3 Methods for Reading Hard-to-Read Tombstones

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The grave markers and headstones that populate old cemeteries are often of great interest to a variety of people.

From family genealogy buffs to local historians, being able to read the information on older headstones is important to understanding the past and linking those who lived to the present.

Over time, however, the natural elements cause tombstones to become dirty and worn, with many eventually growing unreadable because the wear and tear is so bad.

If you’ve visited a cemetery in search of a specific headstone, only to find it impossible to read, you know the frustration. But it doesn’t have to be that way!

Here are 3 gentle, safe things you can do to make hard-to-read grave markers more legible:


Sometimes, the problem isn’t that a stone is worn away; it’s simply very dirty.

If you observe any signs of wear or damage, such as chipping or flaking, do not use any sort of brush or scrubbing force to clean the stone. This can make it deteriorate further.

Instead, first saturate the stone with clean water. A spray pump such as what’s used to distribute weed killer on your lawn, is best for this task because it’s quick and won’t reintroduce dirty water onto the stone. Just be sure that the pump you use is new and hasn’t been used for chemicals before.

Follow up with a very soft-bristled brush – nothing made of wire or metal – and some gentle dish soap diluted in water. Gently rub in a circular motion to dislodge any grime or growth. Don’t scrub vigorously, and have a variety of sizes of soft-bristled brushes available. Toothbrushes are great for the grooves inside letters, while a larger brush will make quicker work of large, flat areas.

Finish with a thorough rinse with clean water.

Aluminum Foil

This method sounds strange, but it works surprisingly well.

Place a sheet of thin aluminum foil over the area you want to reveal, or wrap the stone in aluminum foil. The thinner and cheaper the foil, the better, as the thicker brands are more difficult to work with and don’t get in the grooves as easily.

If you need to tape the foil to secure it, only tape foil to foil; don’t try to tape the foil to the stone itself.

Gently go over the foil with a soft brush, such as a clean makeup brush, pushing only slightly into grooves.

When you remove the foil, you should see the etching stand out on the foil.


Occasionally, poor lighting makes headstones difficult to read.

In this case, come prepared with a small mirror, such as a compact mirror. Aim the sunlight onto the stone at such an angle that creates shadows of the letters, allowing you to read the stone.

This method is especially good for those overcast, cold winter days.

Quality Grave Markers in Maryland

For more than 85 years, Merkle Monuments has offered high-quality, affordable gravestones to families throughout the state of Maryland. Our skilled artisans can help you choose the individualized stone you feel best suits your loved one, whether that be choosing from our large library of stock carvings or designing a custom etching.

We also offer a wide variety of other memorial items such as urns, vases, and benches. Visit our online product listing or contact us today to discuss your needs.