Headstones are constantly exposed to the elements, which can lead to a significant buildup of dirt and debris. Furthermore, a variety of elemental and natural factors can damage headstones, including rain, snow, and heat across the changing seasons, as well as animal droppings and new plant growth within the cemetery.
For the loved ones of the deceased, a headstone is a symbolic marker of their final resting place. As such, keeping the stone clean can be an essential task for family members and other loved ones, but if you’ve never cleaned a headstone before, you may be curious as to how to do so properly to avoid causing any damage.
As you learn about how to clean a headstone, you’ll find that it’s a relatively easy process, and as long as you use the right cleaning items, you’ll be able to improve the legibility of the headstone and preserve it for years to come.
What Materials Will I Need?
The first step to knowing how to clean a headstone is gathering the materials you’ll need. Most of these are everyday household items that you likely already have on hand, but in case you don’t have any of them lying around, you should be able to purchase them at your local hardware store.
The first thing you’ll need is water — and lots of it. In order to properly clean your loved one’s headstone, you should bring roughly five gallons of water with you, which is just about the amount a standard water cooler holds. If you won’t be able to carry that much water from your car to the gravesite on your own, plan to bring help or something you can use to transport the water to your destination, such as a wheelbarrow or dolly.
Along with the water, you’ll also need a sponge to scrub the headstone and rid it of any large debris. Make sure to use a natural sponge or sea sponge, as products made with dyes can transfer their color onto the stone. You should also bring scraping tools made of plastic or wood to remove debris that the sponge may not be able to, and avoid using metal, as it can damage the headstone further.
Bring two types of brushes to the gravesite as well. One should be a toothbrush, applicable for small detail cleaning, and the other should be a larger scrubbing brush with bristles made of soft nylon or similar material.
These are the primary materials you’ll use as you learn how to clean a headstone, but some additional items you’ll need can include any of the following:
- Towels for hand drying
- Rubber gloves
- Extra bucket(s) for water
- Plastic trash bag(s) for debris
- A camera to document your progress
Once you’ve gathered your materials, learn how to clean a headstone below.
How to Clean a Headstone: A Step-by-Step Guide
Getting right down to it, knowing how to clean a headstone is a matter of following these simple steps:
Once you arrive at the gravesite with all of your materials, begin by removing any easily moveable branches, twigs, dead leaves, or old bouquets.
These can be disposed of with the trash bag you brought with you.
Next, wet the headstone thoroughly, either by pouring water directly from your bucket or by using your sponge to apply it to specific areas. Using your sponge, gently rub the surface of the headstone. A circular motion tends to work best to remove tightly packed dirt and grime.
Once you’ve spent some time cleaning off the top layer of dirt with your sponge, it’s time to perform more detailed work with your brushes. Use the toothbrush to lightly scrub inside the lettering and other small crevices, and use the larger scrub brush to cover the broad surface of the stone.
You should be able to remove a deeper layer of dirt, algae, or moss with the abrasive surfaces of the brushes, but just make sure that you keep the headstone wet during this entire process, as any contact between dry materials can cause damage. You should also refresh the water on the headstone regularly to make sure it’s as clean as possible, and stop scrubbing if you notice any immediate damage from your cleaning efforts.
If you need additional help removing tightly packed dirt or organic growth in certain areas of the headstone, take out your scraping tools and gently apply pressure to these areas. Repeat until you feel satisfied with your results or until you stop noticing visual changes from your scraping.
Keep in mind that the headstone may not look exactly how it did when it was new, especially if it has been standing for many years. In these situations, taking before and after pictures is a recommended effort, as you’ll be able to see the effects of your hard work on your loved one’s headstone.
Can I Use a Cleaning Solution on Headstones?
Some people consider using cleaning chemicals and solutions as they research how to clean a headstone. Cleaning solutions can be used to help remove thick layers of grime and maintain a clean appearance for longer, but some cleaning fluids can inflict further damage depending on what the headstone is made of.
If your loved one’s headstone is made of slate, granite, or sandstone, avoid ammonia and use a detergent that is non-ionic. Dawn dish soap is an excellent choice that won’t risk damaging the monument. For headstones made of materials like marble, you could add a small amount of ammonia or use a detergent made of ammonium hydroxide.
Whichever cleaning solution you decide to use, make sure it is heavily diluted with water and only applied to the pre-wetted headstone in small amounts.
What Not to Do When Cleaning a Headstone
Regarding any actions you should absolutely avoid while learning how to clean a headstone, one major warning to keep in mind is to never clean a headstone that is physically unstable or that could become unstable when touched. You may end up doing irreparable damage to the headstone just by attempting to clean it.
As you learn how to clean a headstone, also keep in mind that you should never attempt to clean the headstone of someone you don’t know without explicit permission. If you accidentally damage it, you could be liable for repair costs.
Additionally, avoid cleaning your loved one’s headstone on very hot or cold days, as extreme temperatures could affect the wetness of the stone or its stability during cleaning.