Grave Rubbing: Legality and What You Need to Know

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In recent years, the practice of grave rubbing has become a popular pastime. This is when someone makes an impression of a headstone by rubbing a pencil or other writing instrument across paper. This makes it possible to have a nice memento of your visit to the cemetery, and it can be used for genealogy research. 

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However, how does grave rubbing relate to headstone etiquette? Is it a legal practice, and are there things you need to know? There are a lot of cemetery rules you might not know about, and it’s important to always take care in cemeteries when paying respects. In this guide, we’ll share everything you need to know about grave rubbing. 

What Is a Grave or Tombstone Rubbing?

First, for those not familiar with grave rubbing, this is a relatively simple process. Grave or tombstone rubbing is when you reproduce the inscription on a headstone on a piece of paper. This is done by grazing a pencil, crayon, or charcoal piece across a piece of paper that’s placed on a headstone. 

When rubbed gently, the headstone inscription and markings are reproduced on the paper. This can be used for historical preservation, genealogy, or just memory making. Unlike just copying the inscription, grave rubbing captures the artwork on the headstone as well. It also reveals details from the stone, like damage, markings, or cracks. 

These grave rubbings are often uploaded online for genealogy and ancestry research. This helps people connect the dots to their past, and it can also assist when others are learning how to find a grave in a cemetery

What Is the Purpose of a Grave Rubbing?

With that in mind, what is the specific purpose of grave rubbing? Unfortunately, gravestones don’t last forever. The elements, weather, and time are harsh on the natural stone. This means these gravestones deteriorate over time, making it hard to read the inscription or preserve any markings. 

The practice of grave rubbing is a form of preservation. For genealogists, this is often a way to preserve the record of death if a gravestone is in a rapid state of disrepair. The most common reasons to make grave rubbings are:

  • Ancestry: Grave rubbings provide a way to document a death, especially for graves that are beyond the point of repair. Before modern times, it wasn’t common for deaths to be reported to the government on a large, researchable scale. 
  • History: Gravestone rubbing is also a way to learn about local history. By recording the stone’s condition, researchers can learn more about what was going on at the time of death.
  • Digital: More cemetery information is going digital. Aside from taking photos, gravestone rubbings are easily digitized to bring these images to the web. 
  • Souvenir: Lastly, some take gravestone rubbings as a form of memento from cemeteries. This is common especially at Veteran Memorials where family members perform grave rubbings to carry a piece of their loved ones’ graves with them. 

Is Gravestone Rubbing Legal?

Next, is gravestone rubbing legal? Today, there is a lot of controversy around the ethics of gravestone rubbing. Some argue it can harm the stone, especially if it’s already in a state of disrepair. Similarly, if the stone is being restored, rubbing can impact the progress. 

However, gravestone rubbing is legal in most states. The best way to know whether or not this is allowed is to check with the particular cemetery. Always check with the group in charge of the cemetery before performing a gravestone rubbing. Some cemeteries will require a permit, but it’s up to their own specific rules. If you trespass to do a gravestone rubbing, you run the risk of police action. 

When Is It Okay (and Not Okay) to Do a Gravestone Rubbing?

In the genealogy community, there is a lot of discussion around the ethics of gravestone rubbing. While some argue it’s a relatively harmless practice that’s been done for centuries, others respond that it’s risky and disrespectful. 

It’s a good idea to consider all options before performing a grave rubbing. For example, a camera can do just as good of a job in today’s modern world. However, it’s understandable that many are drawn to this practice.

When is it okay to do a gravestone rubbing?

  • The headstone is in good shape and is not actively being repaired
  • You’re familiar with the proper technique to do a gravestone rubbing without damage
  • You’re capturing details that can’t be picked up with photography (stone texture)
  • You practice proper cemetery etiquette 

When is it not okay to do a gravestone rubbing?

