While no substance can last forever, there are ways to keep a headstone or grave marker looking respectable, clean and enduring for decades and even centuries to come.
Every year we get questions by family members who have recently visited the cemetery and noticed signs of damage or weathering of their loved one’s memorial markers.
Often, there are simple things that can be done to preserve and restore a stone, bench, plaque, or mausoleum to its proper condition.
When a more drastic approach is needed, professional restoration can make even the hardest-hit memorial look fantastic.
The first and most important step in any restoration project is to understand what needs to be done without increasing any damage to the stone or to the other memorials around it. If you have any concerns about damaging a headstone or other element of the cemetery, take a step back and consult with a restoration professional. A small amount of caution now can save a lot of work down the line. Your local cemetery usually has a list of preferred experts.
A headstone or gravemarker can be cleaned as long as care is taken. Remember, many of the original stones in American cemeteries are very fragile. Take care to first inspect the stone for cracks, flaking or physical deterioration. Many cleaning agents and procedures can do long-term damage, especially to a stone that is unstable. If you are uncertain as to whether or not a stone is in a suitable condition for cleaning, consult a professional.
Use proper cleaning products and techniques to preserve to the future stability of the headstone. So, what products are safe for cleaning? Let’s start with what to avoid. One of the first thoughts that people may have is to use bleach. Unfortunately, while it can make a stone look whiter and pristine, bleach can cause irreversible damage by eating away the surface of the stone, exposing it to even further decay. Also, bleaching will leave a residue on the grave marker that cannot be rinsed off. Some commercial cleaners such as Ivory Soap and Fantastik Spray can leave the same result. Other cleaners to avoid include Naval Jelly, muriatic acid, and Lime Away. Any acidic cleaner can do permanent damage.
Safe cleaners include “non-ionic” detergents that are safe for limestone, marble, and sandstone. These can be found online and at photo supply stores and preservation stores. Some of the brands include Triton-X 100, Igepal, and Vulpex. Be sure to follow the instructions carefully and make sure that the stone is fully wetted before applying any cleaner. Use only cotton cloth and soft bristle brushes (think soft toothbrush) to prevent lifting any stone material. As you clean the stone, scrub gently and work your way from the bottom to the top to prevent streak marks. Rinse the stone often and thoroughly with clean water. Never let any detergent dry onto the stone.
For stubborn stains and marks, ammonia can be used sparingly. Be sure to dilute the ammonia with at least four cups of water per cup of ammonia. This can be very effective on lichens. For black algae, calcium hypochlorite (found online or at a swimming pool supply store) can be effective.
Re-Setting a Headstone
Quite often, the most noticeable part of a restoration effort involves the re-setting of headstones.
Over time headstones can shift out of plumb or even fall over. Whether caused by shifting ground, harsh winds and ice or even vandalism, even the heaviest stones can move from their original positions.
To avoid doing more damage as well as personal injury, re-setting grave markers or headstones is something that should be attempted only by trained professionals. Professional restorers are familiar with the techniques as well as the local rules for each cemetery and can navigate any obstacles that may arise during the restoration process. For example, most cemeteries have strict guidelines for the length, width, and depth of the base on which each headstone sits.
A professional team or restoration experts will start the re-setting process by first removing the headstone from its current base. The stone is raised carefully so as not put undue pressure on it which might cause further damage. Once lifted from its place, the stone will be laid flat and usually transported to the restoration shop for a thorough cleaning and repair. Once the stone has been properly reconditioned and repaired, it will be re-aligned on its new base in the cemetery.