Jason Church demonstrates the proper technique for cleaning a marble headstone using a biocidal cleaner, water, and a soft bristle brush.

In 2004, the Department of Veteran Affairs National Cemetery Administration turned to NCPTT when it wanted advice on chemical cleaners for their marble headstones. This began and partnership and extensive research on the subject of commercially available cleaners for removing biological growth and general soiling from marble headstones.

This week, NCPTT’s Mary Striegel reported the results of the six-year VA-funded study to Steve Muro, the VA Under Secretary for Memorial Affairs, and a variety of National Cemetery Administration officials. Based on NCPTT research, the U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs will implement new policies that ban bleach-containing cleaners and encourage the use of gentle biocidal cleaners for regular maintenance of more than three million headstones nationwide. The results of the study led NCPTT to develop a document on the best practice for cleaning government-issued marble headstones, which can be downloaded here.

Download “Best Practice for Cleaning Headstones” Best-Practices-Final.pdf – Downloaded 3265 times – 219 kB

The main recommendations include the following:

  1. Cleaning should be undertaken with the mildest, least-abrasive method.
  2. A biocidal cleaner performed the best in this study. Recommended biocidal cleaners include D/2 Biological Solution (which was tested in this study) manufactured by Sunshine Makers,  Enviro Klean® BioWash®, or other cleaners that contain quaternary ammonium compounds.
  3. Soak the stone liberally with water before applying the cleaner with a hand or backpack sprayer or garden hose.
  4. Always keep the stone wet during cleaning and thoroughly rinse afterwards.
  5. Agitate the surface gently in a circular motion using a soft bristle brush. Clean small areas from the bottom up.
  6. Remember to rinse after cleaning each area and to thoroughly rinse the stone at the end to make sure that no cleaner is left behind.

The research which led to these recommendations included field and laboratory studies that cut across disciplines from chemistry and biology to materials science and conservation treatment development. There were two main goals of the study. The first goal was to find effective commercial cleaners that removed soiling and microorganisms which alter the appearance and degrade headstones. The second goal was to look at factors that led to the re-growth of microorganisms on the stone.

NCPTT researchers studied five different cleaners which can be easily applied in the field. The cleaners needed to be effective in improving the appearance of the headstone and do no harm to the marble. In the field, NCPTT evaluated cleaners on stones located at five different climates and in both sunny and shady environments. Microbiologists at Harvard’s School of Engineering and Applied Sciences evaluated the microorganisms originally on the stone including bacteria, fungi, and algae. They helped to follow the re-growth on the headstones after cleaning over an eighteen-month time period. Additionally, they conducted accelerated laboratory tests using fungi to distinguish between the best field performing cleaners.

A technical report of the research findings is forthcoming.

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40 Responses to Best Practice Recommendations for Cleaning Government-Issued Marble Headstones

  1. Rosa Lowinger says:

    Thank you for this excellent information.

    • Thanks, Rosa. NCPTT strives to make research relevent to preservation field practices. It’s always good to hear from professional like you that the results will be useful!

  2. Richard Daniels says:

    Thank you very much for this info. Can you provide a list of places that may sell D/2?

  3. Julius Lumpkin says:

    Outstanding job Mary and Jason, I think we are heading in the right direction in cleaning headstones in the National Park now.

  4. Elizabeth Pidgeon says:

    Thank you for this updated information.

  5. Wanda says:

    This is common sense. Tax money spent for 6 years that could have gone direct to veterans that really need it.

    • Thank you for your comment.

    • Tony Verreos: CA says:

      It’s not common sense to know which chemicals work best, and which will damage the stones, but we might think the cemetary and stone memorial industries would have studied these questions
      years ago, and could provide the answers to government at no cost.

      I’m with you 100% on getting the money to Vets who need care.

  6. Wanda says:

    Is the family of the deceased responsible to keep the headstone clean?

    • Local and state laws vary significantly, so that we are unable to answer your question. Perhaps you could direct your question to the state historic preservation office. Sorry.

    • Brian says:

      Government issued headstones are the property of the government, regardless of where they are placed.

      And Wanda, some of us believe even deceased veterans deserve dignity.

      • Tony Verreos: CA says:

        Some people may not have any living relatives, and those they have may be far away, or emotionally detached. Dignity applies to how the living act, and respect for the dead is a valuable lesson to learn. Regardless of who’s
        responsible for cleaning memorials, it would be a great exercise for anyone to do it. If we lose our attachment to
        those who died so we could live free, we risk becoming a
        great tree with shallow roots.

        We all need to eat, but Memorial Day is a lot bigger than a
        picnic.

  7. Doug says:

    My great uncle’s headstone is in need of a good cleaning. I read the article. My question is, “What can I buy at Wal-Mart or Lowes to clean it?

  8. Wayne says:

    Thank you for this information. I learned within the last year that a certain Civil War military stone belonged to a very distant relative. It is in need of a very good cleaning. I did learn quite by accident when brushing the very wet stone(after a rain storm) with a small whisk broom a lot of the excess growth will come off. It wasn’t easy to remove so I am glad that someone has finally developed a cleaner and a method for cleaning this stone. I am assuming that this method is not ‘only’ for veterans marble markers. It will probably work for any marble marker or for any granite marker.

  9. Bo says:

    I just called Sunshine Makers of D/2 and was told that it is no longer produced. I was most interested because in their data sheet there was a “no scrub/no rinse” application that worked over 30 days. Is there another alternative product with similar application?

