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Cemeteries, gravestones

Cleaning Gravestones – DOS and DON’TS

In recent months I’ve noticed an increase in the number of people interested in cleaning gravestones. While this is an admirable notion it’s also an activity that strikes fear into the heart of many a taphophile.

If not carefully researched and prepared for, an attempt to clean a gravestone can result in more damage than lichen or bird poo can ever do. Furthermore, over-cleaning results in the removal of the natural patinas and ageing effects that give character to old stones.

To that end I’ve put together a list of DOS and DON’TS to help you make the most of your gravestone photography while ensuring no damage is done.

While they may seem restrictive, it is important that the utmost respect be shown towards cemeteries and gravestones. “Getting a great shot” comes second to ensuring minimum interference with a gravestone.

DO trim long grasses or remove fallen leaves and debris obscuring a gravestone. Keep in mind that vegetation can add to a photograph if it is not interfering with the view.

DO NOT interfere with plants purposefully placed or planted on the gravesite no matter how much they may hinder photography. Work around the problem.

DO transcribe by hand any inscriptions that are obscured or not easily captured photographically.

DO NOT take grave rubbings. While this has been long-used to record inscriptions and bring-up worn lettering grave rubbing can cause damage to brittle stone (particularly soft stone such as limestone and sandstone). Some cemeteries have started restricting the practice of grave rubbing for this very reason.

DO use a soft clean cloth or soft bristle brush, such as a paintbrush, with water to remove muck, such as mud and bird poo, from a gravestone. Use a light touch and be patient.

DO NOT use a wire brush on any part of a gravestone. Not only will it damage the surface but the resulting scratch marks can encourage the growth of lichen and moss.

DO NOT touch or attempt to clean any gravestone that appears unstable or that is in a badly damaged state. Quite apart from further damage to the gravestone you might easily hurt yourself.

DO NOT use any solution other than plain water to clean a gravestone. Different types of stone react differently to cleaning or moss/lichen removing solutions and damaged stone can absorb and discolour if wrongly treated.

DO NOT attempt to restore, repair, or thoroughly clean a gravestone to which you have no connection or have no permission to clean.

The Historic Cemeteries Conservation Trust of New Zealand has an excellent website which contains, among other things, best practice advice on cleaning gravestones.

If you wish to have a gravestone cleaned and restored professionally get in touch with your local stonemason.

About HuntingKiwis

A recent B.A. Honours (First Class) graduate of the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, I'm currently studying for my M.A. (Hist). My focus is on social history, particularly the late-Victorian colonial social environment and those often-overlooked characters that lurked among settlers - the remittance men, swaggers, misfits, and wannabes.


10 thoughts on “Cleaning Gravestones – DOS and DON’TS

  1. Thank goodness there is someone here in NZ with similar interests.. headstones! And notice cleaning them!!! Far too many folk think 30 second liquid will do it, no plain water, soft brush and TLC.
    I often carry my basket around cemeteries, to clean before photographing, as 9 times out of 10, unreadable. When I first started, had to clear the weeds.. bushes away from Clareville Cemetery.. enjoy doing it.,. far too many folk plant a tree and wonder why the roots have broken up the concrete…. roots travel…. its a no no to have a tree near a grave.. they do untold damage. Clareville Taphophile

    Posted by Adele Pentony-Graham | May 31, 2011, 11:02 pm
    • There are a few of us about, Adele 🙂 Since starting this blog I have found many who are passionate about cemeteries and headstones in New Zealand – hooray!!

      Do you have a website with your Clareville Cemetery images?


      Posted by hleggatt | May 31, 2011, 11:12 pm
  2. Did you ever hear of birds carrying away small shiny stones from graves. A substantial number have gone missing in the last two weeks from grave. If so how do you deal with this problem or has someone gone and taken them, please email me back asap, thanks pat barry

    Posted by Pat Barry | October 5, 2011, 7:11 pm
    • Hi Barry, that’s a new one on me I’m afraid. If the stones were small enough I guess a magpie or other large bird could have taken them. Otherwise perhaps children in the cemetery have disturbed them. Either way, not very nice to find them missing. Which cemetery is this?


      Posted by hleggatt | October 5, 2011, 10:50 pm
  3. This IS an old post but i do hope to get a reply 🙂 I a thinking about getting a headstones lettering restored (well not so much the lettering as its black but the white, raised background behind it) as well as having the few adornments that had been vandalised restored. Do you have any idea who i go to for this? This is for my great grandfather whom my mother was very close with and to whom she didn’t get to say goodbye so its quite important that nothing goes awry 😛 Thank you

    Posted by Carmen Honey | December 8, 2015, 1:02 pm
    • Hi Carmen,

      You don’t mention where you are in New Zealand, or if you are in New Zealand. However, I would suggest that contact the New Zealand Master Monumental Masons Association and they can best advise you on a local stonemason or someone who can reliably restore the headstone. Their website (with contact information) is: http://www.headstones.org.nz/

      I hope that helps, and how wonderful that you are having the headstone restored 🙂

      Helen @ Hunting Kiwis

      Posted by hleggatt | December 9, 2015, 5:46 am
  4. I appreciate the tip to use a soft bristle brush to remove muck from a gravestone. My family is preparing to plan for a funeral, and I’ve been wondering how to best care for headstones after the funeral. With cleaning a gravestone, I’ll be sure to only use water and not any other sorts of fluids. http://www.heritagememorials.com.au/memorial-styles/single-memorial/

    Posted by Larry Weaver | November 6, 2017, 9:52 pm
  5. It really helped when you mentioned using a soft cloth or a soft bristle brush when cleaning a gravestone. It was also really nice how you said that its best to use a light touch and be patient. The reason why I was researching the things that I need to do to maintain a headstone is that my sister passed away last week, and I’m in charge of picking the right headstone for her. It might be a good idea to remember your tips while I’m at it. Thanks a lot.

    Posted by Persephone de Vito | December 4, 2017, 11:25 pm
  6. It’s good to learn about cleaning headstones. We are about to have one put in for my dad, but we first need to decide on the material and style. After that, I’ll be sure to never touch it with a wire brush or anything hard like that!

    Posted by Silas Knight | May 7, 2018, 10:02 pm


  1. Pingback: Cemetery Hijinks Do Not Include Stone Tipping – Funny Friday | Genealogy Journey: FPLD's Genealogy & Research Blog - June 8, 2012

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