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dirty grave headstones at the cemeteryFor many Americans, Memorial Day is not just a day for getting together with family and friends. It is a day to celebrate the fallen heroes who have served to protect our country, as well as pay tribute to our combat veterans. It is also a day when thousands of people flock to their local cemeteries to embrace the memory of all their loved ones.

It is a great time to decorate the grave with fresh flowers, but even more importantly, to clean and maintain the grave marker.

To preserve a headstone, one must use the proper cleaning supplies, so as not to scratch or tarnish the marker. Maintenance is also very important to the upkeep of the cemetery and how it should look. You certainly don't want your deceased loved ones to have shoddy-looking sites. Although cemeteries have grounds crews to cut the grass, it should still be a communal effort to help keep the cemetery looking nice when the crews aren't working.

Depending on the age of the stone, cleaning can be either a difficult task, or a task that may take you a matter of minutes. Please join me after the break to find out how to clean and maintain a headstone.

Water and a soft bristle brush (don't ever use a wire brush) is the best way to clean a marker, but if they are necessary, only non-ionic detergents should be used for removing dirt, algae, and lichen from the stone. If the lichen has been stuck on for quite some time, try to gently scrape it off with a fingernail, plastic scraper, or wood craft stick.

When cleaning a headstone, it is important to never use soap, such as Ivory, or commercial household detergents, as these solutions are rendered insoluble by calcium ions present in stone and hard water. Cleaning materials that contain phosphoric acid, such as Lime Away or Naval Jelly, may stain the marker or leave soluble salts behind.

Do not use products that contain sodium chloride, sodium sulfate, sodium bicarbonate, trisodium phosphate (Calgon), and ammonium carbonate, as they may form and deposit soluble salts in the headstone. Clorox (sodium hypochlorite) is not recommended because it turns marble yellow. Borax (sodium hydroxide) will cause a stone to begin to disintegrate. Calgon contains a number of additives that may cause the stone to deteriorate.

Non-ionic detergents are available from janitorial and conservation suppliers. One example, named Photo-Flo, is available from photography supply stores. Another brand, called Orvus, is available from feed stores and livestock supply stores in either liquid or cream form. Non-ionic detergents are recommended for gravestones because they do not contain or contribute to the formation of soluble salts, but aid in the removal of dirt and lichen.

Check out this article by Tracy Walther on whether or not a cleaner you have in mind is actually OK to clean your stone.

Now that we know how to and how not to clean a gravestone, what other problems might there be? How about if there is a grave that is still fairly new, and the grass just hasn't grown yet? Such was the case last year for me, when it seemed that the grass should be growing on my daughter's site, but had yet to flourish after one year. That problem was easily remedied.

Because it was a very dry summer, there was little green grass anywhere. My husband dug up some sod from our own yard, and I went to the local feed store and bought one pound of Madison Parks grass seed. I then went to the grocery store and bought bentonite clay cat litter. When added to the soil, clay bentonite acts as a sponge, helping to make sure that any water that does fall from the sky stays on the surface, allowing the grass to grow. It works great in porous sandy soils for adding water retention.

We went out to the cemetery and started digging out the surface, going down about 4 inches. We did this the entire length and width of her grave. We laid down the cat litter and covered it with the removed soil. We added the pieces of sod around the headstone, spread the one pound of grass seed, and soaked the whole area with about 7 gallons of water. She now has the prettiest grass in the cemetery.

You may want to get permission from the grounds crew or the cemetery director before you start digging up any grass or soil. Because we are living again in my tiny hometown, people knew what we were doing when we spruced up our Samantha's grave. They complimented us on our job well done.


  • D-Bo

    I appreciate this post, as I recently visited a friends grave on his birthday and noticed it needed some work. Thanks.

  • Darlene

    This is the closest subject I can find to ask my question....I recently, found both my Great-Grandfather and Grandmother's separate cemetaries, unfortunately. Both are unmarked, as well. In my Great-Grandfathers grave site there are 3 children buried before him, and 1 adult child buried afterward. My Great Grandmother is buried in a family plot with her eldest daughter and son-in-law. Grandfather was an original trustee for the very rural small country church where he and the children are buried. The markers in that cemetary are the old tall stone type. The cemetary that Grandmother is buried in is an ancient one as well, dating back to the 1700's. There is concrete coping surrounding the family plot she shares with her daughter and son-in-law and they have the flat marble/bronze type markers. No one in my family will contribute towards having stones/markers made for them for disagreements about having the same marker type for both and on not listing the names of the children buried with Grandfather and I cannot afford even one on my own. I simply HAVE to list the children in the grave w/grandfather, it would be remiss to leave them unhonored. Can you come up with anything that is not too tacky (I've thought of a bunch of those: painted stepping stones...etc...) but that I could do to honor them and assure that thier resting place isn't forever lost again? I hope that some of you can come up with a great idea for me!

  • 2 Comments / 1 Pages

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