    • Ted Kinnari says:

      D/2 will be available again in the next 2-4 weeks. D/2 Biological Solutions, Inc. has bought D/2,its formula and Trademark from our friends at Sunshine Makers who we have worked closely with for over 15 years. We also took this opportunity to change distributors. The new architectural distributor is Andy deGruchy of deGruchy’s Limeworks.US “LimeWorks.us” Product should be available by the middle to end of August.

  10. Dennis McGlasson says:

    Similar question to @Bo- can the D/2 product be left on the stone per the no scrub/no rinse label instructions? ALso, do you have any recommendations good or bad on a similar product called “Wet&Forget”?

  11. Jason Church says:

    D/2 can be used as a no scrub cleaner, I have used it on very fragile surfaces where I pre-wet, sprayed, dwell, rinse and it worked well.
    D/2 label recommendation is no rinsing, however I strongly recommend rinsing any cleaner from your historic stone. I know this will lessen the long term cleaning ability of the product but it will also help protect the stones fragile fabric which I am most interested in.
    On the Wet and Forget I am uncertain but would like to look further. It has a high (9%) of n-dodecyl/tetradecyl-n n-dimethyl benzyl ammonium chloride. Which is a great cleaning agent but, I worry that such a high % could leave salts behind so I would recommend a final rinse to guard from this. However, the product says it does not work if rinsed and can take a month or more for the mildew staining to go away. If you do use it make sure to wet the stone first this will help minimize any salt intrusion.

    • Dennis McGlasson says:

      Jason,
      Thanks for the feedback. We have a large number of abandoned cemeteries, very remote, so any rinse water has to be carried in, or come from clouds. Someone needs to develop a biocide that weighs nothing, kills everything, leaves nothing and is inexpensive. :-)

      A side note- I just saw a report that D/2 will no longer be available due to an EPA labeling change? Better stock up.

  12. Greg Meyers says:

    In the lettering of my Mom/Dad’s headstone has faded…I’ve tried to fix it with a permanent black sharpie. Is there something else I can use or who do I contact to have this task done…

    Thank you,

    Greg

    • GraniteMark says:

      The original black is a paint commonly called by its’ brand name “Lithochrome”. When the stone is new, a stencil is placed on the stone to sandblast the engraving. While the stencil is still covering all but the lettering, the lith is sprayed on. Since the stencil is now removed, you will have to hand-paint the lith into the lettering. It is a tedious process and hard to be steady enough for it not to look like a hand-painted job. I would recommend letting the black naturally fade out or contacting a monument company to repaint for you.

  13. Joe says:

    1) Put crushed marble or limestone around stone base periodically. Reduces the acid wicked up by the stone.

    2) New graves should be on a thin layer of limestone gravel or marble chips. Wick up less water and reduces the salt content.

    3) Traditional stone protectent and biocide was a very very thin coat of limewash (the very breatheable lime stucco on hundred plus year old buildings is lime stucco.) Limewash is very useful as a stone protectant. (Mason’s lime not garden lime.) (It’s still holding up on Mount Vernon.)

    4) Stone should be treated with a architectural stone salt remover (Chlor-Rid tm, et al) periodically.

    Thanks

  14. Simon says:

    Very good article with some best practices for cleaning stone, the PDF is also a helpful resource. A hand sprayer is good for applying water to stone.

  15. Bob says:

    Is it true that all National Cemetery employees are trained at Jefferson Barracks in St. Louis, MO?

  16. Beth Wagner says:

    I need to know how to clean the bronze markers. The marker has been vandalized with spray paint.

  17. Cynthia Ross says:

    My husband’s granite marker has only been in place since April. His gravesite is located under a candlewood tree which produces red berries in the summer. Using bleach water removed a little of the stains but not much. Do you think the “WetNForget” would be alright to use? Once I am hopefully able to remove all stains, is there something I can put on the granite to protect it from further staining such as a clear enamel spray?

    Any assistance you can provide will be greatly appreciated.

    Sincerely,

    Cynthia Ross
    wife of James A. Ross

    • Terry S. says:

      Applying a sealant to the granite would, in my opinion, be a mistake. The sealant would lock in moisture entering from below–if the stone were to be in freezing conditions the locked in moisture would freeze possibly causing spalling or chipping.

      Granite is more durable and less porous than marble. The discoloration from the candlewood tree is unfortunate, but not likely to cause actual damage to the granite. I’d try various cleaning compounds to a limited extent–always rinsing well.

  18. rick winfrey says:

    if there is a American Legion/VFW /or DAV post near you approach them to
    maintain the veterans markers as part of their memorial day events. have them clean and maintain all the vet’s grave sites year round. it is what they stand for .

  19. Can you provide directions for cleaning the Bronze Markers. Was nice and shiny on my Dad’s and my son’s grave. Now they are dull and look more like aluminum than bronze. Thank you.
    Mike

  20. Leon woolford says:

    Have used D2 it doesn’t remove the berry stains. Squirrels eat nuts and pooh on the stones. D2 doesn’t work.

    • Jason Church says:

      Dear Leon,
      D2 is designed for removal of biological growth and light soiling. For something heavier such as berry staining you might switch to a cleaner such as Vulpex or TritonX. Both are safe on historic stone but have a little both to help you with the berry staining.

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