How To Clean a Headstone or Grave Marker: Do’s and Don’ts


Headstones and grave markers are beautiful tools for memorializing loved ones, but they do start to deteriorate and get dirty over time. Luckily, they are relatively easy to maintain with simple cleaning materials, so you can keep the headstone looking cared for and clean.

The best way to clean a headstone is to gently use soft-bristle brushes and natural sponges to scrub away dirt and grime with a non-ionic cleanser. Avoid corrosive cleaners such as vinegar and bleach and implements such as wires brushes or power cleaners which will accelerate deterioration. 

This article will be your complete guide to cleaning a headstone or grave marker without causing damage. I’ll explain what you should never do, the materials you’ll need, the proper steps for cleaning, and tips on maintaining a gravesite.

Cleaning a Headstone or Grave Marker: What NOT To Do

The most important part of cleaning a headstone or grave marker is to do everything possible to avoid damaging the memorial. Gravestones are often very expensive and are precious and irreplaceable memorials, so to somehow damage them while cleaning would be devastating.

Here are some essential things to remember while cleaning a headstone:

  • Never use bleach. People have used bleach to clean headstones for years, and you may find some resources that even recommend doing so, but you should avoid using this harsh chemical. Bleach leaves a salt deposit behind, which can eventually cause the headstone to crack and crumble. Additionally, bleach occasionally stains the stone brown.
  • Don’t use a power washer. Power washers are effective cleaning tools, but you should use them on more stable areas than a headstone, such as a driveway or a deck. If the headstone is cracking or simply old, the water pressure from a power washer will likely be overpowering and cause irreversible damage.
  • Don’t attempt to clean a headstone that is severely cracked or damaged. Unfortunately, the elements damage some headstones so extensively that any attempt to clean them will only worsen the situation. If the headstone is already suffering from extreme cracking, chipping, or peeling, it is probably best to leave it alone.
  • Don’t try to clean a wobbly headstone. There is a possibility that a headstone will fall over if it is wobbly before cleaning.
  • Never try to clean a grave marker in extreme temperatures. Headstones can get extremely hot when the temperature is high, making them uncomfortable to the touch as you try to clean them. Additionally, the water you use during cleaning evaporates more rapidly, making the process more difficult. On the other hand, cleaning in freezing weather will also be uncomfortable, and you don’t want to rush this process.
  • Avoid using wire brushes. Wire brushes will remove debris and algae effectively, but they will cause damage to the headstone in the process. Gentler cleaning tools are far better for cleaning a headstone.
  • Don’t use vinegar. Vinegar is too acidic for headstones and will eat away at the stone’s surface.
  • Don’t use baby oil. Some people want to add shine to a headstone by wiping it down with a little bit of baby oil after cleaning, but this will ultimately accelerate the wear and tear on the stone and do more harm than good.

Now that you know what not to do, let’s discuss the best ways to safely and effectively clean a headstone.

Materials You’ll Need for Cleaning a Headstone

To clean a gravestone, you’ll first need to gather your materials. Here’s what you’ll need:

  • Non-ionic detergent. I suggest  Prosoco ReVive Headstone cleaner (available on Amazon.com) because it’s non-ionic and electrically neutral, so it won’t contribute to the formation of soluble salts. This product is also a commonly used detergent in laboratories, so manufacturers create it for safe and precise use.
  • Clean water. You will need at least five gallons (22.7 liters) and a clean bucket to hold the water.
  • Soft-bristle brush. This S.M. Arnold Utility Scrub Brush (available on Amazon.com) is perfect because the bristles are extra soft and designed to hold water and cleaner effectively, so you won’t have to keep dipping it into your water bucket to see results. The bristles are also securely set into a sturdy block so that they can handle some serious scrubbing.
  • Soft, clean cloths. These items will help you clean dirt and debris from your scrubbed areas. 
  • Sponges. I suggest using natural sponges like the Foamstar Natural Sponges (available on Amazon.com). Natural sponges are less likely to damage headstones, and these sponges contain high-quality natural ingredients, including SISAL fiber and wood cellulose. The sponges are double-sided, and the tough scouring pad is perfect for scrubbing a headstone without causing harm.
  • Wood scraping tools. You have many options, such as popsicle sticks or a wooden spatula.
  • Toothbrush. The bristles of these handy tools will penetrate the finer, carved areas without causing damage.

Once you’ve gathered your materials, it’s time to clean!

Woman cleans a grave with brush.

How To Clean a Headstone

Before you start cleaning, make sure that the headstone requires the activity. Headstones naturally age over time, and the symptoms of aging (such as fading) can be mistaken for dirt.

You may want to clean the headstone to express that you love or miss the departed, but overcleaning can cause damage. If your primary reason for cleaning a headstone is emotionally-based and not-need-based, consider doing something else to honor your loved one’s memory. For example, you can decorate the headstone with flowers or memorabilia as a way to honor them instead.

Remember that you should only thoroughly clean sandstone and marble headstones every 7-10 years. Any more than that is too damaging to the stone. Ask your family and relatives if anyone has recently cleaned the headstone before you set out to do the task so you’ll avoid this risk.

