A headstone is designed and often desired, to be a permanent memento of your loved one. Nevertheless, they can become stained or dirty over time and need a good clean.
Although it is not unheard of to replace headstones, you might be inclined to avoid that route for whatever reasons you feel important, be them added cost, a steady stimulus to bring back wanted memories, or whatever your reasons, I am sure that you have good ones.
Cleaning a headstone will require that you first know the material of the stone. Then you can use non-ionic water and a soft brush to scrub it. For tougher cases, some specialized products are available. There is also a method of allowing nature to do the dirty work. Finally, you could hire someone.
Before you can do any cleaning of an item that is meant to be forever, you must make sure you know that the item is made of.
General tips: Dos & Don’ts
- Match the cleaner to the type of headstone material
- Clean headstones at least once every two years
- Be aware of any cracks or sealant breaches
- Consider bio-friendly or green cleaning methods
- Use wire or metal brushes
- Use products which claim to ‘seal’ the stone
- use excessive force on softer materials
- Leave headstones unsupervised for more than 12 months
Seek out the Stone
Headstones are most often made of one of the following 4 materials; sandstone or limestone, marble, granite, or bronze all of which have distinct considerations before you put them to the soap and brush.
Assuming that your stone was properly prepared, to begin with, meaning consolidator (to fill in the gaps) and sealant (to keep moisture out), it should be easy enough to clean.
If you feel that your stone is in need of a consolidator and or sealant, you should be looking for information on tombstone restoration. This process is beyond the scope of the article, but I will mention that you certainly should NOT apply a fresh coat of sealant shortly after cleaning.
Sure, sealant will help keep new moisture out, but it will also keep the moisture you applied to it in the cleaning process, which can be very bad.
So, back to the rocks.
Sandstone and limestone are, here, grouped into the same category as their cleaning considerations are quite similar. Gentleness is paramount when dealing with these stones. That means no harsh cleansers, no wire brushes, and certainly NO powerwashers (sandblasters will blast the sandstone into nothing more than sand).
It is recommended that you use a soft-bristled natural brush and distilled non-ionic water. That’s right, pure water and a brush, nothing else.
Marble is another matter and a big step up from the former two in resilience. Although not the toughest, it does allow more cleaning power than that which you would use on a baby’s bottom.
That being said, we still need to avoid pressure washes and metal brushes. Some artists use wire brushes to add texture to marble works of art. If you are not looking to add a hair texture to your headstone, keep the metal brushes away.
Water, again, will be needed but this time we can add in some helpful cleaning chemicals. Ammonium hydroxide can be purchased easily on Amazon, or perhaps your local hardware store may carry it. Add a small amount of it to the distilled water and with your soft brush, you can safely get scrubbing.
Granite is the toughest of the stone family of common headstone materials. It can certainly take a beating and is strong enough to withstand the blasting of water pressure washers (I wouldn’t use a sandblaster)
Chemicals are a different matter though, we want to maintain the non-ionic distilled water, but we can add some non-ionic soap to the mix. Again, a wire brush needs to be avoided but we can certainly add in a little elbow grease.
Bear in mind that if your stone has any painted on features the vigorous cleaning methods above might peel that art away and should be considered before you use them.
NOTE: Non-ionic water is water that has had its minerals removed. When cleaning stone, minerals can act as an abrasive and cause micro scratching. Furthermore, when mineral water dries, it leaves behind an unsightly mineral residue which is probably one of the major reasons you are cleaning the headstone in the first place.
Finally, we look at bronze. Bronze is not a stone but is still often used for headstones, and plaques. Bronze is extremely susceptible to discoloration. When maintained, it is golden (well bronze) in color and shines and glimmers. When left to the effects of time, it first dulls and then turns a pale green-white. If you want your bronze to shine, you will need to take steps to ensure it is ready for viewing.
Once a year, you will need to clean, wax, and polish it. Again, we take non-ionic water and soap and a soft brush to clean it. Then we wait for it to dry and apply a wax to seal it, buffing the wax to get a nice shine.
For more information on the longest-lasting headstone material, please read my full article on this topic here.
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Scrubbing the Stone
The most important thing to remember is that we want to be gentle, especially with the softer stones. As mentioned above, never used a metal brush, some even some plastic brushes can be damaging. There are plenty of natural hair brushes out there that fit perfectly into this role but they can be pricey. If this added cost is a deterrent, just make sure you find the softest synthetic brush you can find.
