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How to Clean Headstones (Pay Respect to Your Ancestors)

Updated
Learn how to clean headstones so you can keep the headstone legible for years to come.

Gravestones are beautiful memorials for family members and can last for generations. However, headstones for graves do become grimy and covered with lichen over time. They require cleaning in order to look their best.

You do need to make sure that you’re using the right headstone cleaner and cleaning method for the type of material used to create the gravestone. So today we’re sharing some simple instructions on how to clean headstones without damaging them.

How to Clean Headstones

Assess the headstone before you begin cleaning it to ensure that it’s not unsteady, cracking, or flaking. Do not clean the gravestone if you see signs of damage. Soak the headstone with water. Now scrub it in a circular motion, using a soft bristle brush. Make sure to work from the bottom of the gravestone to the top. Avoid scrubbing any damaged areas. When you’re finished scrubbing, rinse the headstone. Remember to start at the bottom of the gravestone and work to the top when rinsing. This will help to prevent streaking.


What You’ll Need

  • Clean water
  • Soft-bristled brush
  • Toothbrush
  • Toothpick or dowel (optional for bronze headstones)
  • Gloves
  • Natural sea sponge
  • Spray bottle
  • Bucket
  • Pump sprayer or hose connected to a water source
  • Appropriate cleaning solution for the gravestone material
  • Wax

Marble Gravestones

Marble makes a beautiful monument for your family members. The stone comes in many different colors and will stand out among the other markers. However, a marble gravestone needs to be cleaned properly so it will last for many generations.

1. Assess the Headstone

At the cemetery, check the headstone’s condition before you begin cleaning it. If the headstone is unsteady, you may cause it to fall when you clean it. Also, check to ensure the gravestone is not flaking or excessively weathered. You will cause more damage to the headstone, so don’t clean it if the headstone is in a bad condition.

2. Clean Area Around Gravestone

Clean the area around the gravestone by removing any dead leaves, old flowers, and twigs. Tidying this area will greatly improve the appearance of the gravestone.

Be careful not to pull ivy off of the gravestone. Instead, you’ll need to cut the ivy away from the marker otherwise the ivy may damage the gravestone as it’s pulled away.

3. Soak the Tombstone with Water

Pour a bucket of water over the headstone to soak it. You can also use a hand hose to spray down the headstone to soak it.

4. Mix Cleaning Solution

Put on gloves to protect your hands. You will use a 1:4 part solution of ammonium hydroxide diluted in water. Another option is to use 1 oz of household ammonia added to 1 gallon of water.

5. Apply Cleaning Solution to the Stone

First, test the cleaning solution on an inconspicuous area of the stone to make sure that you get the results you want. Now apply the solution to the tombstone gently using the soft-bristled brush or sponge.

6. Scrub the Stone

Gently scrub the marble in a circular motion from the bottom of the stone to the top using the sponge, soft-bristled brush, or toothbrush. Make sure to avoid any cracks or flaking.

7. Rinse the Gravestone

After the gravestone is clean, rinse the gravestone from the bottom to the top with a hose or bucket so you don’t end up with any drip lines. Make sure that you have removed all the cleaning solution from it as any leftover residue will attract dirt and cause the gravestone to become dirty quickly.

Granite, Slate, And Sandstone Gravestones

You will use the same steps and cleaning solutions to clean granite, slate, and sandstone gravestones. Remember to ask the family’s permission first and to clean the headstones on a temperate day. If the day is too hot or too cold, you run the risk of damaging the stone.

1. Assess the Headstone

Before you begin cleaning the headstone, first take a good look at the headstone and consider its condition. You need to make sure that the gravestone is not flaking, unsteady or cracking before you begin, otherwise, you may damage the gravestone when you clean it.

2. Clean Area Around Gravestone

Now clean the area around the gravestone. Remove dead leaves and flowers. Pick up sticks. Do not pull out any ivy that has attached itself to the gravestone. Instead, cut the ivy as short as possible so you don’t damage the gravestone by pulling it out.

Often, simply cleaning the area around the gravestone improves the appearance tremendously.

3. Soak the Headstone with Water

Now soak the headstone in water. You can do this by hosing down the gravestone or pouring water from a bucket over the headstone.

4. Mix Cleaning Solution

Granite, sandstone and slate headstones require a cleaning solution of 1 oz of non-ionic solution in 5 gallons of water. You must use a non-ionic solution to clean as it is an electrically neutral cleaning agent. This means that it doesn’t contain soluble salts nor will it cause soluble salts to be created. Soluble salts will damage the headstone, so they should be avoided.

5. Apply Cleaning Solution to the Stone

Apply the cleaning solution to your headstone with the sponge. You will start from the bottom and work your way up in gentle circular motions. Once the cleaning solution has been applied, let it soak into the stone for 10 minutes.

6. Scrub the Stone

Now scrub the stone with a soft-bristled brush again using gentle circular motions. Make sure to clean the entire side working from the bottom to the top of the headstone.

7. Rinse the Gravestone

Rinse the gravestone before it dries using a hose or pump sprayer. Again you will rinse the gravestone from the bottom to the top. You will need to ensure that you’ve removed all the cleaning solutions from the stone so you don’t accidentally leave a residue that will attract dirt.

Bronze Gravestones

A bronze gravestone is beautiful. As bronze is a metal rather than stone, a bronze gravestone requires a slightly different cleaning technique than other gravestones.

1. Assess the Headstone

The first step, no matter what type of gravestone you’re cleaning, is always to assess the headstone itself. You’re looking for any signs of wobbling, chipping, or damage that may worsen if you clean the headstone.

