How NOT to Clean a Tombstone for Find-A-Grave

Here is a sad bit of news: A man is suspected of damaging several historic graves with a wire brush recently at the New Providence Presbyterian Church on Stoney Point Road in Surgoinsville, Tennessee. He apparently used a wire brush to make the engravings on the tombstones easier to read. Now here is the worst part: he was “cleaning” the tombstones so that he could take pictures to be posted on!


On July 15, church committee member Bill Davidson reported to the Surgoinsville Police Department that several tombstones had been “scrubbed” — possibly with a wire brush — causing damage to the old stones. The dark stain that builds up on tombstones over time was scrubbed clean in streaks over the engravings, and in some cases the engravings were rubbed almost smooth — to the point that the words are no longer legible. Davidson stated that some of the damaged tombstones date back to the 1700s, and some belong to Civil War veterans.

The church didn’t give anyone permission to go onto cemetery property and scrub any stones, Davidson added.

Here is the ironic part: the culprit was easy to find. Police did some checking on Google and located recently posted photos of the damaged tombstones at The culprit’s user name was clearly shown on each photo.

You can read more about this tragedy in the Kingsport Times-News at

If you are in a cemetery, please do not touch any tombstone, much less historic ones, unless you know what you are doing. You can find dozens of articles online that describe what to do and what not to do. Start at I can recommend the Association for Gravestone Studies web site at as an excellent resource although some of the other sites may also be very good.


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Thank you for posting this story which needs to be posted in as many online sites as possible.

The NCPTT, (National Center for Preservation Technology and Training) has recently published a blog post: “Abrasive Cleaning of Grave Markers” that reinforces their stand against aggressive practices using not only wire brushes on gravestones but also the Nyalox nylon type brushes attached to power drills that has been unfortunately used by some, even those who are advertised as professional gravestone preservationists, to ‘grind’ on the surface of a gravestone in order to clean and “polish” it in the name of restoring it back to its original condition. White marble dust can be seen after such ‘polishing’ is done on a tombstone covering the ground surrounding it, and even leaves of area plant life can be seen coated in a layer of white marble dust.

Thanks to NCPTT, and AGS, in particular, the truth about these abrasive and harmful practices is being exposed for what it is and the irreversible damage it does.

Sharing below a link to the NCPTT post on this subject:


Dick mentions the Association for Gravestone Studies. They have put together an excellent little reference book called “A Gravestone Preservation Primer,” which every Find-a-Grave contributor should read. It can be ordered via their website at

Also, a lady named Nancy Hendrickson has posted some great tips for improving your photographs without touching the stone ( ).

Whatever else you do, please be courteous and remember to always check the cemetery’s policies and procedures. Some require advance notice of your visit, especially if you plan to photograph a number of stones or use special equipment. Others forbid the use of tripods and elaborate lighting rigs altogether. Don’t forget that the cemetery’s primary function is to protect the dignity of the place for the benefit of friends and family who come to grieve the loss of people they have known and loved. Remember that family members visiting a loved one’s grave have every right to linger as long as they like without being asked to stand aside in order to accommodate your plans, and please, please, be considerate enough to avoid any area of the cemetery where a funeral is actually in process. Either wait until everyone has left, or come back on another day.


    Thank you for pointing out how important it is to obtain permission for taking photographs or anything else as far as cleaning and gravestone repair and re-setting, however, many cemeteries that have older unreadable gravestones are now inactive (no new burials), and some are cared for by townships, on private land, or handled by small villages. It is important to be sure you are not considered a person who is trespassing so the first step is to learn who is responsible for the cemetery and contact them before visiting.

    Below is a link to a statement that the Association of Gravestone Studies (AGS) posted in reply to a query in regards to their stand on using power tools, although the requestor wrote they thought the tools were not abrasive:
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    If the cemetery appears to be inactive, perhaps the local historical society may be able to help, especially if it’s an old graveyard with historic stones. The current owner’s identity should also be able to be found in whatever governmental office holds the local land records, or better yet, the office of the local tax assessor.

    Like is very specific about not using anything other than a SOFT brush and water when cleaning stones and have good guidelines for cemetery does and don’ts. You might want to review their policies in their Frequently Asked Questions. To bad this person didn’t do his research before being an idiot. I have thousands of photos on and have never seen any reason for sacrificing a stone just to get a photo. You can take a photo of the stone just the way it is and then type in the information your have deciphered from the stone. There is never a reason to destroy such an historic artifact.


    Findagrave is very specific about not touching headstones that aren’t family. Their policy doesn’t go far enough as many cemeteries have rules about doing anything to a headstone or grave and it doesn’t matter if the grave belongs to a family member.

    How do I clean a headstone or grave marker?
    Unless you are related to the interred on the headstone in question, DO NOT do anything to the headstone.


How about using an old scissors to trim away grasses that might obscure any of the inscription for a photo…, then plain water and old cotton washcloth to clean off bird poop, maybe an old soft toothbrush to clean off any poo or mold-like gunk that may be in the grooves of an engraving.

The fewest amount of chemicals possible is preferable. It’s bad enough that bodies are embalmed with formaldehyde, a carcinogen, and that someday that will seep into the aquifer.


I agree! Aaaarrrggghhh! What else can you say? There are so many “How To” books and webpages out there! WHY would someone do this without learning how to do it properly FIRST? It just doesn’t make any sense. This same Find A Grave member has taken over 5,000 photographs in the past 4 years. How many other tombstones in different locations has he irreversibly damaged?


