Monday, September 6, 2010

To Enhance or Not to Enhance that is the Question.... I want your opinions

Hello my fellow graveyard wanders,

First off  Thank you all for taking the time to read my blog.  I put a lot of time into it so I hope you guys enjoy it as much as I do.

I was recently asked a question on a topic that tends to be a bit taboo in the gravin world "Enhance or Not to Enhance?"  Taboo or not it did spark my curiosity about how others felt about the topic. So I thought I would give my wonderful readers a chance to voice their opinions on this topic.  And PLEASE keep your responses friendly and respectfully. I don't want anyone to get bent out of shape over this discussion. Also keep in mind everyone has an opinion so we will have to agree to disagree if we view it differently.  I am just interested in what everyone thinks.  Examples are always great and please provide links if you have them. If you have pics you would like so share for illustrative purposes please send them to me and I will post them for you. (Email addy is

The Topic:
Should methods be used to enhance a stone that is hard to read? For example should we use Shaving Cream or Chalk to make the stone more legible?  Also, I want to know which you think is more important, preservation of the stone or preservation of the data?

Just to illustrate what I am talking about for those who aren't sure. Here are a few before and after pics of a stone that has had shaving cream applied to it. (Pics were sent to me by a friend. So they are not mine.)


Here is a stone that has had chalk applied to it. (Just for the record I took this photo but it already had chalk on it when I found it.)

My Opinion:
Here is my two cents worth on the topic and to each their own. I am open minded and want to hear what you have to say.  I will not judge you for what you think.  This is an open discussion for everyone to share.

I personally am not a supporter of using anything on the stones that will speed up deterioration of the stone. They deteriorate fast enough without my help.

I think the only time a substance (shaving cream or chalk etc.) should EVER be used on a marker is when a relative asks you to do so to extract the information. Other wise hands off! Because if you damage it then you can be held responsible for the damage you might have caused. Not to mention many cemeteries prohibit the use of anything on the stones.  This can also includes doing rubbings of the marker. So check with the cemetery first before proceeding with anything invasive.

I believe older stones are pieces of art and should be left alone. Because once damaged they are gone forever. You wouldn't want to rub shaving cream or chalk on Michelangelo's David, would you?  Ok, so maybe some of you would but that would fall into a WHOLE different bizarre category and we can seek help for you later.

Adding substances to a stone can progress the deterioration process 10 fold. Great immediate results but destroys the possibilities down the line for others to discover the stone for themselves. Many products can cause scracthing others leave behind residues that progress the deterioration.  The old markers are so much more fragile than the newer granite ones. There are many alternate and non-invasive methods that can be used that will not mess the stone up in any way. For example foiling, use of a mirror and also computer digital altering programs.

Here are a few things I have found online about using substance on a stone and their effects:
Shaving Cream:

"Our professional conservators tell us it is definitely not a good idea to use shaving cream on porous gravestones because there are chemicals, greasy emollients, in shaving cream that are sticky and very difficult to remove from the stone with a simple washing. Indeed, even with vigorous scrubbing and lots of rinsing, the cream fills in the pores of a porous stone and cannot all be removed. The result of leaving it there is that in time it may discolor or damage the stone." This came from
"Shaving Cream also contains a chemical known as stearic acid (defined by as "a colorless, waxy solid that is almost insoluble in water") which will cause the surface of the stone to exfoliate, especially if that stone is either granite, marble or limestone. Granite is an igneous rock, and therefore highly susceptible to any type of chemical weathering. By putting shaving cream on the stone, you are doing the same thing acid rain does over a long period of time, only you are hastening the destruction. Marble and Limestone are highly reactive to acids, and will actually sublimate in the presence of hydrochloric acid. That means it will go from a solid to a vapor without a liquid stage, as it releases certain parts of its chemical structure. Further reason for not using shaving cream lies in the potential damage over a very long period of time, not just a few years. The chemicals in shaving cream will permeate into the microscopic pores of the stone and will not be readily washed out. These chemicals, which consist of soaps, mineral oil, fatty alcohols and other skin conditioners are all organic compounds which are biodegradable. Since they are biodegradable, they provide food for microscopic organisms, fungi, mosses, etc. The growth of such organisms in the pores of a stone causes expansive forces which will gradually cause microscopic particles of the stone to be flaked off. These enlarged microscopic pores can also collect moisture in wet freezing weather and the freezing action causes microscopic fractures of the stone because, as you know, water expands upon freezing. In other words, only completely chemically inert materials should ever contact a tombstone." From
"Many a novice (and many a not-so-novice, too) have reported amazing results using simple shaving cream on their illegible marker. Just rub it on around the lettering and scrub a little with a cloth towel, and the cream works almost list magic, they say. And, indeed, many "before" and "after" pictures are quite convincing. The problem, however, is long-term. The acidic, headstone-killing chemicals found in shaving cream, contrary to popular belief, are not as soluble as they appear. And, worse, they tend to work their way deep into the pores of a tombstone, weakening the piece over time. So, while the immediate affect of using shaving cream to save a marker may appear magical, over the long haul, the cream actually works significant damage -- even if one washes it entirely away after the cleaning. (The acid works its way very quickly into the headstone and, therefore, is difficult to remove even shortly after its application.)Some chemicals in shaving cream are much the same as those found in acid rain, which wreaks slow havoc to a grave marker over the course of decades. But, with a shaving cream application, the damage speeds up exponentially." From

