Space restrictions have caused an increasing number of cemeteries and memorial parks to outlaw raised monuments, so flat bronze plaques are a becoming an increasingly popular alternative. The simple elegance and beauty of bronze grave markers make them a timeless choice for honoring your deceased loved ones. However, bronze is composed primarily of copper, which -- with exposure to air over time -- will inevitably develop a green cast or patina. This is natural, and can add to the marker's beauty. If it interferes with your ability to read the writing on your marker, however, you may want to remove it.
Remove surface dirt and debris from the grave marker, first by sweeping the surface with a broom or brush, and then rinsing it clean with water. If you can, use filtered, distilled, or bottled water to avoid depositing chemicals (particularly calcium) found in your local water supply onto the bronze.
Apply a small amount of non-ionic soap to the area you wish to clean. Using a soft cloth, begin in a remote section of the grave marker, like a corner. This way, you can learn the proper amount of pressure you will need to use and ensure that you are not taking off more of the patina than you'd like or damaging the bronze by overvigorous rubbing. If you want a completely shiny look, keep rubbing! This process will take a lot of elbow grease and patience.
Switch to a scrub brush, if your initial rubbing efforts are having little effect. Again, test first on a corner, and stop if you notice scratches. A toothbrush or other small, firm-bristle brush comes in handy for cleaning around lettering, figures or other raised areas. Don't worry about being too precise: your main goal should be to read the lettering and have the marker look good, not restore it to a like-new condition.
Rinse and dry each area as you finish cleaning to check your progress. It is important not to let soap dry on the marker, because it will be harder to remove. Keep cleaning and polishing small areas at a time.
Avoid household cleaners of any type, even those designated for bronze or brass cleaning. Likewise, shaving cream is not a good option (even though much advice on the Internet suggests its use). Monument companies such as memorials.com advise not to worry about the "natural darkening of bronze" that comes with age. They also caution that the application of chemical cleaners or shaving cream (which contains acidic chemicals) with the intention of polishing the bronze "will only weaken the bronze and assure that it has difficulty standing up to the elements." Learn to appreciate the look of bronze as it weathers and ages.
If you're dissatisfied with your efforts, or don't want to apply the time and effort that a good cleaning job entails, hire a professional. Ask the cemetery personnel if they can recommend any particular cleaning company, or contact the company that made your marker. The brass can be refinished, but this is generally an expensive option, and, as monument artist Roy Dixon states, "You can only refinish bronze so many times...if you don't like green bronze, then you better buy granite.''
To protect your bronze grave marker against environmental dirt or acids in the atmosphere, some companies that make bronze markers (for example, everlifememorials.com) suggest using a wax specially designed for bronze plaque patina -- which is available at craft, hobby or general home improvement stores. They recommend applying the wax liberally to the bronze, allowing it to dry, and then wiping off and buffing with a clean, soft cloth.
- Incorrect cleaning can cause serious and irreversible damage to bronze grave markers (or any type of gravestone). Never use wire brushes, abrasive pads or power sprayers. Never use household cleaners or shaving cream.
Items you will need
- water (preferably filtered, distilled, or bottled)
- non-ionic soap
- soft rags or cloths
- scrub brush
- toothbrush or other hard, small bristle brush
- "A Graveyard Preservation Primer"; Lynette Strangstad; 1988
- Memorials.com; Cleaning and Preservation of Tombstones & Monuments
- Bronze Grave Markers; Cleaning Bronze Grave Markers; 2010
- Association for Gravestone Studies; "Tools and Materials for Gravestone Cleaning Project"; Fannin Lehner Preservation Consultants; 2005
- Everlife Memorials; Classic Memorials; Caring for Bronze Plaques
- MyMonumentCare.com; Cleaning Your Monuments, Headstones, Gravestones, Tombstones and Grave Markers; Roy Dixon
- John Foxx/Stockbyte/Getty Images