How to clean a headstone

Published 7:44 pm Saturday, February 7, 2009

If your deceased loved ones chose to have a traditional burial, it is likely important to you that their gravesites are kept up.

Regular maintenance, if done properly, can protect grave markers from aging and damage caused by natural elements and the unfortunate incident of vandalism.

Sadly, many gravesites in Chilton County — especially private family cemeteries — have become unsightly due to neglect or because their caretakers do not know how to properly clean them.

There is a right way and a wrong way to clean a grave marker, and the potential for damage is high.

“Water, a soft brush and elbow grease are the only three things you should use,” said Kat Reece of the Chilton Cemetery Association.

Reece was quick to add that some headstones are susceptible to damage if any attempt is made to clean them at all, and she offers a few tips for determining if a headstone can be safely cleaned.

First, rub your hand along the stone to see if it is “sugaring.” If, after touching the stone, your hand feels as if it has sugar granules all over it, do not attempt to clean the stone.

“If it’s been sugaring, you don’t need to clean it because you’re going to do more damage,” Reece warns.

If a stone is leaning badly or flaking, where moss can grow into it and force the layers of stone apart, you stand the risk of breaking it or worsening the damage.

If you proceed to clean a stone, however, you should use caution in selecting a brush. Reece recommends using a soft toothbrush, cotton swab or a Popsicle stick, which has a good edge for scraping.

“You always want to use something that’s softer than the stone itself,” she said. “Never use anything metal.”

After removing growth, soak the stone with water by dribbling water over the top. If there is no water available in the cemetery, Reece suggests using a spray bottle, preferably one that has never had any chemicals in it. Then, use a soft brush to continue cleaning (don’t forget the elbow grease).

People tend to think the stone should be perfectly white when clean. But this is a common misconception.

“You need to remember that this is a historic artifact. It needs to show some of its age to fit into the cemetery,” Reece said.

Believe it or not, some headstones are actually hollow. If a stone is hollow, it should not be cleaned. This can be determined by simply rapping or knocking on the stone.

Because stone is porous, it naturally soaks up ground water. For this reason, only lime mortar (not cement) should be used to reset a headstone into place, although bricks may be used underneath the stone to level it.

Also, when doing any major work, you might need to get a permit.

“You need to obtain a permit from the Alabama Historic Commission anytime you enter a historic cemetery to do major cleanup work,” Reece said.

Reece is available to speak to groups on the subject. For more information, call 294-2197 or e-mail to