I work at a museum and we frequently get calls about how to deal with working in old cemeteries and preserving and cleaning old headstones. And since our Order has cemeteries all over the country, an article about this topic may prove of interest.
Before I go further, you should know I am not a professional conservator. I’m just some guy that hangs out with the professionals who work in a museum. I should also say that this article is to help make you aware of what is involved in cleaning cemetery headstones, it’s not a “how-to.”
BEFORE YOU START
- Don’t show up at a cemetery “early of a morning” to start cleaning headstones. That’s a no no. See numbers 2-4.
- To keep from getting sued or arrested, you will need to obtain permission in writing from the cemetery’s owner to do any sort of headstone cleaning or very basic restoration.
- Be aware of state or federal laws involving defacing of public objects, grave desecration, cemetery debris, family graveyards, cemetery road access, etc.
- If you plan on doing any moving, removing, digging, or cleaning regarding headstones, I encourage you to check with and notify local law enforcement officials so you won’t get in trouble when someone calls the police “on those Odd Fellow grave robbers in the cemetery!”
- The very first thing to do is to check the stability of the stone. Also, gently tap around on it to see if it’s hollowed out. If the stone is unstable, stop right there, and don’t do a thing. You’ll need to bring in a conservator. DON’T attempt to apply hardware store mortar to fix a stone. Don’t use epoxies, bolts, braces, and don’t you dare use sealant. Don’t use a power washer. You’ll make things worse.
2. Don’t use wire brushes, metal instruments, wire pads, or any type of household cleaner or a cleaner bought from a hardware store.
Tools needed: Spray bottles, rubber gloves, different size natural or nylon brushes, popsicle sticks, Q-tips, toothpicks, sponges, measuring devices, plastic buckets, and a water source.
- 3. Don’t scrub a headstone. Every time you clean the stone, it’s face is worn down more.
- 4. Take a photo before and after you begin cleaning.
CLEANING METHODS: Start with the least aggressive approach, which would be using water only as a cleaner.
- Marble and Limestone:
- First, try water only. If that’s not working…
- Use water and a non-ionic detergent (Photo-Flo, is a non-ionic detergent that can be found at photography stores. Mix one ounce of Photo-Flo with 5 gallons of water. Orvus is a non-ionic detergent available from feed stores in either liquid or cream form. Use one heaping tablespoon to one gallon of water. If that’s not working…
- Try water, Orvus, and ammonia. Don’t use on metal. Mix one gallon of water, one tablespoon of Orvus and one tablespoon of ammonia. This is a last resort formula. If the ammonia has color added or a fragrance added don’t use it.
- Sandstone and Slate
- First use water only
- Use water and non-ionic detergent
- Don’t use ammonia on Sandstone and Slate
- Use water only
- Lichen Removal
- Try wetting it first, then try and remove it using your fingers
- Or next wet it and gently scrape with a popscicle stick
- If ammonia can be used on that particular type of stone try that, using a similar mix as mentioned above.
Once you’re finished cleaning, do not use any sealant. The stone needs to be able to breathe and expand with the weather.
This isn’t a real guide on how to go about this process. It’s really just to give you an idea of what is involved. If you want to actually move forward and make this a volunteer opportunity for your lodge, I recommend contacting someone in your state historic preservation offices and get their advice.
Oh, I’m not responsible if you destroy a graveyard headstone. So, if you irritate a ghost, zombie, or local authorities, that’s on you!
Scott Moye is an award-winning history educator and collector of Arkansas folklore. He grew up on a cotton farm and is currently a museum worker. Hobbies include: old house restoration, writing, amateur radio, Irish traditional music, archery, craft beer, old spooky movies, and street performance. He is a member of Marshall Lodge #1, in Marshall, Arkansas, and a founder of Heart In Hand Blog.