During the Victorian era, it wasn’t uncommon to take a leisurely Sunday stroll through your local garden cemetery—perhaps stopping for a picnic lunch. But for the most part (with a few exceptions, primarily in large cities) people don’t spend a lot of time hanging out in cemeteries anymore. With everything else going on in life, it can be difficult to prioritize taking a trip to the cemetery where your family members are buried to clean and maintain their gravestone.
But if this is something you’re interested in—either cleaning the graves of people you know, or volunteering with a local group—here’s what to know and how to get started.
Why clean gravestones?
Unsure about why anyone would opt to spend their free time lightly brushing off words engraved on headstones of dead strangers? According to Saving Graves Cemetery Preservation Alliance, here’s why:
If society fails to appropriately and adequately deal with this issue through some definitive action, whether legislative or otherwise, not only will genealogical and historical resources likely be irreparably harmed, but society will potentially lose a valuable resource for charting its inexorable course into annals of human history.
How to properly clean a gravestone
Removing dirt and debris from the sides of a gravestone is one thing, but doing a thorough, proper cleaning is something else completely, and requires time and patience. It also involves a pretty detailed set of instructions, which differ based on what the gravestone is made out of.
You can find all the nitty-gritty details in posts from Cemetery Conservators for United Standards, Saving Graves, Aftermath, and several other places. But for now, here are a few important things to keep in mind when cleaning gravestones:
- Figure out the gravestone material first. Most are made using marble, granite, sandstone, and slate, and how you clean it depends on the material.
- Before removing a stain, first determine what caused it, so you can find the best way to treat it and prevent it from happening again.
- If the gravestone you want to clean is located on what is now private property, always get permission before accessing it.
- Understand and avoid methods and products including: bleach, any cleaners that aren’t pH-neutral, wire brushes, and powerwashing.
And when in doubt, first check with a local grave-cleaning expert familiar with the materials used on gravestones in the area, as well as their biggest threats from weather, climate change, and other factors.