Making headstone rubbings is a great way to preserve a bit of history. Wax rubbings can reveal design elements and text not quite discernible through our vision alone. It’s also appropriate, on occasion, to maybe reflect quietly a bit on our own mortality, feel the earth beneath our feet, and say hello to those that have passed before us.

stock photography by redwolf518stock @ DA

Personally, I do feel like this is a solo project, but I remember doing this a few times as a guided activity in elementary school (there was a cemetery immediately next door to our playing field). I actually recall quite a number of cemetery field trips. In retrospect, I suppose that’s just a little bit strange. I wonder if they do things like that anymore. Perhaps not. There was also a dilapidated wooden stage on our playground that we were allowed to play on and crawl under. I digress. My childhood was idyllic, really.

First things first, be respectful.

  • Check to see if it’s okay for you to take a gravestone rubbing in your local cemetery, especially if the site is a historical one. Some older stones may be too fragile to stand up to the process. If you are uncertain about a particular stone, ask first.
  • In “active” cemeteries, be considerate of any funerals taking place. It may be more appropriate to return to the site on another day.
  • Pay attention to all posted signs and follow them. Do not trespass after hours. Don’t be a creep.

Basic supplies:

  • large sheet(s) of paper
  • scissors
  • masking tape or poster tack
  • soft brush and/or rag
  • wax discs or sturdy crayons (check out Oldstone wax)
  • rubber bands or a poster tube to transport completed rubbings

You want paper that is flexible, but sturdy enough not to tear. Printmaking paper works well. Other guides (like this one from Ancestry Graphics and Printing) suggest using medium-weight interfacing, which I imagine works really well, too! Try whatever you like!

When choosing a stone, look for well defined patterns and text. Carefully clean the surface of your chosen stone. While removing surface dirt, twigs, etc. with a rag or brush is probably safe to do, removing moss and lichen from older stones could potentially damage the stone’s integrity. If you notice any decay, erosion, or breakage, do not attempt to clean the stone. Some people carry spray bottles of water. Use your best judgement, and always err on the side of caution. Don’t use any chemicals or soaps to clean the stone.

Lay your paper across the surface of the stone and gently secure it in place with masking tape or poster tack. Your paper should be large enough to tuck around the back of the stone, and secure it from there. You may want to cut the paper to size. Make sure that your adhesive will not damage the stone on removal. Avoid taping on crumbling spots and cracks.

Once your paper is secure, start your rubbing from the outside edges of the stone to the center. Use even pressure.

Carefully remove your rubbing from the stone and secure it for transport. Make sure you don’t leave any scraps of paper or bits of tape behind.

stock photography by redwolf518stock @ DA

I know I’ve linked to it previously, but I absolutely love this great graphic guide to cemetery symbolism from Atlas Obscura!

Fellow Maine residents should check out the Maine Old Cemetery Association.

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