Tips On Reading & Cleaning Your Family Headstone

“And, as an hare whom hounds and horns pursue, Pants to the place from whence at first she flew,
I still had hopes, my long vexations past, Here to return – and die at home at last.”

Lines taken from “The Deserted Village,” by Oliver Goldsmith

Reading the inscriptions on headstones is now fast becoming a great contributor to our Irish tourism sector, both domestic and foreign, as more and more people have begun to trace their family’s history and now seek out the burial places of their long, often lost ancestors.
Most old headstone markers are difficult to read as they have become, through neglect, covered in decades of grime and various other surface lichens.  Examine your grave marker therefore carefully at first to ascertain if it is indeed cleanable or if best left alone. If the stone shows signs of chipping, scaling, flaking or any other forms of obvious deterioration, do not clean. Your actions will do more harm than good and in most cases you will only further accelerate its future demise.

How Best To Read That Old Neglected Family Headstone

Before cleaning the discovered headstone, best to confirm that you have uncovered a marker that genuinely belongs to your family tree. Many grave markers turn out to be the long lost property of another family, so do try to decipher names and recorded death dates shown on the surface, before interfering.


To help clarify ownership to your satisfaction, for reading and later cleaning you will need in your possession a stiff bristled brush, (Either natural or nylon but never a wire brush), a supply of water, a spray can of well shaken shaving foam, (Gillette Regular shaving foam is best) and a stiff straight edged piece of cardboard or rubber edged window cleaning wiper. Spray the foam over the words inscribed on the headstones, making sure to press into the counter-relief or sunken script, before removing the excess shaving foam from the headstone with the edge of the stiff cardboard or rubber wiper. Some of the foam should now sit into the carved script, enabling you to read most of the written epitaph. [See picture above.]

In past times a product known as ‘Heelball,’ latter a wax, coloured with lampblack, latter once used to stain and polish the edges of the soles and heels of repaired shoes, was most often used to take rubbings of stone inscriptions successfully, but alas like many such products it has now become difficult to locate. A rub from green grass or dock leaves can also assist to highlight some worn lettering less successfully.

Cleaning Your Family Headstone

First remember that old headstones can never be made to appear totally brand new.
Up to the early 1970 all Roman Catholic graveyards throughout Ireland, usually before the end of July, held “Pattern Days.” These were days when people come together to perform a kind of pilgrimage, to the burial place of their dead relatives or simply to honour their local saint, latter who had often founded their local church. This is now somewhat of a fading tradition in many graveyards, but perhaps should again be resurrected. Relatives of deceased persons worked well to spruce up their cemetery for weeks beforehand, decorating many graves with fresh flowers and wreaths, scrubbing headstones and weeding burial plots.

Under the guidance of their parish priest or curate suitable prayers were offered on these annual Pattern days for all departed souls as each family stood, with a certain personal pride, beside their now newly reclaimed family graves. The results of such family events ensured that graveyards took a more central role in our everyday lives, and graveyards remained reasonably more maintained and accessible to relatives and visitors alike, instead of being the scourge of local Town Council workers, now tasked with a mere intermittent maintenance.

Having ascertained that your headstone or marker can be successfully cleaned and the stone has been correctly identified as owned by your family, cleaning can commence. Remember techniques used to clean modern stone are not safe for fragile 100 to 200 year old grave markers.

Scrub the stone from the bottom upwards to avoid streaking and thus further staining. Wearing proper eye protection, household ammonia, (About 1 cup to 1 gallon of water) can be used if you can stand the very stringent aroma.  Caution should be used to ensure that the household ammonia is never mixed with other chemicals. Household ammonia is most commonly used in the cleaning of glass, ovens, porcelain or stainless steel, however it should be noted that same can be injurious to the eyes, respiratory and digestive tracts, and to a lesser extent the skin, if not handled responsibly.

If lichen appears to be your main problem, soak same with water and scrape with a wooden or plastic scraper, (strictly no metal object) and be sure you flush the stone completely, at least three times, when this cleaningwork is complete.

Do not use products like Calgon, Borax etc as these can cause headstones to deteriorate, stain (in the case of marble) or simply further speed up already diagnosed cases of disintegration.

With the most common gravestones manufactured from sandstone, slate,  limestone, marble, or granite, the first rule of thumb when cleaning all surfaces, is ‘be gentle,‘ using the least aggressive approach. Always begin with clean water completely saturating the stone. Always scrub in a random orbit motion, to avoid streaking or erosion to the surface of the stone. Streaking and staining, may result if the dirty water is allowed to evaporate before being rinsed from the stone. Therefore use a pump sprayer, where personal funding allows. Suitable pumps can be obtained reasonably cheaply in most Garden Centres. Pumps will use much less water than any bucket and also ensures that polluted water from your brush is not returned to the stone when rinsing from your bucket.

Old stones which are sandblasted begin to quickly disintegrate, due to fissures caused in the stone. Rainwater then soaks into these cracks, expanding when frozen in wintertime, thus enlarging the cracks which then holds even larger amounts of water which again freezes and expands still further.

Remember gravestones are essentially like a three-dimensional family tree and those trying to trace their Irish roots using web forums and emailing parochial houses might do well to attend “Pattern Days” or “Local Cemetery Sundays” in the known townlands of their emigrant or other ancestors. Here conversations can strike up with other people in attendance. Those attending pilgrims always congregates around or close to their family plots, so it would be easy to gather further information and perhaps identify common and perhaps more recent family descendants.


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