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.
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 As with historical documents, tombstones are artifacts that must be treated with respect and care.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 heavy-weight type that is non-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.
Make a Rubbing in Six Steps
Pictures by Susan Rust
Step 1: Locate the grave. Pictured is the grave of Hettie Sarah Meyers (1893-1973), Simla Cemetery, Simla, Colo.
Step 2: Cut off a piece of interfacing a bit larger than the stone you want to rub. Either masking tape the interfacing to the back of the stone or have a companion hold the fabric tightly around the stone.
Step 3: Rub the side of the crayon (not the tip) or special rubbing wax over the fabric and watch the image appear.
Step 4: If the fabric shifts, the image will be distorted, so it’s important to keep the material taut.
Step 5: You can use jumbo crayons with the paper peeled off.
Step 6: Your tombstone rubbing will be an exact replica of the stone. At home, iron (with a towel on top) to set the crayon or wax into the fabric. Your rubbing is now a family artifact and suitable for framing.