Out on a Limb: Grave Error

Out on a Limb: Grave Error

Don't shave years off a tombstone's life.

It’s inevitable. Every time we publish an article about cemeteries in Family Tree Magazine, a well-intentioned reader sends us a letter to extol the virtues of shaving cream as a tombstone cleaner.

The latest note came in response to our February 2006 All in the Family prompt. Along with a bevy of gut-busting gravestone photos, we received the following clipping from the Shenandoah Valley, Va., Daily News Record:

How to Groom Stones

Bridgewater Finds Shaving Cream’s Perfect for Grave Markers

BRIDGEWATER — Shaving cream! Be nice and clean! Shave every day and you’ll always look keen.

As the old song goes, shaving cream does wonders for your face. But did you know it also works on tombstones?

Bridgewater recently started using shaving cream as a cleaning solvent in the town cemetery. It’s easy and it’s inexpensive — and it works.

The article goes on to describe the “dramatic results that can be achieved with an ordinary can of Barbasol or Edge.” It also quotes public officials who sanctioned the volunteer cleaning campaign.

Normally, I’d be tickled to see such a feel-good example of local government and concerned citizens uniting for a history-related cause. Every time I get one of the inevitable. shaving cream letters, though, I can’t help but cringe.

The problem? Preservation gurus agree that the acids and chemicals in shaving cream hasten gravestones’ deterioration. So these well-meaning folks’ efforts ultimately could be more harmful than helpful.

This might come as a shock to Bridge-water — and maybe it surprises you, too. After all, conflicting information abounds about the safety of shaving cream. For every cautionary article or Web site, another encourages genealogists to lather up. And emotions surrounding the issue run high: Reading Web pages and message boards, I discovered many heated comments — even slurs and insults. Turns out people feel strongly about their right to bear Barbasol.

So I may be advocating an unpopular view in reiterating this magazine’s stance on shaving cream: Don’t use it on gravestones.

The cardinal rule of preservation is to do nothing harmful or irreversible. But according to the Association of Gravestone Studies <gravestonestudies.org>, shaving-cream chemicals never fully wash away. Further, as explained in Saving Graves’ article “Shaving Cream: Right or Wrong?” <savinggraves.org/education/print/shavingcream.htm>, those lingering soaps, mineral oils, and fatty alcohols feed “microscopic organisms, fungi, mosses, etc. The growth of such organisms … causes expansive forces [that] 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.”

It’s true, as shaving-cream supporters argue, that damage won’t happen for many years — and that simply being outdoors also puts tombstones in danger. We understand genealogists’ motivations for using shaving cream. But you wouldn’t bleach an old deed book to “restore” its original appearance. So why not treat tombstones the same way? Prevent deterioration by using the safer alternatives described at Saving Graves.

Tombstones are historical artifacts. Whether those markers memorialize your ancestors or someone else’s, future generations have just as much a right to enjoy them as you do. Don’t risk depriving tomorrow’s family historians of the opportunity.

From the June 2006 issue of Family Tree Magazine.