Reading and Preserving Gravestones

I. What not to do to Gravestones II. Reading Gravestones III. Cemetery Preservation

Part I - What not to do to gravestones

"Do No Harm"

One of the things we're frequently asked is how to clean, read, and preserve gravestones. Before delving into what to do, it is more important to fully understand what NOT to do. As you read stones, attempt to clean them, or are just wandering through a cemetery, we encourage you to keep in mind the basic premise that we work under - "Do No Harm". We forego getting a full reading if our efforts will cause long term damage to the stone. For more information, please visit the Links and Resources page.

Techniques to Avoid

Do not pressure wash stones
Its important to remember that the majority of older stones are typically either marble, slate or sandstone. Pressure washing will contribute to surface erosion of the stone. It can open cracks and fissures in the stone which can lead to its ultimate destruction during the yearly freeze thaw cycles. It will also remove any adhesive or filler between the various portions of a monument.
Do not use any acid / acid based solutions
Acid rain is already doing irreparable harm to the stones, thus making them significantly more difficult to read. So what is an acid based solution? The one we most commonly hear about being used to enhance the readability of the inscriptions is shaving cream. Shaving cream is approximately 8% stearic acid. Since the stone used in historic markers is porous, it acts like a sponge. Consequently there is no easy way to remove all the chemicals imparted by shaving cream. Basically you are adding stearic acid to the acids in acid rain (sulfuric and nitric acid ), which is eating away the surface of the stone.
Do not use any type of abrasive.
If you wouldn't use it on your fine china or silver, don't use it on a stone. While it may make the stone look 'pretty' in the short term, it only serves to shorten the life span of the stone.
Do not use metal or wire brushes
This one should be obvious but people use strange and wonderful techniques in an attempt to get a full reading of a stone. If you wouldn't use the brush to wash your car, don't use it on a stone. Stones may look hard but in reality they are quite soft and fragile.
Do not use household cleaners such as bleach
We see this being used quite frequently. It effectively destroys the surface of the stone and leads to severe streaking.
Do not attempt to clean fragile stones
If it's already flaking, crumbling, or has had any of the previous don'ts applied, just leave it alone. Is it really worth getting the inscription if it will result in harm to the stone?

Damage done to stones

Although the following examples are from Hillside Champion Cemetery, examples of improper cleaning are evident in many cemeteries throughout the tri-county area.

Hubbard Monument - Eunice Hubbard Inscription
Shown is a portion of Noadiah Hubbard's monument at Hillside Champion Cemetery which contains the inscription for Noadiah's wife, Eunice Hubbard. This stone clearly demonstrates the long term effects of pressure washing. The majority of the inscription has flaked off and is no longer readable
Dea Jonathan Clark Stone This is a portion of Deacon Jonathan Clark's headstone at Hillside Champion Cemetery. This stone has apparently been cleaned with bleach and pressured washed. A significant amount of the original detail has been eroded and the stone exhibits heavy streaking.

I. What not to do to Gravestones II. Reading Gravestones III. Cemetery Preservation