  • You’re trespassing on private property without permission
  • The headstone is already damaged
  • There are large cracks in the stone
  • It’s against the local or state laws
  • The cemetery is actively restoring headstones
  • You’re not familiar with proper rubbing techniques

How to Do a Grave Rubbing

Before you do a grave rubbing, it’s important to recognize that this can be abrasive to headstones. Though a common practice, it needs to be done with care to avoid damaging the tombstone. The material of the stone impacts how it lasts over time, and you could risk breaking it with improper techniques. If you’ve decided to proceed, follow the steps below. 

1. Check the rules

Before you enter any cemetery, always check the rules. They might not be posted visibly at the specific cemetery. You can usually call the cemetery, check on their website, or visit the cemetery office. You might need permission to get a gravestone rubbing, or it might not be allowed at all. 

2. Gather your supplies

You need specific supplies to complete a successful, safe gravestone rubbing. These are:

  • Paper: The best kind of paper to use for rubbings are butcher paper, rice paper, or a medium-weight fabric you can write on. 
  • Drawing tools: You also need something to rub with. This can be charcoal, colored crayons, drawing pencils, chalk, or rubbing wax. 
  • Adhesive: To hold the paper in place, find a gentle adhesive like painter’s tape or an oversized rubber band. Avoid masking tape which can leave a residue. 
  • Cleaning brush: A soft-bristle cleaning brush makes it easier to remove debris safely from the headstone before you begin, but this is optional. 
  • Scissors: Lastly, you might need scissors to cut your paper or fabric to the size of the headstone. 

3. Find the gravestone

Next, it’s time to find the gravestone. You can use a tool like Find a Grave if you have a specific grave in mind, or you can use a cemetery map. Most cemeteries are organized by sections and rows, and you navigate using specific numbers. 

4. Clean the gravestone

Before you begin your rubbing, it’s a good idea to clean the gravestone. This should always be done with care. Never use any harsh chemicals or cleaning tools when cleaning a headstone. The natural stone is very delicate, and you could do damage. 

If needed, use a soft-bristled brush to take off the dirt and build up. You might need to use a bit of water to spray it down. Never scrub or use any abrasive action on a headstone. Once dry, move to the next step. 

5. Place your paper

Put the plain sheet of paper or fabric over the markings you wish to capture. You can leave some along the edge to tape to the back of the headstone, giving your paper stability. When taping the paper in place, be careful not to leave residue against the stone. Don’t tape over any eroded areas of the stone that might lift out crumbled pieces when removed. 

6. Rub the markings

Now, it’s time to start rubbing. You can use your writing tool to start from the outer edges and work your way inward. Continue rubbing along the stone until your design looks how you wish. Be gentle with your movements, and don’t break through the paper. 

When finished, carefully take your paper from the headstone. Roll your creation in place and secure it. You might choose to roll it up, scan it into your computer, or frame it. 

Alternatives to Grave Rubbings

Gravestone rubbing can be a fun practice, but it’s not the only way to capture headstones. Thanks to modern technology, some other techniques are safer and more ethical. It’s entirely up to your comfort level as well as the cemetery’s rules. 

  • Photography: Of course, the easiest alternative is to take a photograph of the grave. For best results, do this during a sunny day to capture the nooks and crannies of the stone and avoid shadows. 
  • Record: You can also record any information about the headstone in your own notebook or journal. 
  • Sketch: If you’re artistically inclined, you can also sketch, draw, or paint the headstone. 
  • Foil casting: Lastly, you can make a casting of the headstone with foil. This is done with a thin foil, and it can be a gentle alternative. 

Capture Someone’s Legacy with Grave Rubbing

Ultimately, there are no clear answers when it comes to grave rubbing. Many believe it’s a harmless, artistic practice, while others think it’s time to leave this trend behind. Whatever you believe, it’s important to enjoy your time at cemeteries. This is a way to discover history, and it’s a part of someone’s legacy. 

When we take the time to visit a grave, we honor someone’s memory. This is an act of remembrance, and it’s always worth celebrating. How do you wish to be remembered?

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