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Background InformationEdit

The following technique was learned in 2004 from a professional cemetery preservationist who is helping Huntsville, AL restore some of its older cemeteries. It is truly low-tech, relatively inexpensive, won't harm the stones, and is very effective.
Take a look at Andrew Cowan's tombstone picture. See what "five seconds" of effort did and look at what wasn't "cleaned" and imagine how a picture would have turned out if nothing had been done to clean the text area.

Once the stone is cleaned ... take a picture, post it at or one of the various state digital cemetery archives, and no one ever has to touch the stone again!
The causes of a dark or unreadable tombstone may be one of, or a combination of, the following:

  • Lichen, algae, mold and tannins from trees that stain headstones are considered biological contaminants.
    • Lichens roots secrete acid that will dissolve the calcium in marble and limestone.
    • Algae, mold and lichen grow because the stone pores absorb water.
  • Tannins stains from leaves, nuts and bark that have fallen from trees.
  • Moisture in the stone during the winter months will freeze and thaw causing spalling (surface loosening of minerals and cracking).

Tools NeededEdit

  1. Drywall sanding sponge ... in medium and/or coarse ... sponge is surrounded on all sides by sandpaper
  2. Plain Water and a spray bottle.
  3. Small whisk broom ... use only to dust off any grass clippings, etc. that may be obscuring the stone due to the latest mowing, etc.


  1. Use the sanding sponge to LIGHTLY "sand" off any surface debris on the tombstone. Tombstones that look like they're totally UNreadable will suddenly have enough contrast from the "crud" left in the crevices to take some really good photos of the tombstone.
  2. Not enough contrast? LIGHTLY rub a piece of WHITE sidewalk chalk on the surface of the stone ... then LIGHTLY "resand" the stone to "smooth out" the contrast and even up the contrast of chalk on the stone. The next rain will wash off the chalk.

If the tombstone is in an area that does not get much rain, use a spray bottle with plain water and wet the stone down to remove the chalk. (Some people don't recommend using chalk on tombstones. Instead, you can use a bit of the soil surrounding the tombstone and lightly smooth it over the stone to get "contrast."
Note: You are "sanding" off ONLY the environmental crud on the tombstone ... you are not sanding the tombstone itself.

Works like a charm every time.

The beauty of using the sanding sponge is that it doesn't harm the stone.

Tombstone Cleaning DONT's!!!Edit

Note: If a tombstone is brittle, crumbling, or showing other signs of deterioration, do not touch it! Do your best to photograph it, but do not touch it!

NO wire brushes
NO shaving cream
NO chemicals ... no acids, vinegar, ammonia, bleaches, etc.
NO soaps
NO metal or plastic scrapers, putty knives, etc.
NO brushes or products with natural bristle brushes as they leave fibers behind that biological growth adheres to.
NO power washers, etc.
The above items rip the skin of a stone, which promotes water penetration -- stone breathes water vapor but hates water.

NO chalk - over time it will cause further deterioration. It does NOT wash off in the rain.

Tombstone PhotographyEdit

  1. If your shadow appears on the tombstone, when taking the picture ... stand on the other side of the tombstone and take the picture upside down (you can rotate it to the right angle when you print it) or stand farther away and zoom in on the tombstone.
  2. Try taking photographs in full sun, or a cloudy day, or when the sun is in different positions during the day. Sometimes a reflecting surface, like a white poster, will light up the subject when it is angled to catch the sun. If photographing from all angles doesn't seem to bring up the inscription, try spraying plain water on the grave marker.

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