"Crayola sidewalk chalk contains plaster of Paris which has a gritty texture. Plaster of Paris is not considered to be biodegradable, nor are most of the pigments contained in Crayola sidewalk chalk. Also, product packaging warns of colorants that may stain. This could be a good factor depending on the exact nature of what you are trying to do. While packaging does warn of colorants that may stain, chalk used outside generally washes away because of extreme weather conditions and excessive rain. Again, this could vary depending on the surface it is applied to." Chalk also may contain calcium sulfate hemihydrate, which hardens when moistened and allowed to dry. Many types of chalk, including Sidewalk chalk is much harder than regular chalk, and in fact will actually scratch a typical chalkboard. From

I personally HATE finding stones that have been chalked and it has rained and the chalk has run down the stone or possibly stained the stone.. Frankly, I very rarely will photograph a stone that has been chalked and it is still visible.  So PLEASE if you use something to enhance a stone please remove it when you are done. The loved ones of these people may not appreciate you doing this to them and may consider it vandalism.
Here are some examples of alternate non-invasive methods:

Mirror enhancements - this is simply the use of a reflective item (mirror or foil) to direct light onto the stone for better photographing.

Foiling enhancements:
one begins by simply placing a thin sheet of aluminum foil against the stone, or wrapping it around the stone. The cheaper and thinner foil works best for this method, as the heavier name brand varieties can be too thick to work with. Then with a lightweight brush, such as a clean makeup brush, you gently press the foil into the carvings of the stone. Remember, if securing the foil with tape, only tape foil to foil, never put tape on the actual stone.

This is strictly my opinion and I hope this sheds some light on my view of this topic. I am not here to judge you on your opinion because it is what it is.  I just hope maybe my examples of alternative methods may help to broaden the issue for you. And who knows may make things easier then having to lug tons of water with you when you go. :-)

Now sit back and absorb what you will and ignore what you don't care to.
Thanks for being part of this discussion. I look forward to reading what you have to say.


  1. I do NOT believe we should enhance headstones with anything other than water. I didn't always feel this way and have been guilty of chalking headstones, when I first began genealogy. I also had a cousin use shaving cream on the headstones of my GGG Grandparents. My GGG grandmother has 2 stones and both are almost illegible. The original stone, once it had shaving cream applied, revealed "daughter of..." and is the only proof to connection to the next generation. I am thankful for this valuable information but now cringe when I think of how we obtained it. Once I began to work in cemeteries photographing headstones for the purpose of preservation I found myself faced with the situation at hand - how I can call myself preserving it if I apply a material to it that will cause harm. So now I will use water and only water. It does help on a lot of them. For those it doesn't, I photograph them anyway.

  2. No enhancement. If water doesn't work, try enhancing the LIGHT shining on the stone. (mirror? I have used alum foil to reflect light onto difficult to read stones.) Or..Are you able to visit the cemetery at another time of day? Or another time of year? Check this findagrave memorial. I took the top photo two years after the 'enhanced' version. I don't think the stone had been restored; I think I was there at a different time of day, when the light was right.

