How NOT to Clean a Tombstone for Photography!

Take a look at the picture below. Do you see something wrong with it? Almost every genealogist will cringe when viewing a picture like this one from Someone apparently used a wire brush to make the engravings on the tombstone easier to read. AAARRRGGGGHHH!


The above photo may be seen at

Using a wire brush on a tombstone or any other stone memorial causes irreparable damage! In fact, the damage is so severe that most states in the USA and also governments in many other countries have laws prohibiting such actions. Under the laws of many states, unauthorized tampering with or damaging gravestones is a felony.

It is easy to use FindAGrave to track down the person who uploaded the photograph. However, let’s be cautious before making any accusations. There is no evidence to indicate that the person who supplied the photograph is also the same person who used a wire brush to “clean” the tombstone. Perhaps the photographer came by some time after the criminal act took place and snapped a photograph. Perhaps not. I’ll leave that investigation to others who are located near the Thomas Cemetery in Grainger County, Tennessee, to find out.

Once damaged, antique tombstones can rarely be returned to their former appearance. Rough brushing or cleaning with harsh chemicals can further weaken or completely destroy the often illegible inscriptions on stones that are already deteriorated because of age and exposure to the elements.

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.

You also might want to read my earlier article at

Until you have been educated in tombstone preservation, DON’T DO ANYTHING!

My thanks to newsletter reader John Rees for telling about this crime.


Sadly, when you check the other photo postings of this particular FindAGrave user, the problem is widespread. I hope someone could politely and diplomatically inform them of the proper way to clean a headstone.


Thanks for the valuable information. Just as repeated gravestone rubbings by hobbyists of yesteryear did more harm than good, “cleanings” by over-zealous, but well-meaning history buffs can do irreparable damage to both old and new stones, especially to the ones with organic growth which should be maintained by professional conservators. Also, people should be aware that gravestones are not “public property.” Unfortunately, some well-intentioned groups and individuals have run into serious legal problems from cemetery associations and descendants due to the results of their improper “cleanings,” so it is good legal sense to get permission to do so in writing. However, if the only goal is to get a decent photo of a gravestone, and photography is permitted in that cemetery, sometimes pouring plain water over the stone will contrast the writing enough produce a better picture; otherwise, do nothing unless you have the legal right to do so.


    With all the advancement in digital photography and the fact that most of us have a great camera in our cell phone, there is no reason anyone who hasn’t been properly trained to touch the stones. Using different contrast settings, trying black and white, or approaching from different angles will all contribute to better results. Take several images and view them on the phone then enlarge them to see how clear the inscription detail is. The camera can “see” many things that our naked eyes can not necessarily distinguish unaided. Sometimes you just need to wait a few minutes for the light to change, or position yourself in such a way that you are casting a shadow on the stone. With a little practice, anyone can get great, legible photos without damaging the stones.

    And remember: never enter a historic cemetery when the ground is unstable, such as during snowmelt or spring runoff. Your weight near the stones can disturb the ground and compromise their foundations.


It seems doubtful that they could have cleaned the stone with a wire brush to the point the lettering was that white without also visibly damaging the form of the letters themselves (which seems fairly sharp). Perhaps they just used talcum powder or chalk to create contrast?. Probably also not good, but less harmful than wire brush, I would think.


For info on cleaning headstones etc. Go to the Oregon Historic Cemeteries website they have info from the National Park Service on how to clean etc. The right way.

Liked by 1 person

There are many articles on line explaining how to take good legible photographs of gravestones without using anything other than a decent camera (many cell phones are just not up to the job), a mirror or other reflector, and perhaps a spritz of distilled water.

One very important factor is the time of day you choose to take your photographs. You want the sun to fall at an angle across the face of the stone to enhance the shadows cast by the carving and make the inscriptions stand out. A mirror or other reflector can be used to redirect the light in a similar fashion. Paragraph 3 of this web page has two photos showing the difference that proper lighting can make:

Liked by 1 person

    Excellent recommendations. I was amazed when first shown how to use 5 to 6 foot mirror to reflect sunlight across tombstone. Time of day and good camera ( not phone) is important. Thanks for the comment.

    Liked by 1 person

Actually, I have had excellent results by playing with the settings on my cell phone camera, even back in the time of 2 megapixel BlackBerry. Patience and practice and trying different angles make all the difference.


Taking photos of some ancestors 18th century tombstones in Scotland I just kept shooting pics on and off for a couple of hours and changing positions while the sun moved and finally got some really great shots. Just be patient!


Very good suggestions by your readers. I hope the person also sees them.


If you look carefully, even not so carefully, you will notice a white powder at the base of the headstone. This indicates that something like talcum powder or flour has been used to bring out the lettering. Your advice (warning) about using a wire brush is good advice but irrelevant to the cited photograph. I am surprised you were not more careful about examining the photograph before shaming someone.


    I am not convinced it is talcum powder. However, if it is talcum powder, the same advice still applies. Tombstone preservation experts will always tell you to NEVER use chalk, flour, shaving cream, baby powder, talc, cornstarch or any other substance. All of these substances cause significant damage to the stone.


I think it is both. A wire brush was used to scrape off the lichens on the engraved areas, and then talcum powder or chalk was used to highlight the letters.



I find a cloudy day best for taking headstone pictures


The powdery substance could also be Ajax cleanser or one that is similar. Years ago some monument companies used to recommend cleaning unpolished granite gravestones with Ajax Cleanser (the one without bleach) and a nylon scrubbing brush. The results were quite similar to the stone (which is not granite, in the photo above) and the surface would appear much cleaner looking after being well-rinsed. However, as I mentioned in a previous post, most solvents are insidious: the stones may appear clean and undamaged at first, but the chemicals continue to infiltrate especially softer stones and cause breakdown of the stone itself. Dick, you’re absolutely right: it is best to be safe not use any substance at all.


Looks like sidewalk chalk and a sponge was used, definitely not a wire brush.


Another great product is”Wet & Forget”. It’s a biophysical agent and you literally spray it over and forget it. I use it to keep mould, moss, lichens, etc off my driveway, paved areas, spoutings, roof, anywhere that the stuff grows. It takes a few weeks to work as it kills the organism firest and then relies on rainfall to walk it away. Not abraisive and doesn’t erode the surface at all. Check it out at


That is my picture. Since all of you like jumping to conclusions why don’t you bother asking someone before you voice your opinion. It’s charged. It is not a wire brush, it is not shaving cream, it is not anything that would hurt that Tombstone. Next time ask before you go jumping to conclusions and saying things that are not true


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