2. Clean Area Around Gravestone

Clean the area around the gravestone. Look for dead flowers, leaves, and twigs cluttering up the area. Remove any grass that may be laying on the surface as well.

3. Scrub the Bronze Gravestone with Water

Using a soft-bristled brush and water, scrub at the bronze gravestone using plain water. Use a toothbrush to get into any small crevices that are hard to reach with the bigger brush.

4. Mix Cleaning Solution

Now you’ll make a cleaning solution using a non-ionic soap or detergent by diluting a few drops of your detergent in a 16 oz spray bottle full of water.

5. Apply Cleaning Solution and Scrub

Spray the bronze memorial with the cleaner spray and immediately begin to scrub the bronze with a soft cloth, soft-bristled brush, or toothbrush. You can use a toothpick or dowel to gently remove any dirt lodged between letters.

If the cleaning solution isn’t working as effectively as you would like, you can use a bronze cleaner instead.

6. Rinse and Dry the Gravestone

Give the plaques a thorough rinsing as you need to ensure that all the cleaning solution has been removed from the marker. The leftover residue will attract dirt and cause the marker to become dirty much faster than it would otherwise. Once you’ve rinsed the gravestone, dry it with a clean cloth.

7. Optional: Wax the Gravestone

After you have cleaned the gravestone, you can apply a thin layer of high-quality clear paste wax to the surface. After waxing the bronze marker, be sure to lightly buff the marker.

Pro Tips for Cleaning Gravestones

When you’re planning on cleaning new or old gravestones, make sure that you’ve followed these pro tips. This will prevent you from causing accidental damage to the gravestone.

Clean on a Temperate Day

Do not attempt to clean the gravestone on an extremely hot or cold day. If the gravestone is hot to the touch, then it may crack when cold water is poured on it.

If the temperature is close to freezing, you risk water getting into small and minuscule cracks. Water expands when it freezes, so it could cause an expansion in the cracks and so damage the gravestone.

Always Ask for Permission First

Never clean a gravestone without receiving permission from the family members first. If you’re in doubt, check with the people in charge of the graveyard. They will be able to help you get in contact with the family.

Check Condition of the Gravestone

Always check the condition of the gravestone before you begin cleaning it. If the gravestone is unsteady or wobbles, it may fall when you attempt to clean it. Also, if the gravestone is cracked or flaking you may cause more damage to the gravestone by cleaning it.

Do Not Clean the Gravestone Too Often

Every time you clean a gravestone, you wear away part of the surface of the stone. If you clean a stone more than once every couple of years, then the gravestone will wear away faster than it would if you rarely clean it.

What Not to Use When Cleaning Gravestones

When you’re cleaning gravestones, you need to be careful about the tools and cleaning solutions that you use on the memorials. The stones are easily damaged when treated incorrectly.

Do Not Use Bleach

Do not use bleach on the headstones. It leaves salt deposits which will eventually break down the stone’s surface causing the stone to crumble.

Do Not Use a Wire Brush

Do not use a wire brush on the gravestones. While it will remove the algae, it also removes and damages the stone surface. Use soft-bristled brushes instead. You can use 2-3 different sizes to make scrubbing of the big and small areas easier.

Do Not Use a Power Washer

Another item you should not use on the headstones is a power washer. While it may seem like a good way to remove any contaminants from the gravestone, it will also damage the memorial.

Do Not Use Power Tools

Do not use power tools on the gravestone. Nylon wheels will also damage the stone and may even make the stones unreadable.

Do Not Use Household Cleaners

Do not use regular household cleaners on the gravestones even if they’re biodegradable. This includes household soaps, dishwashing liquid, detergents, and waxes. These types of cleaners tend to be acidic or abrasive.

The acidity or abrasiveness will damage the gravestones. Also, other household cleaners may leave residue on the markers. This will quickly attract dirt causing the gravestone to need to be cleaned sooner than it would otherwise be necessary.

FAQs

How Do You Clean A Headstone Without Damaging It?

Ensure that the headstone is stable and not flaking. Then use water and a soft cloth or natural sea sponge to gently clean the headstone. Do not use bleach or household cleaners even if they’re biodegradable. Bleach will leave salt deposits while any acidity or abrasiveness in the cleaners will damage the marker.

Can You Use Vinegar To Clean Headstones?

No, the acidity of the vinegar will damage the headstones.

How Do I Clean An Old Gravestone?

First, make sure that the old gravestone is stable and in a good condition. You will also need to ensure that the gravestone is not flaking, as cleaning a flaking gravestone will cause more damage. Next, carefully remove any debris around the gravestone.

Pour water over the gravestone to soak it. After waiting a few minutes, gently begin removing loose materials from the stone.

Use a soft cloth or a natural sea sponge and water to gently clean the memorial. Water and gentle scrubbing should remove most of the dirt.

How Do You Keep a Gravestone Shiny?

The best way to keep a gravestone shiny is to use distilled water or clean water on the gravestone and wipe it clean with a soft cloth. Gravestones are easily damaged by abrasive surfaces and chemicals.

Is It Disrespectful To Clean A Gravestone?

No, it is not disrespectful to clean a gravestone. However, you will need to make sure that you have permission from the family members before you begin cleaning the gravestone.

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About the Author

Sara Dennis

Sara Dennis is a coffee-loving freelance writer, homeschool blogger, and mom of six kids. In her free time, Sara loves reading books and researching more efficient and effective ways to keep a clean house, homeschool her children, and blog better while making a home for her large family.