Grave Decisions: How to Restore a Headstone

Michael Johnson, certified conservator, cleaning a headstone in Fairfield County, Ohio.

Michael Johnson, certified conservator, cleaning a headstone in Fairfield County, Ohio.

For as long as I can remember, I have always had a fascination with cemeteries. They never scared me or gave me any cause for concern. I was intrigued by them. The headstones, the carvings, the artwork, and of course, the history.

About 10-12 years ago, I would begin to examine cemeteries for the purpose of genealogy. Finding the final resting places of my relatives connected me with the past and with them. Headstones also provided useful information that I could use in my research. It was at this time that I noticed many stones were in bad shape and/or illegible. I decided to take action and try and save as many of these stones that I could.

Before and after cleaning of the headstone of Colonel John Van Meter of the 3rd Regiment, War of 1812.

Before and after cleaning of the headstone of Colonel John Van Meter of the 3rd Regiment, War of 1812. See a video of the restoration and learn about John Van Meter on Michael Johnson’s Lancaster Preservation YouTube Channel.

Around this time, I noticed an ad in the paper from the Sons of the American Revolution. They were looking for help in restoring the Carpenter-Koontz Cemetery that had fallen in disrepair and was also subject to vandalism. The cemetery held the remains of American Revolutionary War veterans and some of the first settlers to the region. I decided to join the effort.

Michael Johnson, certified conservator, cleaning a headstone with assistance from his son Isaac.

Michael Johnson, certified conservator, cleaning a headstone with assistance from his son Isaac.

Before we began the restoration process, we attended a workshop from the Cemetery Conservators for United Standards (CCUS). We were taught the proper way to clean, restore, repair, and preserve cemeteries. Following the workshop, we made our way to the cemetery and spent months restoring it. After the job was complete, I decided that I would further my training and become a certified conservator.

Once I received my certification, I reached out to the City of Lancaster Cemetery Department and the townships in Fairfield County seeking permission to clean and restore headstones. With certification and permission, I set out and began cleaning headstones in my spare time with my young son, Isaac.

Isaac Johnson assists his father, certified conservator Michael Johnson, with headstone cleaning, using proper techniques and materials.

Isaac Johnson assists his father, certified conservator Michael Johnson, with headstone cleaning, using proper techniques and materials.

Together, we not only clean headstones but we film the process as well. The videos are then uploaded to a YouTube Channel that I created called Lancaster Preservation. They include the footage of the headstone being cleaned and a narration of the person’s life. Not only do you see the restoration, but you learn the history of someone you may have never heard of.

So, the question that I am always asked is, “How do you clean a headstone?”


Step One: Can This Headstone Be Cleaned?

Answer these four questions:

Do you know what you’re doing?
Proper training is essential. If you have not been properly trained, your efforts may cause greater harm than good.

Do you have permission?
Always seek permission from the owner of the cemetery (city, township, private, etc.). Cemetery laws vary greatly from location to location. In fact, you could be charged with vandalism for working on a headstone in a cemetery without permission.

Is the stone leaning or unstable?
If yes, leave it to someone who has the experience to reset it. You can be injured or even killed by a falling headstone. They are much heavier than they look! Even smaller tablets can easily crush an arm or leg.

Is the stone eroding or “sugaring?”
If the stone appears to be flaking, or sediment falls off when you rub your hand across it, then leave it be. Any cleaning will only cause the stone to erode quicker.

Step Two: How to Properly Clean a Headstone

If you have the proper training and permission and the stone is solid, then you can begin to clean it. To clean a stone, I only use 4 things: water, a soft nylon brush, a plastic or wooden scraper, and D/2 Biocide.

The Process:

Wet the stone with water
This brings the biological growth to the surface and breaks the surface tension.

Scrape off larger debris
This is done lightly using very little pressure.

Spray the stone with D/2 and let it sit for 10-15 minutes
D/2 is a biocide and safely will kill all of the biological growth living in the pores of the stone.

Re-wet the stone with water and scrub
Scrub the stone lightly with a soft nylon brush.

Thoroughly rinse the stone

Apply a light mist of D/2 and walk away

This process is a safe and effective way of cleaning all types of headstones. I do not use any other soaps, chemicals, tools, or products. D/2 is the only CCUS-approved chemical for use on headstones. It is also the only chemical used by the National Center for Preservation Technology and Training (NCPTT) to clean the headstones in Arlington National Cemetery. D/2 has been thoroughly tested and was involved in a 7-year study by NCPTT.

Now that I have gone over the proper process and products, I will go over some things you should NEVER use on a headstone.

Never use these cleaning products on a headstone:

  • Bleach
  • Metal Brushes or Tools
  • Grinders
  • Power Tools
  • Pressure Washers
  • Dish Soap
  • Any Cleaners (other than D/2 Biocide)

One of the things I hear the most is, “I just used a little Dawn soap. It’s gentle.” Yes, your dish soap may be gentle on your hands but it is not gentle on porous stone. Sodium (salt) is highly destructive to stone. It slowly eats away at it over time. No matter how much you rinse, salt will remain in the pores and cause irreversible damage.

Although it might be difficult, it is better to do NOTHING than to do something that is going to cause harm. Cemeteries are full of stones that have been damaged by people with good intentions.

If you’re unable to clean a headstone or lack the proper training and supplies, what can you do to help?

The best thing you can do for a cemetery is to visit one. Yes, it’s that simple! Take a walk, go for a run, take pictures, or even have a picnic at a local cemetery (just make sure that you are respectful).

Cemetery supervisors will tell you the majority of cemetery vandalism can be stopped by foot traffic. Vandals will always choose someplace that is “under the radar.” Just by being present can help keep a cemetery in good shape.

For me, seeing a headstone erode and become illegible is, in a way, like a second death. The loss of a headstone means the loss of important information and the memory of that person. You can learn a lot in a cemetery and I am working to make sure that the lessons can continue.

If you enjoyed this story, read more from Michael Johnson by becoming a supporting member of the Fairfield County Heritage Association. He authors the Association’s quarterly publication which includes stories like this one.

Join The Fairfield Heritage Association

Filed under: Histories & Mysteries, Life, Meet Your Neighbors, News, People
Michael R. Johnson, marketing director for the Fairfield County Heritage Association based in Lancaster, Ohio.

By Michael Johnson

Lancaster native Michael Johnson is the Marketing Director for the Fairfield County Heritage Association and serves as editor of the Heritage Quarterly – a magazine highlighting local history. Michael is a member of the Sherman Rotary and the Lancaster Fairfield Chamber of Commerce’s Diversity, Equity, Inclusion and Belonging Committee. His bachelor’s degree in history education was earned at Ohio University. Michael is married to Tara Johnson and has two children, Isaac and Mia.