Tombstone Rubbings, A Fun Way to Keep Records

by Bob Brooke

Tombstone rubbings can be a great way to collect genealogical information. And the process can be fun for the entire family.

Rubbings can preserve old tombstones, especially very early ones which may crack and break apart or erode over time. They can also be good examples of old calligraphy, showing how letters and numbers were written in centuries past. A rubbing can show how a surname has changed during a person's lifetime. It can also show exactly where he or she was born.

Some show more than the deceased's name, birth and death dates. The more creative ones tell the story of how the person died. And very old ones always included an image of the "Angel of Death" on top.

At family reunions, rubbings can create interest and conversation with family members who aren't normally interested in family history.

The materials needed can be as simple as a child's wax crayon and some newsprint paper to specially made rubbing waxes and fine rice paper. In fact, rubbings are a form of printmaking. In the process of rubbing ancestral stones, other stones may beg to rubbed, their images preserved and framed for decoration.

Generally, though, tombstone rubbings require the following: a soft-bristled brush, masking tape, a pair of scissors, white paper, and rubbing wax or black crayon. The paper can be white Kraft paper or newsprint on a roll or rice paper from an art or craft store or pellom, non-woven interfacing obtainable from fabric stores. And don't forget something to kneel or sit on.

Tombstone Rubbing Wax, a hard wax with a high melting point that makes a good even impression and maintains the texture of the surface being rubbed. It comes in five colors and black. A Quarter pound cake costs about $4. Aqaba Rubbing Paper, a special medium-weight paper especially good for rubbings under damp conditions, sells for about $1 per 24"x36" sheet or $90 per 100-sheet pack.. Also comes on rolls. Order on the Internet from The Memorabilia Corner(

To make a good rubbing, clean the stone with an old brush. Remove bird droppings, dirt, moss, lichen, etc. from the stone. This will insure a clear and sharp image. Be careful not to damage the stone when cleaning it. Stones from the 17th century, in particular, are particularly susceptible to damage.

Tape the paper squarely and securely to the stone. Use plenty of tape to make sure the paper doesn't slip while rubbing, as this will cause a blurred or double-image effect. Make sure that the paper covers the stone entirely so that you won't get marks on it.

Start on the outer edges. Block in the basic design of the rubbing, using a broad flat edge of the rubbing wax or crayon. A young child's large, fat crayon will work well if rubbing wax is unavailable. Darken in the design, filling it in until the desired color and richness is achieved. Some people like very dark rubbings, while others like lightly colored ones. It's a matter of personal preference.

When the rubbing is finished, carefully remove the tape from the paper, being careful not to tear the edges of the paper.

Rubbings don't have to be just black and white. A 1/4" x 1" stick of white chalk can be used on black paper for a striking rubbing. This will need to be sprayed with cheap hairspray to prevent the chalk from smearing. Colored or metallic crayons can also be used on various colors of paper, making the rubbing a truly decorative work of art.

Remember, many cemeteries are private property. Be sure and ask before starting to rub tombstones. Don't rub at night. With the incidence of cemetery vandalism on the rise, rubbing tombstones may be mistaken by local law officials. Trespassing fines can be steep. Bail isn't cheap, either. Many cemetery caretakers don't understand what rubbing is or have ever heard of it. When rubbing a tombstone, it should be treated as if it belonged to the rubber's family. Somebody loves these people and old tombstones can be delicate.

After making a rubbing, make sure to clean off all marks accidentally left on tombstones. And dispose of all trash made during the rubbing.

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