep these memorials clean out of love and respect. I try to take good care of hers, and this will help me do a better job. I'll definitely try to help other people, too.

    State Stone

  2. My Aunt passed away a few years ago. She was living quite a ways from most of the family and was buried at a cemetery that wasn't close to many family members. I am now living pretty close to that cemetery and have decided that I will clean her headstone from time to time and make sure her grave looks nice. The tip about keeping the headstone wet through the cleaning process is good to know!

  3. I was visiting my mother's grave when I noticed that it looked a bit dirty. Knowing how to properly clean her headstone would be a good gesture to respect her memory. It helps that you pointed out to use non-ionic soap. I don't know if the soap I have at home is non-ionic, but now that I know what kind of soap to use I can properly clean her headstone. Thanks for the tips!

  4. All of my grandparents have passed on. Their graves are close to where I live, and I'll visit them a couple of times a year. The cemeteries they are buried in do a pretty good job of keeping grave markers clean, but sometimes a little extra TLC can help. It's important to keep the grave marker's material in mind, as you mentioned. You don't want to expose it to harsh chemicals or tools and end up damaging it. I'll keep your tips in mind the next time I visit my grandparents graves.

  5. Really good article. Thanks for taking the time to explain things in such great detail in a way that is easy to understand.
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