PRO Team Field Notes: Rubbed the Wrong Way – The Negative Effects of Gravestone Rubbing

By Ashley Shares, Preservation Manager

When I was a child my grandmother and parents used to take me to cemeteries. Not just where my grandfather was buried, but also to burial grounds with no connection to my family. As a little girl the epitaphs, iconography, and different text styles delighted me. I calculated how long people lived, imagined the historic events they experienced, and drew conclusions about familial connections. Imagine my frustration when some stones were too faint to read! The culprit: gravestone rubbing.

Headstone rubbing is banned in many historic cemeteries, including Oakland Cemetery. Image courtesy Peterson AFB

Armed with thin tracing paper and a red crayon, I set out to discover the mysteries that the oldest headstones in Chicago’s Resurrection Cemetery held. This cemetery was one of my favorites growing up, thanks in part to the legend of “Resurrection Mary,” a hitchhiking ghost said to haunt the cemetery and nearby Willowbrook Ballroom. After an afternoon of earnest and hard rubbing, none of my attempts yielded particularly legible words or pictures and I grew quickly bored, as most children would.

Resurrection Cemetery opened in 1904, so there were no stones of considerable ago or fragility. If there had been, my rough work may have resulted in disaster. See, this seemingly innocuous activity beloved by so many children and adults alike can damage headstones. That’s why it is banned at many cemeteries, including Historic Oakland Cemetery.

For example, according to New Hampshire state law:

No person shall make gravestone rubbings in any municipal cemetery or burial ground without first obtaining the written permission of the town selectmen or the mayor of a city or designee. Before granting such permission, the selectmen or mayor will ascertain to the best of their ability that the person making the request knows the proper precautions to be taken and the proper materials to be used for this activity. The town selectmen or city mayor or their designee shall notify the cemetery trustees of the request and its disposition. Any person who violates the provisions of this section shall be guilty of a misdemeanor.

What makes rubbing dangerous to gravestones? Depending on the material, gravestones deteriorate in different ways. Slate divides in thin sheets, while marble “sugars” or disintegrates. Applying mechanical pressure in the way that rubbing does can exacerbate these issues and result in a loss of historic material. Furthermore, if a stone is unstable, even a small amount of pressure can knock it over and possibly break it.

Slates in various states of delamination. Photo courtesy National Center for Preservation Technology and Training.

Another potential pitfall with rubbing is damage from the writing utensil. If the utensil goes through the paper it can at worst scratch the surface and at least discolor it. Crayon wax especially can cause staining that is difficult to remove.

So, is there a safe way to do a rubbing? If care is taken to choose a stone that is sound and only gentle rubbing with a blunt implement is employed, rubbing is harmless. However, often it can be difficult for cemetery visitors to properly judge what “sound” stones look like. Therefore, as a whole, rubbing is not allowed at Oakland.

How can someone read an illegible headstone without doing a rubbing?

Raking Light: Gravestone letters are most easily read on a clear and bright day, when the sun is nearly above the stone. The light is coming from and oblique angle, making shadows deepen. This can be recreated using a mirror if the sun is lower or the stone is turned away from the sun. A flashlight can also be used on cloudy days.

Proper headstone cleaning can help legibility.

Cleaning: Properly cleaning a headstone makes it easier to read by removing growth and staining that obscure the writing. Of course, care must be taken to ensure the stone is a safe candidate for cleaning and that proper cleaner and brushes are used.

Computational Photography: A new field of technology is in development so previously illegible artifacts can be read and deciphered by using different lighting, multiple angles, and “corrected color imagery” photography. To read more about these new techniques, check out Cultural Heritage Imaging.