If you are having a hard time finding a brush because your local department store is sold out of soft-bristled-limestone-headstone-scrubbing-brushes, you can turn to the automotive cleaning section of the store. Car washing brushes are usually quite soft as they are meant not to scratch the surface paint and coatings on a car.
Brush in hand, we can spray on our solution of choice (more options than non-ionic water discussed below) and start to scrub. Some say we should start at the bottom as run-down for the top will end up very thick at the bottom by the time you get down there. However, this will require that you clean the bottom twice. Once from the bottom up, and again, when the top runs down to the bottom. I suggest you just start where ever you think needs the most work and prepare to rinse it frequently.
Remember, 3 light passes is better than 1 hard pass. Be gentle.
Wooden scrapers might be also more advised than plastic and metal again should be avoided at all costs. Wooden scrapers and help you to remove large chunks of growth and also dried-on dirt. Wooden scrapers are usually made of cheap wood, and cheap wood is soft. It’s much better for your cheap wooden scraper to chip than your headstone.
A fine wooden skewer can be quite helpful for getting into tight engravings. You might find that it is used even more than the wooden scraper. Again, wood beats plastic, and plastic beats metal.
My brush suggestions for cleaning headstones safely
Natural horsehair brushes
Go for a soft horsehair brush which won’t shed, this will minimize any micro-scratches and won’t damage a softer stone material. Check out the latest availability on Amazon
Synthetic soft brushes
If you aren’t happy using animal products or can’t for some reason find a horsehair brush, then a synthetic soft brush is a good option. They also don’t cause the micro-scratches which could lead to even more cleaning issues over the coming years. Check out the latest availability on Amazon
Power tool brush accessory
Another option is to actually use a wireless power drill to do the hard work for you. Be sure to choose a soft brush accessory and start on a lower setting before increasing the resolutions.
This is a great option for people who suffer from any sort of joint issue and can’t get the pressure needed to clean some types of grime from a headstone. Check out the latest availability on Amazon
Scheduling the Stone Cleaning
As mentioned above, if you want your bronze to shine, you will need to visit it with a cleaning session at least once a year. Stone, however, doesn’t need so much care. Biannually treatment will most likely suffice.
However, I would recommend that you visit it at least once a year to check the stone out for issues that if left for 2 years might become serious.
The serious issues I am referring to are hairline cracks, a wearing down of sealant that has allowed mold to find home in the stone or other natural spoilers such as bird droppings. Since the stone probably won’t need cleaning annually, you can at least spend the day together with family or in a day of solitary reflection.
In some Asian cultures, they have an annual national holiday called tomb-sweeping day. Although they are not dealing with headstones, usually, they are making it a habit to spend one day a year to maintain the tombs of their loved once (usually is a single tomb containing the ashes of all the family).
This day is used as a family reunion, a day to pay respects to lost ones and ancestors, and a day of maintained. It might be worth considering making your own family tradition.
The weather across the nation can differ quite extremely so there is no best time of year to perform your cleaning session. But you certainly want to avoid wet weather, and I don’t see cleaning a headstone in the grip of a northern winter a pleasurable endeavor.
Extreme summer heat might also be an issue. If I were to chose a time of year to fit most places, I would suggest early Fall. Its a lovely season, comfortable, dry (in most places) and a time of year that is known for families coming together.
The right cleaner for the job
Like most items that need cleaning, there are certain products specially designed for cleaning headstones. These products claim that we don’t need to consider the type of material the stone is made of when choosing our products as they claim to be safe for all of the three stone types described above.
D/2 Biological Solutions
D/2 Biological Solutions has a large array of products that can be used for cleaning and maintain outdoor stonework, including tombstones. They specialize in products that are environmentally safe but specifically designed to clean stains produced naturally.
Retailing at around $75 you can get their gravestone cleaning kit. This kit comes with a quart of D/2 Biological Solution (more on this below), large and fine soft-bristled poly scrub brushes, a plastic lichen scraper, an inscription pick for getting in tight places like letter engravements and of course cleaning instructions full of tips from professionals. You can even get this kit delivered straight to your home by buying it on Amazon. Check availability and prices here.
D\2 Biological Solution is, of course, purchasable on its own and has a plethora of positive reviews on Amazon with 78% of consumers giving it a 5-star review. That being said, there are a few customers that say that the product did not perform as expected. Here is a link to the solution itself, which I think you’ll find perfect for the task.
