Collectors of gravestone images look for unusual carvings, symbols and epitaphs to copy.
The practice of gravestone rubbing has been in existence for hundreds of years. Their original purpose was to reproduce the image of a tombstone to send to loved ones who were so far away that they would never be able to visit the gravesite. The custom became unnecessary with the advent of personal cameras in the 1890s.
But the practice rose in popularity again in the 1970s, this time for much different reasons: Artists wanted to capture the variety of unusual ornamentation and textures, often creating an exhibit of rubbings for display in galleries and showrooms; fans wanted to keep a souvenir of their visit to a celebrity grave; genealogists wanted a permanent record of ancestral sites; historians wanted to preserve important records before they deteriorated; and, finally, collectors wanted to collect.
The hobby surged in the years leading up to the nation’s Bicentennial Celebration in 1976, when tourism peaked at many of the colonial graveyards in New England. Genealogy research also experienced an upswing in popularity during that time, with the acclaim of the televised miniseries “Roots” in 1977. In the early 1980s, there was a widespread effort to make 19th-ccentury ship manifests, census results and birth records available on microfiche, causing a corresponding increase in cemetery explorations. But 30 years later, rubbings still remain popular. Many visitors to the Vietnam Veterans Memorial in Washington, D.C., use pencil and paper to make a copy of the name of a family member or friend who died during that war. And the newest trend in gravestone rubbings actually includes the creation of transfers and stencils in order to design needlepoints, T-shirts and jewelry.
Rubbings are easily made by placing paper over the face of the stone and rubbing chalk, charcoal or colored wax over the paper to capture a negative image of the features underneath. As with most collections, the joy is in the hunt, and gravestone rubbers love to trek into overgrown, forgotten cemeteries in hopes of finding an uncommon monument or curious epitaph. Some look for exceptionally old markers. Others look for odd folk art. Some prefer personalized details, like a relief portrait of the deceased. Many collect images within a theme (such as fraternal organizations, artillery or animals). Others search for demonic emblems like grim reapers and skeletons. And some travel the world to get rubbings from famous resting places. How many can claim to have visited Robert Louis Stevenson’s grave in Samoa or Jim Morrison’s in Paris?
Some collectors look for demonic symbols, like this representative from a popular 19th-century grave in Cape Cod, Mass.
Not surprisingly, gravestone rubbings can be found offered for sale on Internet auction sites, although their values are never very high. Part of the allure is the collector’s actual presence at the grave, which the rubbing represents. A rubbing that is purchased is just not the same thing as one with a personal association.
Collectors have become so widespread that many towns and cemeteries now require registration or permits for tombstone rubbings. Graveyards that are historic or popular with tourists sometimes prohibit rubbings due to concern for damage. And rubbings are not allowed at most national cemeteries. So what should a beginner know? Always ask for permission from local officials and never cause harm to the site. Use a soft brush for cleaning and stay away from permanent ink pens that might bleed onto the grave. Only headstones that are sturdy, solid and standing upright should be rubbed. Sinking, leaning, cracked and hollow-sounding stones should be avoided. And those with crumbling surfaces should never be bothered for fear of further deterioration.
Sarah Revere, wife of Paul Revere, has a popular headstone due to her famous association, the unusual skull emblem and the 18th-century date. This rubbing sold for $80 (plus buyer’s premium) in 2011.
Bela Lugosi was famous for his 1930s roles in horror movies, such as Count Dracula and the Phantom of the Opera. A rubbing of his tombstone sold for $10 (plus buyer’s premium) in 2007.
Is the hobby ghoulish? Perhaps. But old gravestones are part of our national heritage and their images are a legitimate collectible genre, just like other historical archives. There are several professional organizations, such as the Association for Gravestone Studies, which offer guidelines for beginners, procedures for proper use of adhesives, rules of etiquette, reference books and identification of stone types (limestone, granite, marble, etc.). Other companies sell starter kits with instructions, natural-bristle brushes, biodegradable cleaning products, tape, paper, rubbing wax and storage tubes. Although it may be macabre, collecting gravestone rubbings is an inexpensive and rewarding hobby, and one that can be enjoyed with the entire family.
Liz Holderman is a Worthologist who specializes in collectible books, documents and autographs.
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