My Name is “No”
The nice weather is finally showing up in force nationwide. It’s time for bleary-eyed genealogists to head out into the world and hunt for ancestors in the wild. This means traipsing in fields and graveyards to find the physical evidence of those who have gone before. With the fresh air and sunshine come the posts of how to clean up those gravestones for easier reading.
My sign is “No”
First, remember graveyards are private property. They are not owned by you regardless of what relatives are housed there. The owners will have rules on whether you’ll even be allowed to enter a cemetery, so be prepared to ask for permission. Some will allow photos of stones, but others will not as they provide their own clean photos to sites like Find A Grave or have privacy rules for mourning relatives that will keep you from taking photos. Some places will not allow tampering of any kind with the stones, from touching to rubbing to cleaning. Know what you are allowed to do and what will get you kicked out.
Beyond that, I can only give you one piece of advice: don’t touch the stones. Bring a mirror, a flashlight, a piece of white poster board, a good high definition camera, and a notebook. Write down the information you can readily see on the stone. Then take photos from multiple angles with light directly on the stone (from direct sun or through use of the mirror and flashlight) and some with light at an angle to highlight raised edges around words. Use photo software to adjust contrast and invert colors to bring out “hidden” letters and read the stone. Don’t touch the stone. You will do more harm than good and you won’t be alone when you do it.
Abrasive substances like industrial cleaners, bleach, chalk and shaving cream will destroy some types of stone and even change its color. Scrubbing brushes, high pressure water hoses, rubbings (on paper or pressed aluminum) will wear down a stone. Altering the stone with “repairs” or landscaping can destroy historical context or damage the stone further. One drop is not enough to worry in every case, but a steady stream made the Grand Canyon… keep in mind that your ancestor is someone else’s and they may do the same thing you’re thinking of doing. So just don’t.
If you actually destroy or alter the stone, you could be charged with vandalism even if you really think you were doing the right thing.
You need to let it go
I only use water and a soft scrub brush.
No. While it may sound like a good idea, because you’re not using any cleaners at all, you can still do harm without meaning to. Did you know that sensitive teeth and gum loss can be traced in some cases to brushing too hard? These people don’t know they are doing it and they harm a part of their body. You
may not think you are scrubbing too hard, but you can be because you don’t know any better. So just don’t.
But I really need to know these names.
No. Use the photographing techniques to get multiple shots and write what you already can see. Then use photo software to alter the contrast or invert colors. You’ll be surprised what will pop out without you having to touch the stone. We live in an age of technological marvels, use them. Don’t touch the stone. If you still can’t read them, you can thank the genealogists that came before for destroying that stone with generations of rubbings and cleanings.
So I will do it, post it online and then no one else has to do it. Problem solved.
No. Not everyone knows about Find A Grave. Or Billion Graves. Or a hundred other sites dedicated to niche markets. You make a rubbing, then your second cousin makes a rubbing, then some stranger trying to be nice makes a rubbing………… and eventually it’s Lincoln’s nose.
I use what professionals use, and I’m super careful.
No. Are you a pro? Do you have knowledge of art restoration, masonry, or artifact conservation? Stones of old were not made in the same fashion as new stones. They aren’t as strong as you think, and you could be harming them with your misunderstanding of their construction. If you don’t know what stone the marker is actually made of, you could actually end up dissolving it! I’ve watched videos of pros at the Louvre cleaning paintings, but I’m not volunteering to clean the Mona Lisa.
But the marker is broken! Someone needs to fix it.
No. If you try to repair a stone and use the wrong adhesive, you can actually make the cracks worse and weaken the stone more. Some stones are barely held together by their lichen and moss, so removing the growths effectively destroy the markers. If a marker is broken, let the owner of the cemetery know so they can contact a professional if it’s advisable to fix it. Sadly, some stones are safer in pieces on the ground than they would be during a repair attempt. No one’s trying to fix the crack in the Liberty Bell, ya know.
I’ve cleaned hundreds of stones nationwide with no issues. I use D/2 biological cleaner, a soft cloth/brush, and even took a preservation class.
No. Are you cleaning these stones on a regular schedule? Regular maintenance is paramount for good preservation. Cleaning the stone once doesn’t make you a saint. Just like my above comment about Lincoln’s nose, you won’t be the only one who sees this stone. You won’t be the only one trying to clean it. It will wear away and you will be contributing to that harm. Unless you own the stone and hire a professional/are a professional taking the responsibility for regular maintenance to discourage Holly Hobby from taking it into her own hands on occasion, you are causing harm. Go back to some of your old haunts and see what someone has done after you. Bring tissues for when you start to weep.
So how do you clean a stone?
That’s right: YOU DON’T