So what can D\2 Biological Solution do?
D/2 Biological Solutions claims the following:
“D/2 Biological Solution is specially formulated to remove environmental pollution, dirt, and staining from biological soils such as mold, mildew, lichen, and algae from indoor and outdoor structures. D/2 is the only product developed for conservators by conservators. It has been successfully used to clean millions of buildings and monuments, from the White House to Arlington Cemetery.
Tested in a 6-year study and now specified by the Department of Veteran Affairs National Cemetery Administration.”
It also claims to be safe for use on all three of our headstone stone types; limestone, marble, and granite. As well as making the claims that it will not etch metal (should be safe for the bronze).
It says that is won’t damage plants, implying that it is non-toxic. It is PH neutral. Acid is something we recommended that you avoid. And it contains no salts which is one of the minerals we may have wanted to avoid by using non-ionic water.
D/2 Biological Solution comes in many sizes from a quart all the way up to a 5-gallon pail. A quart should suffice for most headstones and retails for about $19-$50.
This cost is not to bad if you’re considering ammonia, but if your planning on using water only because you have a limestone or sandstone headstone, you are certainly added cost.
Either way, you are going to need to buy some non-ionic water to rise the stone. Perhaps, if you find that the water is not working, you can consider a quart of D/2 Biological Solution.
Klean Logik Headstone Cleaner
Klean Logik produced a headstone specific cleaner that is up for consideration. This headstone cleaner claims to be able to restore the original beauty of a headstone through deep cleaning which is safe and effective on marble and granite, as well as concrete and natural stone.
Furthermore, it claims to quickly and easily remove dirt, moss, mold, and grime which are some of the things we can expect to be looking to clean away. It also claims to be free of harmful chemicals. Although its price, about $9 for an 8-ounce bottle, might seem appealing, I will have to suggest against using this product for the following reason.
It also claims that it provides a Teflon finish that will help maintain your headstone. This feature I feel warry of because of our mention above that sealer should only be used when the headstone is completely dried.
After cleaning the grit and grime off the headstone, I would suspect that a little water to rinse it off in order. This Teflon coating might trap some of that water in, instead of letting it dry off. I think it best to leave sealer to a separate step and thus a separate product.
Beyond just headstone cleaners
In the US, there are not very many products that are specifically tailored for headstones but there are many products for stonework in general. Before I get into them, let’s talk about some big no-nos.
CLR – Calcium Lime Rust
CLR has been a product available for as long as I can remember. I recall seeing commercials on TV for it and have found quite a few times when I wish I had some on hand to clean some stubborn stain.
Here, we must stress, that CLR should be avoided at all costs when looking to clean your headstone, especially it is made of limestone. A limestone headstone would quite literally melt if put to a douse of CLR.
Of the long list of things that CLR claims to be good at cleaning, from plastics to ceramics, it does not include stone of any type.
Bleach is often prescribed for the purpose of cleaning stones, and sometimes even headstones. They suggest a 50/50 solution, or lesser, of bleach and water.
However, stone is a lot more porous then one might expect and putting bleach on a headstone is likely to be absorbed into the very rock. When it dries it is likely to crystallize and cause damage to the rock or even make it crack. The reason for not using bleach is the same reason we use non-ionic water.
Wet and Forget
Wet and Forget is an “everything ok” use cleaning product. It boasts the ability to gently clean more than 30 different outdoor materials including our limestone, sandstone, and marble but does not mention granite.
Although it doesn’t specifically claim on the product that it’s safe, or designed with headstones in mind, the company has produced a video displaying the wondrous effects of their product.
What I can deduce is that it is not actually a cleaning product, but rather a ‘killing’ product that is able to eliminate the toughest cases of moss, algae, lichen, mold or mildew.
One simply has to mix 5 cups of the product with 2 gallons of water (I assume the same ratio of smaller quantity will suit finely) to produce a mixture. Then spray the mixture onto the headstone and wait. No scrubbing, no rubbing, or even rinsing. It depends on the next rainfall or windy day to remove the build-up.
It does claim that a dry surface is ideal and to avoid rainy or extremely warm days. Rainy days will rinse the mixture off before it can get is job down and hot days will cause it to prematurely evaporate.
One of the downfalls of this product is that you won’t see instant results and will need to put some faith in the product. Perhaps you could plan to apply for the treatment a week before and visiting.
