Gravestones, Cleaning
  & Photography

by Jayne McCormick

Let's discuss cleaning and photographing gravestones.

"Over the centuries several different types of stones have been used to create gravestones.  Some of the stones are quite porous and fragile, while others are resistant to damage.  Be careful when attempting to improve the readability of the inscription.  Types of stone:

SSome basic things you want to take with you are as follows:

Then, for self-preservation, you might want to take these things:

GGeneral Cleaning

Many experts use Kodak's Photo Flo, with about 1 ounce to 5 gallons of distilled water, as a good neutral cleaning agent.  It contains no soap and does not affect the pH (acid-base indicator), nor does it contain or contribute to the formation of soluble salts.  What it does do is provide a better overall wetting of the surface of the stone and allows better removal of the dirt.

Remove bird droppings, dirt, moss and Lichen.  Lichen and moss can be removed by using the inch wooden dowel listed earlier.  Tongue depressors and craft (popsicle type) sticks work well, too.

While cleaning be very thorough.  Before beginning you may want to try your cleaning method on a place that is not so visible.  Then, if you're satisfied, you should start at the bottom of the stone to avoid streaking, keeping the stone wet through the whole procedure.  Keep a close eye on your stone while working and if you see the stone is eroding as you wash, STOP and immediately rinse thoroughly with LOTS of clean water.

Remember NO household cleaners!  They contain damaging chemicals.  When you're finished cleaning your stone, rinse it THOROUGHLY.

Marble, limestone or sandstone should be cleaned no more that once every 18 months.  They are soft and very porous.  Rinsing with clear water is acceptable for washing off bird dirt and other buildups. 

Pressure washing is not recommended as it slowly, over time, removes the outer layers of the stone, exposing the softer inside.  Then there is the possibility those new softer pores will "catch" and hold moisture and dirt from the atmosphere.

SStains and Stain Removal

If the stone is stained, before you ever even consider trying to remove it, you MUST know what has caused it.  You DEFINITELY do NOT want to use chemical cleaners unless you KNOW which ones to use.

Certain chemicals could interact with the stain and make it even worse than when you started.  If you are bound and determined the stains must be removed, your best bet would be to consult a stone specialist.

Contact a local Memorial Company.  If they can't answer your questions or help you, they will know whom to recommend.

PPhotographing Your Ancestor's Gravestones

First of all . . .  Do NOT use shaving cream, flour or chalk.  While you may get instant gratification, they can injure the stone in a way you can't see.

Even if you use water to rinse them off, you can, in actuality "push" them into the pores of the stones.  AND, if at all possible, avoid rubbing.

My favorite method is using a mirror to direct the sunlight across the face of the stone so there are shadows in the indentations making reading of the inscriptions easier to read.  It also brings out things you may not have seen before.  With the sun shining directly on the stone you may want some one to stand and block the direct lighting while you adjust the mirror.

Several years ago I was visiting a cemetery and found the stone I was looking at very difficult to read.  I didn't have a mirror with me, but I DID have a piece of aluminum foil.  It gave me the same results I would have gotten using the mirror.  (If you don't have a fairly large mirror, you can cover a piece of cardboard with the foil.)  Experiment; see what works best for you.  Viewing the stone of my one of my great-grandfathers, I couldn't read one of the numbers in a date.  All I had at the time was a small make-up mirror so I used it.  IT worked!!!

Water  Yes, plain water can help.  The surface dries faster than the indented letters and numbers, thus enhancing them.  With raised surfaces, they will dry faster than the areas just around them.  A couple of spray-bottles of water will come in handy here.

You will want to take more than just one picture.  If the background is "busy" you might want to be sure to have a buddy with you and the fabric mentioned above.  Of course, you'll want to photograph the stone itself.  I try to get as close as I can so the stone fills the viewfinder.  If the stone is a bit tilted, just tip your camera till the stone looks straight.

When taking the picture always try to be at the same level as the stone or else you will have a distorted picture.  Another view might be just the inscription, real up-close and personal.

Then too, take a picture of the whole cemetery.  Here's where your pencil and paper will come in handy again.  Write down the location of the stone, draw a rough map of the cemetery and mark the location of the stone.

If you want to label the picture, number the stones, so you know who is where.  This is easily done with a marker pen and a folded 5" x 7" index card and placed alongside the project.  You'll also want to write down the picture number, the time and the date of when you took the pictures.

Have fun, experiment to see what works best for you.


AA couple of tips from some of the Civil War chatters

DWes8825 said while doing a service project at a military cemetery, he learned if the stone is relatively clean and you need more contrast, use a small paintbrush, like the ones that come in a kid's set of watercolor paints and "paint" the letter and numbers with DISTILLED water.  He also said that most cemeteries lay out the grave so you face north or south.  If you take the time to watch the light conditions, you will figure out what time of day will give you the best lighting for taking photos.

Steve Teeft advised there are new regulations regarding getting new grave markers of replacemet markers for American Veterans graves.  If there is an existing grave marker on a grave that is not military (not provided by the VA or Gov't.) the Veterans Administration will NOT replace an existing marker with a new Gov't marker.

William Martin said to obtain an Application for a Standard Government Headstone or Marker, write to:

Monument Service
Department of Memorial Affairs
Veterans Administration
941 N. Capitol St., N.E.
Room 9320
Washington, DC 20420

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