Darlene Scotti-Tribou August 2, 2014 at 2:20 pm

Word to the wise: unless you know correct stone conservation techniques (and know the specific type of stone a marker is), do NOT try to “clean up” gravestones to make them more readable; if you do, do it only to a stone for which you have legal ownership or permission. Although well-intentioned, his blatant ignorance (of not only stone conservation, but what the law considers to be personal property) caused irreparable damage to this Tennessee cemetery. I understand that living kin of some of the deceased are pressing charges against this man for defacing their stones. What an expensive lesson for this man, an apparent novice. It’s too bad he didn’t take time to learn more beforehand. No matter how dedicated a researcher is, boundaries must be respected.


    Once you place a headstone in a cemetery, your legal ownership rights to do things to it may be trumped by your contract with the cemetery.


I take an umbrella (for shade/filter if needed) a large metal mirror (to enhance light/shadows if needed) and a spray bottle of water out with me. Carry a notebook to sketch illegible portions and Photoshop to finish up the image. Remember what you momma said “If it isn’t yours – Don’t touch it! Ignorant doesn’t begin to describe this “novice”!


How many cemeteries actually have a “Do not touch somebody else’s gravestone” rule? None that I have seen.


    Funny they probably have one against you taking a photo! I don’t think I want any Tom Dick or Harry scrubbing on mine or my family relations just because they feel like taking a photo.
    I think cleaning should be approved by the family first – cleaning should also fall under “perpetual care” so the cemetery should be caring for the headstones. Who signs a complaint when vandals strike? I’ve seen people on Findagrave people using chalk when it isn’t even their relation or requested. The best suggestion is on how to take a photo – use a mirror or umbrella, shoot from an angle use photoshop – if it is more degraded than that it’s time to contact the cemetery.


Darlene Scotti-Tribou August 4, 2014 at 11:58 am

Professionals who are contracted by family to maintain (clean, patch & restore, etc.) an ancestral gravestone are usually required to get official clearance to go in and do the work by the municipal cemetery department or owners of the cemetery. Novices (e.g., the man in Tennessee) who ignore this step can get themselves into legal turmoil. Parking lots don’t need signs warning others not to touch, clean, repair, or alter someone else’s vehicle, why should cemeteries?


    David Paul Davenport August 4, 2014 at 12:42 pm

    Thank you, ljellis2000, for the update and link. The perpetrator has been charged with a Class E felony for vandalism. His excuse? It appeared to him that a couple of others had been brushed, so he figured it was okay !


    Frank McCollister August 7, 2014 at 6:47 am

    While I agree with all of the comments about knowing what you are doing before touching a stone, contacting cemeteries and family before proceeding with any work, let us not be hasty to rush to judgement. A felony for damaging a stone?! Felonies are permanent and prevent one from getting a job, renting an apartment or home. Is that level of punishment worthy of stupidity? Yes, I know ignorance is no excuse but let us hope the judge has some common sense. Maybe the perpetrator should have to pay to replace the damaged stones with new ones. Or do so many hours of work with trained preservationists. Maybe this event could change an ignorant fool into a champion of cemetery restoration and preservation. The problem with all of these posts is that we are preaching to the choir. How do we get this information into the hands of other folks who are doing the same thing as this fellow but have never been caught? Let us turn this misfortune into an opportunity to save not destroy both personal lives and our cherished cemeteries.


    Definitely, I feel that we are preaching to the choir here, but not entirely so. This is a public forum where anyone can read and contribute.

    No amount of punishment is going to reverse the damage this uneducated man did, but a goal to educate him should be part of his punishment and to be an example to others while defining the reasons it is important not to follow in his footsteps.

    There exists the larger picture that reaches beyond using wire brushes on gravestones, as mentioned in an earlier post I shared here. Many community minded organizations keep hiring the same gravestone ‘professionals’ year after year who grind away with power tools on gravestones because workshop attendees are ‘wowed’ by the fast and easy methods that result in bright white gravestones after removal of layers of marble — as evidenced by marble dust seen around the base of the stones. Thus, this practice is proliferating and being promoted as safe in both the short and long term even though no known well-respected organization in gravestone conservation condones it. It is an ongoing harmful trend that needs to be taken seriously and reversed before more gravestones are damaged.


This is really sad, the man had good intentions but unfortunately, he just didn’t know what he was doing. Why it didn’t become apparent after the first one or why someone didn’t see him and stop him is unclear… That’s not the case for young punks that walk thru and kick stones over. That to me is much worse and should result in jail time and restitution for the headstones at the punks cost.


Someone else is also chalking headstones in that same cemetery. 😦 They also post the photos to Find A Grave.


I was pastor of a Church in North Carolina during the 1980’s. They had a historic Cemetery originally known as the Timber Ridge Meeting House. Some of the graves were early for this area, dating back to the 1790’s.
The Cemetery also had a large endowment. The cost of upkeep was about half the income of the endowment. So, thinking their old stones needed cleaning, they brought in a crew who Sand blasted every stone, over 700, in the cemetery. They also did some good works such as filling in the sinking graves, etc. And they bought five more acres before a developer came along and took it. It’s an area that is moving from rural to suburban. And every stone looked beautiful and white. I went back about 6 years ago and photographed every stone I could find (till my batteries died in the camera). Their efforts had been wasted. In the ensuing 20 years, they were right back where they were, only who will repair the damage caused by that cleaning!


    I was greatly interested in your post about the Timber Ridge Meeting House in Davie County. My husband and I are doing some research on the Morgan Bryan and Martha Strode Bryan family. There was a signed statement by a Mr. Oscar Poindexter that these two Bryans were on the original roll of the Timber Ridge Meeting house. Are you aware of any documents or imformation to confirm this. Is there any record that would possibly show that the Bryans were buried there?
    Thanks for any information you can send. Michelle DeLapp


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