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How To Do Tombstone Rubbings: Discovering Art, Architecture, and History In Your Local Cemetery

Updated on February 27, 2015

Preserving Cemetery Art

Generally, when we visit a cemetery, it's for the worst of reasons, the loss of a loved one. Your grief generally blinds you to your surroundings and you scarcely have the presence of mind to pay attention to anything around you. However, cemeteries can actually be quite beautiful and peaceful places and among the everyday headstones and markers, there may be pieces of sculpture that are very interesting architectually and are works of art in themselves. Particularly in older cemeteries, tombstones may have intricate or unusual carvings and fascinating epitaphs. An interesting and unique way to preserve cemetery art is to do tombstone rubbings. That way you can preserve the art in another form you can take with you and keep forever. Many people take their tombstone rubbings and create their own works of art from them!


What Are Tombstone Rubbings?

Everyone probably remembers in elementary school taking leaves and placing them under their paper, rubbing over the paper with the side of a crayon or chalk, and having the beautiful vein work of the leaf transfer through to the paper. Tombstone rubbings use very much the same concept. Although some people use regular paper, the best paper to use is not really paper at all, but interfacing, a type of fabric used in sewing to reinforce the inside of garments. It can come in several weights and thicknesses, but for tombstone rubbing, the best weight to use is medium to heavyweight, so it will be easier to work with and not tear. It's very inexpensive and usually comes on a cardboard bolt. If you buy it, it's easier to transport if you take it off the bolt and roll it into a tube instead. Some people use chalk, others use large wax crayons (again, back to elementary school!) as their transfer medium. Remember, if you use chalk, it can be messy and smeary, so you may have to use some form of fixative when you're finished. The best fixative I've found is hair spray, the cheapest kind you can find. There is also specially made-for-the-purpose tombstone rubbing wax which comes in various colors, which is much less messy than chalk.


Preparing To Do A Tombstone Rubbing

Before you go busting into your local cemetery, paper and wax crayons in hand, ready to do a tombstone rubbing, there are certain things you need to consider. First, does your area even allow tombstone rubbings? Some states don't, due to the overzealous work of inexperienced people who have caused damage to stones in the past. Remember, you are handling a piece of history, so you need to treat it as such. This was someone's father, mother, or child, so keep that in mind. You are truly handling something sacred, a commemoration of a life. Individual cemeteries may not allow rubbings, even if your state does, so check with the caretakers first.

Second, once you have permission, you need appropriate equipment besides your paper and wax crayons. If you don't have a willing and able helper to hold the paper against the stone while you rub, you will need tape to attach the paper around the back of the stone to hold it firmly as you rub so it won't shift and ruin your beautiful artwork. You will also need a soft bristle brush to remove loose dirt from the stone and a small spray bottle of water and some soft cloths.

Choosing Your Stone

Once you've gotten permission to do rubbings, walk through the cemetery to choose your tombstone. The caretakers may be able to direct you to the older parts of the cemetery or to areas with the most interesting architecture and sculpture. When you come upon a stone you like, make sure it's stable enough for you to put pressure on so it won't topple over and it's in good enough shape not to crumble. Also, check by running your hand across it to make sure there is enough depth to the carving to make a good rubbing. Some carvings on older stones have been worn away so much they are practically smooth.

Use your soft brush to whisk away loose dirt that may interfere with your rubbing. This is dirty work, so make sure you're wearing old clothes. Some people prefer to wear surgical gloves to keep their hands clean. Starting from the bottom of the stone, use your spray bottle of water and soft cloth to clean it, being very careful on older stones not to exert too much pressure. If you get to a stubborn spot with lichen or other hardened materials, don't exert too much pressure. You don't want the stone crumbling or toppling over.

Beginning Your Rubbing

Once you have your stone clean and free of loose dirt, tape your tracing fabric around to the back of the stone. You want to bring the fabric to the back to insure you make no marks with your wax crayons or chalk. Start at the outer edges of the tombstone and begin rubbing. Adjust your pressure on the chalk or crayon depending how dark you want it to be. You can even change colors to highlight certain parts of the stone, if you like. Work your way inward until you have rubbed over the entire stone. Very carefully, unfasten the tape from the stone. if you used chalk, spray it with your fixative immediately away from the stone. Last check the stone to insure you left no stray marks, tape, or other debris. You want to leave the space the way you found it or better.

Your rubbing is complete! You now have an amazing piece of history that you can take away with you and may last even beyond the life of the tombstone itself, if you take care of it. Many people frame their rubbing, particularly if it's a one that's very old or perhaps belonging to a famous person or a cherished family member. Tombstone rubbings can make very unique and beautiful art work and it can be an interesting hobby for people interested in history or genealogy. Even children can be taught to do them, so it can evolve into a hobby for the entire family. Tombstone rubbings are an unusual and fun way to preserve history.



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    • DIYweddingplanner profile imageAUTHOR


      3 years ago from South Carolina, USA

      Wow, pirate graves! I'd love to see those! Some of the cemeteries here are very protective of their headstones and have strict rules about allowing rubbings due to the age and condition of some of the headstones. I would always ask.

    • FatBoyThin profile image

      Colin Garrow 

      3 years ago from Kinneff, Scotland

      We have some old pirate graves near where we live, though the inscriptions are pretty faded. As far as I know, there aren't any restrictions on taking rubbings, though to be honest, it would never have occurred to me to ask! Interesting Hub. Voted up.

    • DIYweddingplanner profile imageAUTHOR


      7 years ago from South Carolina, USA

      Hi Hypno, kind of funny that we both wrote about death at the same time! Interesting about the brass plaques, haven't seen that. I love looking at the statues, particularly the angel ones.

    • CMHypno profile image


      7 years ago from Other Side of the Sun

      Hi DIY, interesting hub on tombstone rubbing. It does seem that we are all fascinated by death and graveyards. Over here in the UK, you can also do brass rubbings, as in centuries gone by the more affluent would have brass plaques attached to there tombs or hung up in churches


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