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From the Ancestry Daily News
  Michael John Neill – 8/2/2000
Family Tree Maker

We Rub Stones

Note: pictures of the stones and rubbings discussed this week can be viewed at:

My family and I created several tombstone rubbings in what started out as a part of a 4H project. One of the adults involved got a little carried away. (And no genealogical genies came popping out to grant us three wishes.) Our cemetery work was not limited to creating rubbings. We also took pictures of a large number of tombstones using a digital camera. This combination of approaches worked particularly well.

Our experiences with tombstone rubbings were mixed. This was partially because we did not have years of rubbing experience under our belts. The comments and suggestions discussed here are based on our experience at several cemeteries in Iowa and Illinois involving various types of stones ranging in age from one hundred and thirty years to twenty years. I encourage readers to do several things before making any tombstone rubbings at ancestral cemeteries:

1) Read last week's article and keep in mind the suggestions and warnings discussed.
2) Visit the websites listed at the end of this week's article for additional suggestions.
3) Practice with local stones.
4) Remember that rubbings are not the only way to preserve the information that is on the stone.

The consensus we arrived at was that one particular rubbing technique does not work equally well on all stones. The stones that were a part of my daughter's project were all set within the last fifty years and were chosen because they were on secure mountings and could easily be rubbed with crayons (not nearly as messy as charcoal). The stones my wife and I rubbed were older, including one from the 1870s and one from the 1890s.

Modern Stones
Modern stones, especially those with inscriptions cut into the stones (as opposed to a raised inscription), are the easiest ones from which good rubbings can be obtained. While creating rubbings of modern stones is an excellent way to preserve the information on the stone or even make a nice wall hanging, the rubbing is not typically necessary to read the stone initially. Unwrapped crayons worked particularly well on stones of this era. More recent stones are good for the novice (or children) to use as practice. Parents, though, should always check a stone's mountings to make certain the stone is securely in place before letting any child create a rubbing. They must also be careful not to let children wonder alone through any cemetery. The rubbings my daughter created were all done under supervision and only after a parent had made certain the stone was not going to topple.

Stones Initially Put in the Ground
The majority of the more recent stones we rubbed were "above ground" stones and presented no major rubbing difficulties. However, there were two stones in our project that were "in ground" stones with raised inscriptions. Rubbings made from these stones were slightly more difficult to make with crayon given the nature of the inscription. We found that crayon did not work as well with raised inscriptions, so we used charcoal (or another soft media) on stones of this type.

What We Forgot
A ladder. We were unable to create a rubbing of the inscription at a mausoleum in Rock Island, Illinois. I had forgotten they were entombed on the highest row—a row I could not even reach with my fingertips, let alone rub. However, we were able to get a picture with no problem—another great reason to bring a camera along.

Older Stones
The challenge of rubbing tombstones comes when the original inscription is difficult to read. There were two older stones my wife and I rubbed in an attempt to read the inscription. There were several others we simply did not have time to create rubbings for. These initial attempts at tombstone rubbing left me with two conclusions: practice before you do the "real thing," and take pictures of the stones.

Old Stone Number One
The first stone we rubbed was at Holy Family Cemetery in Davenport, Iowa. This stone for Elizabeth and Kaspar Wachter had a raised inscription created in the 1890s or in the early 1900s. We used charcoal to create our rubbing. We also took a picture of the stone. Readability problems were partially due to the weathering of the stone and the color of the stone, which made the inscription difficult to distinguish from the background. Since there was no "inscription" there were no crevices for shadows to fall into. This inscription was on the north side of the stone and had more green discoloration than did the other sides of the stones, further aggravating our attempts to read it. If we had brought a mirror or had come at a different time of day the picture might have been more legible. A photograph of the west side of the stone with an inscription likely cut at approximately the same time was fairly legible.

Old Stone Number Two

The second stone we rubbed was that of Sophia Trautvetter at the church cemetery in rural Tioga, Illinois. This stone was cut sometime after 1877 and was quite soft. While I wanted to clean the lichen off this stone, I did not do so because I was concerned that I would further deteriorate what was legible of the inscription. We created two rubbings of this stone, one with crayon and one with charcoal. The crayon rubbing did not work as well (in my opinion). Newer stones get "hotter" than older stones of this type, causing the crayon to melt slightly. Even though the temperature was in the high eighties, this stone was not as hot as the nearby stones of a more recent vintage. Given the soft nature of the stone and the weathering, the charcoal seemed to create a slightly better rubbing.

A Combination of Problems

The weathering and stone type was only part of the problem. This stone had an inscription that was partially raised from the stone and partially cut into the stone. This presented an additional difficulty. The first name (the raised part of the inscription) came across in the rubbings, but not in the photographs. The years of birth and death (carved into the stone) are easier to see from the photographs. The third and fourth lines of this inscription apparently provide information on Sophia's husband and are extremely difficult to read.

Our pictures of this stone, taken at two different angles, were also very helpful in reading the stone. The second picture of Sophia's stone, taken from a larger distance, was actually taken to show the relative position of her stone to that of her son and granddaughter. Pictures from a broader perspective showing the relative position of several stones are always a good idea, as they preserve information about how the stones are placed. In our case, it also helped us to read the stone.

Manipulating the Pictures
There are many things one can do to manipulate digital images of tombstones. Even the novice can resize the image and convert the image to only shades of gray. In some cases, just employing these techniques caused the image to become significantly more legible.

Wrapping It Up
We will continue to make tombstone rubbings and hopefully get better along the way. Tombstone rubbing really is an art that is not easily learned. There is more to it than getting a piece of paper, a box of crayons and heading out—especially with soft stones whose transcriptions are weathered.

Don't Delay
Stones continue to weather every day. Our trip to Tioga, Illinois, caused us to pass several cemeteries where I have ancestors buried. I was amazed at how much some of the stones had weathered since my last visit, particularly those made of the softer stone like Sophia's. High on my priority list is a visit to three additional cemeteries where I know ancestors have "soft stones" so I can make an additional attempt to read them, and get photographs and possibly make rubbings. Visiting Sophia's stone did not give me any new information, but I was glad we had made the trip to visit her grave and made an additional attempt to preserve the information it contained. One never knows how long these stones will last.

How to do Gravestone Rubbings at

Michael's Tip
The summer finds me traveling hither and yon from one genealogical experience to another—hopefully locating ancestors along the way. To help me keep up with the Ancestry Daily News while on the road, I visit This URL lets me check the current edition of the Daily News quickly and easily from any Internet connection. I still get the email version, but checking the online site keeps me up-to-date with new databases—especially the 1870 census indexes for which I'm anxiously waiting!

Copyright 2003, Michael John Neill is the Course I Coordinator at the Genealogical Institute of Mid America (GIMA) held annually in Springfield, Illinois, and is also on the faculty of Carl Sandburg College in Galesburg, Illinois. Michael is the Web columnist for the FGS FORUM and is on the editorial board of the Illinois State Genealogical Society Quarterly. He conducts seminars and lectures on a wide variety of genealogical and computer topics and contributes to several genealogical publications, including Ancestry and Genealogical Computing. You can email him at: or visit his website at: , but he regrets that he is unable to assist with personal research.

Used by the author on his website with permission

Michael's other articles from the Ancestry Daily News