The Best Way to Clean a Headstone or Grave Marker

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Three clean headstones in a row

Headstones are available in a wide range of styles and stone materials.

This can mean it’s difficult knowing where to start when it comes to safely cleaning and maintaining the lawn memorial of a loved one.

Although many popular headstone materials are of high quality and seem impervious to the natural effects of nature, they can still become dirty, mouldy, or covered in green lichen.

Without regular maintenance, this build up can make the inscription on the headstone difficult to read – perhaps even impossible – and may cause permanent damage that isn’t easily repaired.

Watch: How to Clean Bird Droppings on Headstones

Headstone Cleaning Must be Performed in the Correct Manner

With that said, it’s important to ensure any headstone cleaning that is carried out is done so in the correct manner. Failing to clean a headstone correctly may in itself cause damage to the engravings and/or the stone material itself.

There are memorial professionals, such as ourselves, who offer expert memorial maintenance services, as well as our subsidiary company, Memorial Aftercare, who offer a wide range of professional memorial, headstone and grave cleaning services in cemeteries across Cardiff, surrounding areas of South Wales, and Bristol.

So, if you wanted to ensure the headstone is cleaned correctly or simply don’t have the time to regularly carry out headstone cleaning yourself, you could always enlist the help of memorial experts.

Flowers on top of a grave

Things to Do Before Cleaning a Headstone

Before you, or any memorial maintenance experts begin cleaning and maintaining the headstone, there are a few things to do in preparation.

Things you should do to prepare for cleaning a headstone include:

  • Gain Permission Before Cleaning

First things first, ensure you have permission to clean the headstone.

If the headstone is honouring a family member or direct ancestor, you will likely have the correct permission to proceed with the cleaning. If you do not believe you have the appropriate permission, you could ask a member of the deceased’s family.

If you aren’t in direct contact with the immediate family, you could carry out some cemetery research to see if you can find some family details before asking if they are comfortable with the headstone being cleaned.

  • Inspect the Condition of the Headstone

Check that the headstone is still correctly and safely erected and doesn’t pose any danger during the cleaning process.

If the headstone has been there for a long period of time, check that it’s still stable in the ground.

If the headstone is loose or appears to be leaning, use headstone installation specialists to correctly re-erect the memorial before you proceed with any cleaning or maintenance duties.

You should also check over the condition of the stone by inspecting for any visible cracks, flaking areas, delamination, or a brittle and crumbled appearance.

If there are noticeable signs of deterioration, you may be best served instructing experts to examine the memorial to see if investing in a memorial restoration service would be the best cause of action.

Grey granite headstone with roses engraved into the stone
  • Identify the Headstone Material

Headstones are available in many different materials, and in order to carry out the correct memorial cleaning and maintenance duties that are specific to that particular stone, you must be aware of what stone material the memorial is made from.

Nowadays, some of the most common headstone materials include:

    • Granite
    • Limestone
    • Sandstone
    • Marble
    • Slate

Things You Need to Clean a Headstone

As mentioned, the stone material that is used to craft the headstone will determine the best cleaning method that should be carried out.

Below, we will outline the cleaning process for some of the more popular headstone materials.

Gather the following items before you start cleaning:

    • A bucket and clean water
    • Gloves suitable for use while cleaning to protect the hands
    • Clean rags made with from a soft material
    • Wooden spatula or some form of non-metal scraper
    • A soft, non-metal brush for gently scrubbing
    • A toothbrush or other small non-metal grout brush
    • A gentle stone cleaner
Water pouring into a bucket ready to clean a headstone

How Do You Clean a Granite Headstone?

Granite stone is extremely durable, and with the correct regular care and cleaning routine, the granite headstone and inscription should preserve exceptionally well for many, many years. Even lifetimes.

As long as the granite headstone is in good condition, keeping it clean and visibly at its best involves a fairly straight-forward cleaning process.

To efficiently clean a granite headstone, follow these 6 steps:

1. Soak the headstone in water for several minutes. This will help to soften up any existing lichen, moss, or debris, making it easier to remove and minimising the risk of surface scratches.

2. Using a wooden scraper, gently remove the debris and vegetation from the surface of the granite headstone.

3. Apply undiluted stone cleaner and leave it to soak into the stone for around 10 minutes, applying more when required to ensure the surface remains wet.

4. Take a soft bristled brush and gentle scrub the surface of the headstone in a circular motion, rinsing often to carefully remove any excess soap and dirt.

5. Using a small grout brush or toothbrush, gently clean inside the engravings and any other areas of the headstone that are difficult to reach, such as around photo plaques.

6. Thoroughly rinse away all the residue and buff the headstone surface dry with soft, clean rags.

Black granite headstone material

How Do You Clean a Marble Headstone?

Compared to granite, marble is a much softer stone material, meaning it is far more prone to damage from the natural environment or over-aggressive cleaning practices.

Therefore, the cleaning process for a marble headstone must be carried out very gently. It is a similar process to cleaning granite, but should be performed with as much care and consideration for the material as possible.

To efficiently clean a marble headstone, follow these 5 steps:

1. Soak the headstone in water for around 15 minutes. Continue adding water throughout to ensure all existing debris on the marble material is fully moist.

2. Use a wooden scraper to very gently remove all evident debris, taking extra care to ensure the wooden scraper doesn’t dig into the soft material. The scraper should remain almost parallel with the stone while scraping. Leave any vegetation or debris that has collected in small cracks of engravings for the time being as the stone cleaner will target these delicate areas.

3. Apply the stone cleaner liberally over the headstone, paying particular attention to the dirtiest and most hard-to-reach areas. Leave the stone cleaner to soak for 10 minutes, applying more every few minutes to ensure the marble material remains wet and fully soaked.

4. Using a soft brush, very gently scrub areas that need extra attention. Rather than increase the pressure for stubborn debris, repeat the process very gently several times. A smaller brush size may be required for small crevices.

5. Thoroughly rinse the marble material with clean water before patting dry with clean rags.

White marble headstone material

How Do You Clean a Slate Headstone?

Slate material is more durable than marble, but less durable than granite.

As such, the rigour of the cleaning process lays somewhere in the middle.

The same can be said of other stone materials, such as limestone and sandstone, though there are a variety of each that all differ in softness.

For slate and most other stone materials, avoid directly scraping at the debris as it’s very easy to accidentally scratch the surface and cause visible damage. Slate in particular is also prone to flaking.

Follow the instructions we set out for cleaning granite, including scrubbing the headstone all over if needed, but do so with a minimal amount of pressure applied.

Slate headstone material

How to Remove Stains From a Headstone

Stains on a headstone are typically caused by years of exposure to lichen, moss, or bird droppings.

Special solutions can be purchased that help combat stains on stone materials. The solution must be applied and given plenty of time to thoroughly soak, with reapplications if necessary.

Gentle scrubbing can help remove the stains but be extra careful if the headstone is made with a particularly soft stone material.

Some stains will be more stubborn than others, with some taking several days before the stain is fully removed.

Things to Avoid When Cleaning a Headstone

Headstones may be designed to last for many centuries, but they are still vulnerable if mistreated or not properly cared for.

Using the wrong type of products or cleaning and maintenance procedures could have bad consequences, resulting in damage that may not be easily repaired.

Red cross in a black frame

There are some things you should avoid when cleaning a headstone, such as:

    • Never use metal scrapers
    • Never use brushes with metal bristles
    • Never use bleach, ammonia, or other harsh detergents on stone materials
    • Never use a power washer
    • Never use drill brushes or other power tools
    • Never use anything abrasive
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