Cemetery Conservation

We spend a lot of time wandering in cemeteries! Just like you, we’ve seen headstones that need a little TLC. Some are covered in moss or lichen, while others are sunken, cracked, damaged, or broken. Over time, nature takes its toll on grave markers, especially older ones. Sometimes, well-meaning individuals attempt to clean headstones but unknowingly harm them with abrasive methods or cleaners. We discourage members from touching headstones unless you are related or have specific permission from the cemetery. In those instances, we’d like to point you to a fantastic website with a wealth of information on how to read weathered inscriptions without causing harm to the stone and headstone conservation. 

Photo credit- Michael Moore

Cemetery Conservators for United Standards (CCUS) promotes “education and awareness through knowledge, skill, and training with proper historic materials and techniques for cemeteries and grave markers.” CCUS understands that preserving headstones and the information on them is invaluable to genealogical research and they are willing to teach and train others in these conservation methods. They have a page on how to read weathered headstones called “Reading Stone Basics”. It is also available to download as a PDF, so you can print it and take it with you. We suggest exploring their website as there is so much to learn about cemetery and headstone conservation. Always contact a professional or take training courses for anything other than no harm methods for reading a headstone. If you have questions about conservation or training, contact members of this group through their webpage or Facebook page.

Don Hilton, a member of CCUS and Find a Grave, understands “the drive to read a stone, the excitement of figuring out what a hard-to-read grave marker has to say, and the importance of sharing that information with the public.” He points out that, “all of those things have to be balanced against the well-being of the grave marker and its usefulness to future generations.”

No harm methods are preferred when reading stones and also preserving what came before us. Headstones are porous and when substances are applied they can leave behind fats, organics and other elements that encourage the growth of algae and lichens. Those elements directly attack and break down the rock over time. In addition, harmful substances often leave behind a stain on the stone. For porous stone, anything placed on its face seeps in and interferes with the internal movement of air and moisture. This leads to water retention and freeze-thaw damage which can cause cracks to form and over time break the stone. 

We want to help preserve these stones and promote the utmost caution when reading and photographing headstones. If you happen to come across a headstone photo that includes a harmful substance (i.e. chalk, shaving cream, flour), feel free to take a new photo of the headstone and upload it to that memorial. When the new photo is uploaded, you may request the removal of the previous photo through photo@findagrave.com. We will also remove headstone photos with substances per your request as a close family member. Let’s do everything we can to preserve headstones for future generations without causing any harm!

-Find a Grave Team


  1. I carry with me a non-abrasive cloth, a soft brush and a small gardening spade. If I need to wipe some dirt off, I use the cloth and brush. Sometimes the largest part of a headstone may be under the ground; in that case I carefully use the spade to remove the dirt from the outer edges and hand dig as much as possible, then use the cloth and brush to clean it up as much as possible. I try not to disrespect the grave as much as possible.

    • Hello Pamela, we suggest contacting the cemetery and asking them if they have specific policies.

  2. While searching grave sites in the south, one problem I have frequently run into is large ant mounds around the tombstones. Small mounds can be swept away with a whisk broom, but if they are larger, I have reported those to cemetery management.

    • Hi Beth, if this is concerning a US veteran, the Department of Veteran’s Affairs would know more about the headstone as they furnish those around the world.

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