Cemetery Conservation and Tombstone Care

Andrea McDonald recently authored an excellent essay on the care of tombstones and she has permitted us to publish the article in its entirety. It is very good to know how to properly care for ancient or elderly tombstones and who better to tell us than an expert? Enjoy this great article and please contact Andrea if you have questions about tombstone care or cemetery conservation.

As the movement for cemetery conservation spreads across our nation, I am seeing more and more articles and videos on cleaning funerary objects written by well-meaning individuals. It seems everyone now wants to jump on the bandwagon without proper training. While we genealogists know how to glean family history information from a burial record, or a headstone, or other burial records, many of us are not specialists in cemetery conservation. Just as the APG [Association of Professional Genealogists] promotes sound genealogical work, we should also promote sound cleaning techniques.

A specialist in cemetery conservation is one who has taken a class from a stone conservationist trained by the National Parks Service. A specialist understands the various types of stones and how chemicals/environment affect each. And, a specialist knows very specific methods for cleaning funerary objects. We are starting to refer to cemetery conservationists as 'cemeterians,' a word coined by an individual on one of the many cemetery conservation mail-lists.

There are a few points anyone writing an article on cemeteries might keep in mind that would benefit all. They are:


  • Do not promote chalk. It is harmful to stone. If you would like specific information on this, please contact me privately.
  • Do not promote household bleach; a.k.a. SODIUM hypochlorite. While chlorine is safe in very limited quantities, the sodium in it is the most harmful thing you can use on a stone. Use CALCIUM hypochlorite instead. And, never use calcium hypochlorite unless the stone absolutely needs it--use plain water and non-ionic detergent first.
  • Do not clean one stone more often than one time every ten years--longer if possible.
  • Do not use any brush or product on a stone with natural bristle brushes as they will leave fibers behind that biological growth adheres to.
  • Do not use power washers, wire brushes, etc. These items rip the skin of a stone which promotes water penetration--stone breathes water vapor but hates water. (yes, stone has a skin!)
  • While it may be great to have a rubbing--please do not promote them. They damage stone, believe it or not. Some cemeteries are banning this practice altogether.


  • Promote the cleaning of sound stones (if it sounds hollow when you rap your knuckles on it, leave it alone) with a non-ionic detergent. The only two recommended non-ionic detergents are Orvis (used for cleaning horses and available at tack shops or seed/feed stores) and Photo-Flo (sold at photographic supply stores such as Kits Cameras or some 1hour photo stores). Both of these products are very cheap--about a penny a stone.
  • Promote the use of WHITE NYLON bristle brushes, such as the ones you can buy with a handle for cleaning a bathroom floor, and other brushes such as used toothbrushes (with white handles and bristles). White=no dyes.
  • Promote contacting the Association for Gravestone Studies or the Cemetery Conservation Alliance for more information. There are many well-meaning individuals on the Internet who still encourage poor cleaning methods, so go to the experts.
  • Promote teaching our youngsters proper cleaning methods and respect for cemeteries.
  • Promote wetting the entire stone completely (think sponge) before any brush is taken to it and start at the bottom of the stone and work your way to the top to avoid stains that will never come out. Only promote non-ionic detergents for stubborn stains; only promote calcium hypochlorite for complete removal of biological growth such as black moss.
  • Promote the book "A Graveyard Preservation Primer," by Lynette Strangstaad, or promote membership in an organization that works specifically with cemetery conservation or gravestone conservation.
  • Promote taking a photo instead of a rubbing. There are ways to bring every detail out in a photo while rubbings cannot. Photos are not harmful.

If I can answer questions or assist those of you writing articles in any way, please contact me. If I cannot answer your question, we have a network of experts who can.

Andrea D. MacDonald "Andi"
Washington State Cemetery Association
co-founder: Cemetery Conservation Alliance
member Association of Professional Genealogists
member Association for Gravestone Studies
Article ©2002 by Andrea D. MacDonald

Ms. MacDonald recommends the Association for Gravestone Studies and the Oregon Historic Cemeteries Alliance for additional reading. Both have quite a few white papers available for instruction and both groups practice proper gravestone preservation methods.

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