  3. IF the stone has already deteriorated to the point that it cannot be really read, then it is less about preserving a chunk of stone and more about preserving the information and inscription. Shaving cream or whatever it takes, get a seriously good photo set of the marker and make it available so that all future researchers can find it. Sextons themselves should be proactive in this. Otherwise, a few years future when there is no inscription left to read (whether from rain or from shaving cream - or tornado, flood, or vandalism), there will be no record of this vital information - information that, when inscribed, was intended to be lasting. Get a good copy of the carving, the information - and don't worry so much about the piece of rock - again, IF it's already in seriously poor shape.

  4. My opinion is that you need to enhance it more so it will look more beautiful..

  5. First, let me say that a headstone is a record. All headstone deteriorate as a result of time and nature. If you want museum preservation, don't put the headstone in a graveyard. If you want a publicly accessible record of a beloved ancestor, one must tolerate "enhancements" as they are often the only way to read a gravestone. The only point of a gravestone is not for the benefit of the dead person, but for the living people who must read it for it to bring them any benefit.

    I disagree with the absolute prohibition of chalking, and note that some people have been irate with the use of whitewash on graves. Whitewash does fill lettering, but is a unique covering which is unlike paint in any context. Whitewashed stones must continue to be whitewashed in order to maintain their preservation, often times the whitewashing was done centuries before, but must be continued as whitewashing bonds to the surface of the stone and must be renewed to prevent that surface from being damage. Perhaps new whitewashing shouldn't be done, but what is done is done in this instance.
    Perhaps certain sidewalk chalks are too hard to be used on gravestone surfaces, but soft chalks are likely less abrasive than toothpaste and many cleaners. As for staining, it doesn't mean the stone is damaged. Actually in my line of thinking, chalk is alkaline and may protect from the natural acidity in rain.

    Shaving cream or flour probably are right to be recommended against, as they both likely contribute to microorganism growth (and lichens). I disagree with those that say lichens preserve stones, what the case actually is, is that removing them damages the stone further. That includes chemical removal, folks. To inhibit the growth should do no great harm, but I don't know of the methods used, so I can't comment on these practices.

    The care and preservation of stones is important, but those stones are there for a reason, to be read. If this cannot be done with any other method but enhancement, then enhancement should be done. A gravestone that cannot be read is nothing more that a stone marking an unknown. Respect each other, and be kind to other people. Best practices in life, such as respecting others and their right to know who their ancestors were, override overly exacting preservation attempts. Besides which, any new documentation created, creates another chance to preserve knowledge of our ancestors. Copy, and copy again... it worked to preserve the Bible, and will work to preserve our knowledge of our ancestors lives.

    1. YES! You are so right!! These stones are created to leave a LASTING memorial - a lasting memory, a record - of that person's time here in this life. If the inscription has deteriorated to the point that it cannot be read without enhancing, then it should be done and the record preserved in whatever means we have available. Today we have digital technology and a variety of venues in which to place the information so that, hopefully, the next generation will be able to find the information even if the stone is no longer legible at all. As you state: once the stone has deteriorated to that point, it is just another rock - no different than the myriad sand stones which frustrate us so much in older cemeteries.

      And as a former teacher, I don't know what kind of "sidewalk chalk" people are referring to which is "harder than the white chalk used on blackboards," but the chalk I used on my blackboards was much harder than the sidewalk chalk that I use today - which is so soft it rubs off on your hands. And apparently the formula has changed with the newer chalks because the rain (or a jug of water) washes the chalk away and there is no stain or residue left.

      I am extremely conscious of the importance of saving our cemeteries and the wealth of information they contain and I do not advocate marking any stone which can be read by any other means. But there are stones everywhere which have deteriorated beyond the point of being legible by other means and the information on them is just as important as that on stones which are new - perhaps more important for the fragility of the information they contain. If we do nothing to these stones, they will eventually deteriorate to where the information they contain is lost. Please let's not lose sight of what was intended by the people who originally put the stone there: to keep alive the memory of the ones who have gone before us. If chalking the stone is the only way to continue that memory, then we are obligated to do that and carry on where the stone carvers left off.