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How do I Repair & Clean Tombstones?

Cemeteries provide valuable information about our history, but the information on tombstones can be lost to weathering, pollution and other damage. An overgrown cemetery may seem like a good project for an amateur restorer, but it is possible to do more harm than good if you don't know the specifics of stone conservation. Leave major repairs and cleaning to a conservation professional, but there are things you can do to protect the tombstones in a cemetery from the effects of time.


Record Tombstones

Help preserve a cemetery by learning the proper methods to clean and repair tombstones.
  1. Obtain permission from the cemetery association or property owner before undertaking any cemetery-restoration project.
  2. Clear overgrown vegetation around the tombstones. Use a mower and edger for larger areas between stones. Use pruning shears to carefully trim overgrowth around the stones.
  3. Find all tombstones using the cemetery map. Match each stone to the corresponding burial plot on the map. If no map is available, sketch a map of the visible stones. Note any extra or missing stones.
  4. Record each tombstone in a notebook, noting the shape and material of the stone. Record any engravings or decorations.
  5. Record damage and weathering for each stone. Stones with significant cracking, breakage, or erosion should be repaired by a professional restorer.
  6. Photograph each tombstone. Take photographs with the sun at an angle to the stone, if possible, to allow natural shadows to make inscriptions more visible. This provides a record of each tombstone before conservation.

Clean and Repair Tombstones

  1. Gather fragments of broken tombstones. Look downhill for any missing pieces of severely damaged stones.
  2. Wet the stone thoroughly with clean water. Clean only those tombstones that are stable and in good condition.
  3. Loosen any dirt using a soft brush and water, working from the bottom to the top to prevent staining. Rinse frequently with clean water.
  4. If stains remain, mix one ounce of ionic cleaning solution in five gallons of water, and use this to remove further dirt using a nylon scrub brush. Clean gently and do not scrub at stubborn stains.
  5. Rinse tombstone thoroughly with water.

Things You Will Need

  • Lawn mower and edger
  • Pruning shears
  • Cemetery map, if available
  • Notebook
  • Pencils
  • Camera
  • Bucket
  • Water
  • Soft-bristled brushes (such as paint brushes)
  • Non-ionic detergent (available from photography equipment suppliers)

Tip

  • After recording and photographing the tombstones in a cemetery, consider donating a copy of the record to the local historical society or cemetery-preservation group.

Warnings

  • Do not attempt to fix broken stones using concrete or glue, as these can further damage stones if used incorrectly. Contact a professional restorer for major repairs.
  • Do not make rubbings or use shaving cream to decipher a worn inscription. Abrasion and chemical interactions can further erode the tombstone.
  • Do not use harsh chemical cleaners or acids on tombstones, as these can weather the delicate stone.

About the Author

Heather Vidmar-McEwen has worked as a writer and editor for academic and nonprofit organizations since 2002. She has a master's degree in archaeology from Indiana University. Her articles specialize in culture, history, science, crafts and the natural world.

Photo Credits

  • glowing tombstone image by Stephen Orsillo from Fotolia.com