The material of choice for gravestones today is generally granite, since it is durable and comes in a variety of crystalline textures and colours. However, over the centuries, gravestones (or headstones and tombstones, as they are also known) have been made from a variety of materials.
The fashionable choice, originating in ancient Greece and later much favoured by the Victorians, was once marble. However, this became less popular, as the poorer quality tends to become damaged by acid rain and smothered by growths of moss and lichen. For a while, wooden grave markers were the choice, although these deteriorated even more quickly, and slate, bronze and sandstone have also had periods of popularity.
Whatever the choice of material, gravestone memorials need regular tending in order to maximise their durability and keep inscriptions as legible as possible.
The method for cleaning granite headstones is essentially the same as that for cleaning those made from sandstone, limestone or marble. Granite has the advantage that, because of its durability, the gravestone will not be damaged by forceful scrubbing.
Granite headstones can even withstand a pressure washer, as long as the memorial is in a stable condition and there are no fractures or cracks. However, if any of the gravestone's engraved areas or carvings contain colouring, such as black, using a pressure washer will strip this out, rendering any lettering illegible.
Hardened water can leave calcium deposits on polished granite memorials, which can often give a hazy coating. Where this is the case, the polished surface can be scrubbed using water and a detergent or non-ionic soap. A heavy duty, non metallic scouring pad is recommended, although care must always be taken to check that it is safe to use it on granite.
Bronze gravestones are slightly more complicated to maintain, as they actually consist of two components. They comprise a bronze plaque that is mounted onto a base, which is usually made from granite or concrete. As these bronze memorials are generally laid flat at grass level, they are more susceptible to falling debris and standing water.
A granite base can be cleaned applying the same, slightly aggressive scrubbing approach as used for granite headstones. The bronze plaques are manufactured from copper and tin, with small additions of zinc and lead. They have a lacquer coating applied in order to seal their original appearance, but over time it will gradually deteriorate. This deterioration will accelerate through neglect, so it is important to tend bronze memorials with regular, proper care in order to preserve their finish. Restoration can be held at bay by using specialised wax or by purchasing a preservation kit.
In these more 'green' times, some people are adopting a more environmentally friendly approach to cleaning grave memorials. Many of the gravestones that appear dirty and beyond restoration are covered by growths of lichen, fungus, mould and algae. The eco-friendly answer? Snails. These little chaps may be the bane of many a gardener's life, but they love to munch their way through the vegetation that spoils so many cemetery headstones.
Whichever material a gravestone is made from, it needs regular attention using the appropriate cleaning method in order to preserve the memorial both as a loving tribute and a means of recording a life for posterity.