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.
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.