Nothing is more frustrating to a genealogist than to have the information about your ancestor right in front of you and not be able to read it!
This is especially true when you have done the research, tracked down the cemetery where they are buried, driven all the way there, walked and looked and searched until you have finally found what you’re looking for and then . . . it’s too worn away by age to be able to read it! Ugh! How frustrating is that! I recently came across this very scenario with one of my Behymer ancestors. However, don’t despair because there are several options available to you!
Before You Bring Out the Chemicals
However, before we discuss what you want to do, let’s talk about what you DON’T want to do! A long time ago someone came up with the brilliant idea that you could use shaving cream to make the letters more distinguishable. It was only later that people said, hmmm, “That’s a chemical and could damage, discolor, or even destroy the very tombstone I’m trying to read and want to preserve.”
They later came up with the idea of using sidewalk chalk. Since it washes off the driveway, it should wash right off that tombstone, right?
Unless you’re someone like The Good Cemetarian and know exactly what you’re doing, it is never a good idea to add any type of chemical substance to a tombstone. You don’t know how porous that hundred year old limestone or marble or granite is or how it will react with what you’re applying to it Do you think someone would let you use sidewalk chalk on Michelangelo’s Statue of David or the Washington Monument? Isn’t your ancestor’s tombstone more important to you than those items?? I have even done some research on the internet to see what techniques that have been recommended. I was stunned by some of the totally ignorant suggestions:
- Call a stone mason and have them sandblast it and then use a chemical cleaner
- Bleach is safe on Italian marble but stone masons have chemicals for other types of stone
- Hand held power washer
- Use a dremel tool with buffer attachment
- Wire brush and bleach
- Ask the cemetery management to do it for a fee
PLEASE, DO NOT DO ANY OF THE ABOVE! Number 6 is ok if you want to spend the money but I have too many ancestors to go around paying for all the cleaning! So, here is what I suggest:
- First, look over the tombstone carefully. If there is any sign of flaking, peeling, rusting, etc., don’t try to clean it because you may do more harm than good!
- Second, think of yourself as a doctor and this is your oath – DO NO HARM! You may be looking at a piece of stone that is 100, 200, or 300 years old. It was made to withstand the elements and while it may be showing its age, it is precious and fragile even if it is made of stone!
- Using a soft bristle brush, sweep away the leaves and sticks that may be on the stone.
- If the tombstone is under a tree or been used by lots of feathered friends, bottled spring water (no chemicals) and a brush usually does the job for me. It’s impossible to make it look like new and I usually just want to pay my respects and make it look nice for the pictures I’m about to take. Another bird will probably come along in five minutes, anyways!
- Just like when you’re cleaning your walls at home, start from the bottom and work your way up so as not to leave streaks. Use a soft, lint-free cloth to help wipe up the dirt.
- One trick I have found to be very helpful is to take a photo of the tombstone and then use my photo software to enhance the image. Turning it into a negative image also helps sometimes!
I don’t try to remove algae or anything that looks like it may have grown into the stone because I could damage the stone and break off a piece. In short: unless you are an expert, think twice before putting anything on a tombstone that might erode it even more than it already is.