Our assumption that it kills the growth might be warranted as it doesn’t claim to be safe for plants that are exposed to the mixture, but it does claim to be safe for use with surfaces, such as fences, retaining walls, and outdoor pots, all of which might be adjacent to plantlife.
Wet and Forget did produce a video found below, that describes the product while showing an assortment of before and after photos of headstones.
Wet and Forget is usually sold in a half-gallon jug which retails for about $25. But keep in mind that this ½ gallon jug is a concentrate and actually produced 3 gallons of spray. You can easily pick this up in your local hardware store or even on Amazon. Check it out here.
There is a large variety of all-purpose marble and granite cleaner on the market but like the Klean Logik Headstone Cleaner above they usually include sealers in them that make them not ideal for our purpose.
These products are most likely designed for cleaning artwork or indoor furniture and counter spaces.
The Greenhouse Method
For those of you looking for a more natural method than using chemical, safe as they may be, might want to consider the greenhouse method.
In the greenhouse method, a small tent is erected around the gravestone. The tent helps to collect and retain humidity while providing a dark environment that will attract slugs and snails.
These gastropods enjoy eating mold, lichens, and algae, some of the things you are looking to remove with the use of the products above. Although this method will certainly not be instant, it is a natural method indeed.
If you are looking to give this method a try but want quicker results, you could consider visiting a pet store. Pet stores often sell snails as pets and fish tank algae maintainers. They sometimes even sell them as food for other aquatic and semi-aquatic pets. A handful of store-bought snails might get this method off to a quicker start.
Be sure that you’re not releasing an invasive species into the wild, and that your cemetery is ok with this. The snails are not simply going to disappear after they have finished with your buffet of lichen.
Furthermore, snails are not going to provide deep cleaning either. They are mostly going to eat surface growth before moving on to a different spot. Snails and lichen, moss, and algae have a semi-symbiotic relationship similar to something between commensalism (where one benefits and the other has no positive or negative effects) and parasitism (where one benefits and the other is harmed).
It the snails deep eat the growth, it won’t grow back and they will not be able to return for food. However, if we consider the waste and the CO2 produced by the snail, we find that this relationship is closer to mutualism (where both benefit)
Of all the methods to clean a headstone, the greenhouse might be the most troublesome, least effective, and perhaps most expensive (if you buy a large number of snails) but it does create another symbiotic relationship between the headstone cleaner and the snails. It’s worth considering.
Get it Done
If all this work seems too much for you, or your time is not permitting to such a task there is the final option of seeking professional help. If some sort of restoration is in order, perhaps because there is a large crack, this might be your only option.
You will need to seek out a professional service in your locale, but there are quite a few out there. Looking at a single company Beyond the Gravestone based in Connecticut, linked here, we can get an idea of some of the services we can expect.
First, the claim to give free estimates, which is always a benefit and promotes the adage, “it doesn’t hurt to ask.”
They have specialized packages, but they are most likely specific to this company, whereas the general services are probably safe to expect from any professional company.
They divide these services into 3 categories.
1. Basic plot maintenance which includes:
- Removal of debris, litter, leaves, and plant matter
- Grass trimming, edging, weeding, and pruning of plants/bushes
- Light cleaning of headstone/grave marker
- Planting of flowers
- Edging and mulching
- Photos before and after
2. Headstone, Monument, and Marker Cleaning
This is the type we are most concerned with here and included an in-depth cleaning of granite, marble headstones with soft brushes and eco-friendly cleaners with the goal of removing dirt and stains from, mold, mildew, lichen, and algae. They also polish and clean bronze.
3. Repair and Preservation
This is where you are most likely to expect an estimate. They will:
- repair broken headstones.
- adjust leaning headstones.
- re-stand fallen stones.
- provide stabilizing to a stone that is at risk of falling.
This company claims to take extra care to avoid damaging your stone and will provide you with before and after photos to see the effect of their services.
They also state that they will never use a power washer, or harsh chemicals echoing the importance of what we have mentioned above already.
In summary, we have talked about how to clean our headstones. Like all cleaning tasking, regular maintenance and ensure that the job is not an extreme chore. But once per year is more than enough. Making the task a family endeavor might be a good idea. Just remember that a gentle hand is the most important consideration and that there are options out there for people that don’t have the time or ability to put in that much scrutiny.