Like your research trip to the library or courthouse, you need to be prepared for an expedition to the cemetery. I have a separate tote bag with my “cemetery tools” just for such excursions; in case I need to make an emergency trip to the graveyard, I’m ready to go. Here are the items you’ll want to take along:
– notebook and pens or pencils (always copy down the inscription, even though you may take a photograph or make a rubbing)
– carpenter’s apron (these have multiple pockets in which to put some of your equipment as you move from tombstone to tombstone)
– gardener’s knee pads (you’ll be getting down and dirty to clear away overgrown weeds and grass that hamper reading or photographing the inscription)
– garden shears (to trim away the weeds and grass)
– whisk broom (to remove the trimmed weeds and grass and some of the dirt from the base of the stone)
– moist towelettes
– bug repellent (Deep Woods Off is the cologne of true genealogists)
Tombstone rubbing step by step
Remember when you were in kindergarten, and you put a leaf or penny under a piece of paper, then rubbed the crayon on top of the paper? An image of the leaf or penny magically appeared on the sheet. That’s exactly the idea with a tombstone rubbing.
Before you try it, though, a word of caution. You must be able to distinguish between a stable and unstable grave marker before you attempt to make a rubbing or even to gently clean away debris. When in doubt, don’t. And it’s best to get permission before doing a rubbing. In some states, such as Massachusetts, it’s illegal. As with historical documents, tombstones are artifacts that must be treated with respect and care.
Here’s what you’ll need to get a good impression from your tombstone finds:
• rubbing wax or jumbo crayons
• masking tape or a partner to hold the material in place
• non-fusible, medium to heavy-weight interfacing (Pellon is one brand name)
Many people use large sheets of butcher paper to make rubbings. Kathleen Hinckley, a professional genealogist and author of Locating Lost Family Members & Friends (Betterway Books), told me she uses interfacing fabric, and this works much better than paper. If you’re traveling, paper is harder to manage, and it tears and creases. Interfacing can be folded in your suitcase, it doesn’t tear, and you can iron it when you get home.
Interfacing is inexpensive (about $1.25 a yard) and may be purchased at any fabric store (it’s the stuff seamstresses use to make collars stiff). I use the medium- to heavyweight type that is now-fusible. Buy interfacing in bulk, about 10 yards at a time, to keep in your cemetery tote bag.
If you take anyone with you to the cemetery, especially kids, they’ll want to try making a rubbing, too, because it’s so much fun. But please make sure they don’t get any crayon or wax on the tombstone. Always supervise children in a cemetery.
When you get the rubbing home, put it face up with an old towel over it on the ironing board. With a hot iron, press down on the towel rather than using a back-and-forth motion. This will heat the rubbing beneath it and set the crayon or wax into the fabric. Always put a towel between the rubbing and your iron. Never put the rubbing face down on the ironing board cover and melt it with the iron that way. (My husband didn’t appreciate having a winged death’s head melted into the back of his dress shirt.)
Tombstone rubbings make great gifts for family members and can be displayed in your home. We hung Lizzie Borden’s framed tombstone rubbing in our living room along with her portrait. It’s quite a conversation piece.