If you have carefully evaluated the headstone and determined it still needs cleaning, then it’s time to proceed with the following steps:

  1. Mix your cleaner with the proper amount of water, usually one ounce of detergent per five gallons. Be careful about what kind of cleaner you use, as some contain harmful chemicals that can cause damage and crack. Furthermore, many soaps are not more effective than just water in terms of preventing algae growth, so it isn’t worth the risk to use a harsh cleaning detergent.
  2. Check the temperature of the stone. If the stone is too hot, using cold water can cause cracks. In this instance, use warm water, or cover the stone with some sort of covering to lower the temperature.
  3. Gently remove debris with your hands, such as vines or loose dirt.
  4. Soak the headstone with water to maximize the effectiveness of your cleaner. You should try to keep the headstone wet throughout the cleaning process.
  5. Dampen a sponge in water and use the softer side to wipe the headstone and remove the first layer of dirt. Begin at the bottom of the stone and use circular motions.
  6. Rinse the headstone with clean water.
  7. Wipe the stone dry with a soft cloth.
  8. Use your soft brush to scrub any moss, algae, or stubborn dirt. Start at the bottom and go to the top to avoid streaks.
  9. Use the toothbrush to scrub hard-to-reach places, such as areas in the engraving.
  10. Rinse the headstone again.
  11. If you notice lichen isn’t coming off with water and cleaner, use a wooden scraping tool to scrape at the stone until it comes away gently.
  12. Rinse again.
  13. Repeat this process until you are happy with how the headstone looks.

A less common way to clean a headstone is to use snails. Snails eat the organic material that grows on headstones, including lichen, fungus, algae, and mold. To do this follow these steps:

  1. Place some snails on the headstone
  2. Cover the headstone with a polyethylene sheet with holes poked in it for ventilation. 
  3. The snails will then eat the organic growth on the gravestone.

Try to be Meticulous while cleaning areas that are cracked or otherwise damaged. If you notice that the headstone starts wobbling, or if you simply feel uncomfortable with the idea of cleaning the stone, stop. It’s better to leave the stone a bit dirty than to ruin it completely.

Different Types of Gravestones: Things To Know

For the most part, you can follow the steps above to clean any headstone or grave marker. However, as gravestones come in several different materials, you should follow specific steps regarding your particular headstone. Here are some tips based on headstone material:

  • Granite. It’s essential to keep granite wet when you’re cleaning, which can be difficult to accomplish in warmer weather when evaporation levels soar. Granite also streaks easily, so be sure to clean from bottom to top.
  • Marble. Marble is highly fragile, so use the proper cleaning tools. You shouldn’t use wire brushes to clean any headstone, especially not marble. Use gentle, circular scrubbing motions at all times.
  • Bronze. You can use the steps above to clean a bronze grave marker, but you can add another step at the end by applying a wax paste to protect it.
  • Slate. You should never use vinegar to clean a headstone, but it’s especially harmful to slate headstones.
  • Sandstone. Sandstone crumbles with moisture, so you should only clean it if necessary. Getting it wet too often will result in it disintegrating too soon.

The material a headstone is made with changes how it responds to the elements and how long it lasts. If you’re trying to select a gravestone and don’t know what material is best, check out my article on choosing a grave marker.

How To Maintain a Gravesite

Once the headstone is clean, you’ll want to do everything you can to maintain the gravesite to prevent it from getting too dirty again too soon. Many cemeteries provide maintenance of common areas and general cleaning, but they likely won’t give specific gravesites special attention. Therefore, it’s up to you and your relatives to keep the gravesite looking loved and maintained.

Here are my suggestions for how to maintain a gravesite:

  • Check for weeds. Weeds can grow near the headstone, and a simple way to make the gravesite look better is to pull them. This weeding is an easy task that will only take a few minutes.
  • Plant some flowers. Cemeteries have different rules about this, but some allow you to plant flowers around the gravesite, adding beauty to the area. However, remember that the cemetery often requires you to maintain any flowers you plant and reserve the right to cut them back if necessary. You can read my article on selecting a cemetery for my tips on picking the best resting place for your loved ones. 
  • Keep a record of when you clean. Keeping track of when you clean a headstone is a great way to prevent overcleaning. Additionally, by maintaining a record of when you visit the gravesite, you’ll know when to tend to flowers or replace any mementos you may have left during your previous visit.

These are simple ways of ensuring that the gravesite is a well-kept resting place for your loved one.

Headstone Cleaning FAQs

Can You Clean Random Gravestones?

You can not clean random gravestones you don’t have permission to clean. You may think you’re doing a good deed by cleaning dirty headstones, but you should only clean stones that belong to a relative or a loved one, not the headstones of strangers. 

If you were to cause damage to a grave marker you didn’t have written consent to clean, you could face criminal charges.

Can I Clean a Grave Marker With Household Soap and Water?

You should never use household soaps and cleaners on headstones as these products may contain chemical elements that will corrode your grave marker over time. Ensure that your product is a non-ionic cleaner that will not contribute to insoluble salts. 

The Cemetery Conservators for the United States (CCUS) warn against using household soaps and detergents. They recommend gravestone tenders use products such as the Prosoco ReVive biological cleaner to remove biological growth and staining from headstones. 

Final Thoughts

You can clean a headstone effectively and gently with the appropriate materials without causing too much damage. However, you should only clean a headstone if it needs it and if you have permission to do so. Cleaning can cause irreversible damage, so it’s best to proceed with caution at all times.

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Alex Noel

Hi there! I'm Alex Noel and live in Indianapolis, Indiana. I started this website to share my experience. My goal is to provide Americans a more fulfilling goodbye.

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