A gravestone-cleaning service is not something that occurs to most people when they’re thinking about starting a business, but it’s a viable service for which people are willing to pay, and startup costs are minimal. If you’re reliable, have a decent-looking vehicle and can be sensitive to people who are dealing with loss, then a gravestone-cleaning service might be the business for you.
Obviously, your business has to be mobile. If you have a nice, conservative-looking van or SUV, that's great. If you’re going to use your car or a pickup truck, that’s fine too. Just make sure that whatever you’re driving is clean and looks good.
Significant body damage, rust and oxidized paint will present a sloppy and fly-by-night image. Assuming you have a suitable vehicle, a gravestone-cleaning service is a very low-cost business to start.
Vistaprint charges $15 for 100 business cards. You can get them even cheaper, but be careful. You don’t want them to be flimsy so that they look and feel cheap. Everything about this kind of business must have a dignified, professional image.
Non-scratch sponges are the kind you would use for nonstick cookware. “Stay clean” sponges are even better, but they’re more expensive — about $13 for a dozen on Amazon. Food doesn’t stick to these sponges, so debris doesn’t either, which means you won’t drag dirt or grit across the surface of the stone when you're cleaning it.
Look for soft-surface brushes at horse tack stores. Brushes used for horse faces are very soft and are usually suitable for dusting off headstones. They're inexpensive too. You can buy a couple for around $20.
Soft paint brushes are the kind of brushes you get at an artist supply shop for $25 to $100 a set. You'll use them to get into small and narrow carved areas. Don’t use brushes with plastic bristles. The extra cost for good brushes will be a lot less than replacing a headstone that you’ve damaged.
You’ll initially need to spend $25 to $50 for these products at a hardware store or online. Do not use any products that require rinsing off with water unless you want to carry gallons of water around with you. Bear in mind that using green products is important to a lot of people.
Buy rags in bulk at an auto supply store or online for $15 to $20. Get the ones that are used to remove wax from cars. If you want to spring for pricey chamois cloths for buffing marble, do it after you have earned some income.
You can’t go around cleaning people’s graves in anything faded or with holes. If you don't have some nice T-shirts and new-looking jeans, then get some. T-shirts should be plain with no printing or logos unless they’re your own.
Shorts should never be worn unless you’re working in a climate that will give you heat stroke if you’re in long pants. Clean socks and new-looking athletic shoes in a subdued color will complete your hard-working, conservative and professional look. Never wear sandals or flip flops.
The cost of permits and licenses varies from state to state, county to county and city to city. Contact your state’s department of revenue or local chamber of commerce. They’ll point you in the right direction. At a total cost of $240 to $320 plus any required licenses or permits, that’s one bargain of a business startup.
Certain steps for starting a headstone-cleaning business are the same as starting any small business:
- Do market research.
- Prepare a business plan.
- Choose a name for your business and decide how you’re going to brand it.
- Get federal and state tax identification numbers.
- Decide on how your business will be structured. Organizing as an LLC is probably the way to go.
- Open a business bank account and purchase your tools and supplies.
- Register your business and obtain any necessary licenses or permits.
Both branding and advertising should be tasteful, dignified, low key and straightforward. It should take the sensitive nature of your work into consideration. Don't use crazy logos, bright colors or witty mottos. You want to exude trustworthiness and loyalty.
If your vehicle is in good shape, consider low-key advertising on the back of it. Advertising on the sides isn't viewed nearly as often as advertising on the back of a vehicle. In addition to raising awareness about your services as you drive around, you'll be doing some very targeted advertising when you’re parked in a cemetery working. If your vehicle is in poor shape, do not put any advertising on it and park it away from where you’re working until your business takes off and you can afford something better.
Another thing to consider after you have a steady income flow is having brochures that explain your services. These can be left with cemetery managers in addition to some of your business cards. Be sure to include before-and-after photos of a couple of graves with the names of the deceased blurred to protect their identity.
A website is not negotiable, and don’t skimp on its design because it has to reflect your branding and above all not appear tacky. You may not be able to afford a website right away. Make it your first big purchase after you’ve gotten your business going and growing.
Your website should list your fees and, like your brochures, include before-and-after photos. You might even include a short video of yourself carefully and gently cleaning a grave. Testimonials are also a nice touch.
A website will help people find you, especially if they don’t live in the area. The content and design should be calming, caring and reassuring.
Do make connections with cemetery managers and gravestone manufacturers. Ask them if they’d be willing to keep your business cards on their desk or in their reception area. Some cemeteries might have their own grave-cleaning service or might already work with someone in the business. In these cases, hand them a card anyway and tell them you’d appreciate their keeping it if they ever need backup.
Do not network at funeral homes and crematoriums. This may seem like a logical thing to do, but it’s not a good idea. People making final arrangements for their recently deceased loved one are in no frame of mind to be sold a service that further reminds them about the finality of their loss. Any good funeral home knows that approaching people at this stage may cause them more pain.
Do not leave your business cards or brochures at gravesites. This is insensitive and could alienate cemetery management as well as potential customers.
To determine what you should charge, look at the websites of other gravesite-cleaning services in your area. Most offer packages of monthly or seasonal cleaning.
Consider offering related services like complete gravesite cleaning. Some cemeteries are not particularly careful about how they mow their lawns. When they mow, they often miss the grass that’s growing at the edges of headstones. Leaves and other debris can obscure the headstone and damage any momentos that family and friends may have left.
Offer to text a photo of your work to the person paying the bill whenever you finish a job. Some people may decline this offer, but others will appreciate it, especially if they don’t live in the area. It will reassure them that you’re doing your job. It may also give them some comfort to see how nice the gravesite looks.
One thing you’ll learn very quickly in this kind of business is that patience and kindness are key. Some people who have lost someone dear to them like to talk. She may want to tell you about her loved one. She may even want to tell you how he died.
When this happens, just listen. Do not interrupt. Do not walk away. Do not avoid eye contact.
Listen, nod and occasionally say that you’re very sorry for her loss. Do not say things like, “He’s in a better place now” or “God must have needed him more than you did.” You probably don’t know her religious beliefs, and even if you do, she's not looking for answers. She just needs someone to listen to her.