Reading hard-to-read gravestones

My family reunion was last weekend and I had a great time. Family members were so warm and welcoming to my husband and me despite the fact that my branch of the family had not been represented at that reunion in a couple of generations. I was given family pictures (some of which I’ll probably scan and share here) and well as a painting that my grandmother had painted. It was a great weekend.

On Saturday, my husband and I paid a visit to the cemetery where my grandmother’s ancestors were buried. (This was a reunion of people from my grandfather’s side of the family, so it was an adjunct activity.) I had visited that cemetery, Meyer Cemetery, last year when I traveled to western Missouri.  Three generations of Jeffries are buried in that cemetery:  my great grandfather, James Earl Jeffries;  his parents, John D. Jeffries and Susan Price Jeffries; his in-laws, John Price and Mary Puffenbarger Price; and his grandparents, Richard Anderson Jeffries and Harriet McKinley Jeffries. I wanted to capture some more photos of the gravestones, as well as find the graves of the Prices, which I hadn’t seen on my first visit.

Fortunately for me, I’d learned just the prior week about using aluminum foil to make reading hard-to-read gravestones much easier. I’d seen a link to a blog post called safe solutions for hard to read tombstones on the fabulous Organized Genealogist Facebook page. That post described how you can cover a gravestone with foil and rub it to make the hidden words on a gravestone almost magically appear. The post linked above suggested using a clean makeup brush. I didn’t have one so I dug around a bit more on the web and found this post on Save a Grave that suggested using a damp sponge.

So I went to the dollar store and bought some cheap aluminum foil. I grabbed a sponge from under the sink and was ready headed to the cemetery the next day. The method really felt like magic.

This is the stone of the Mary Ann Price, my great great great grandmother.

Foil can make hard-to-read gravestones legible

Cover it in foil and rub and voila, the writing emerges.

Foil can make hard-to-read gravestones legible

There’s a gravestone  right next to my great grandfather’s grave. The top of that same stone was so worn and dirty you couldn’t really tell that there was a name on it. But when I covered it in foil and rubbed it with a damp sponge, the name “Harriett” appeared. Amazing!

aluminum foil can make hard-to-read gravestones legible againI love this method! The downside is that, unlike gravestone rubbings–which I learned are harmful to the gravestone–it’s not easy to keep and store foil rubbings. I consider them temporary and my digital photo of the rubbed stone to be my permanent record. I can’t quite get myself to throw away the foil (it’s driving around in the back of my SUV), but soon I expect I’ll put it in the recycling bin.


  1. Elizabeth Milton says:

    This is great information. Thank you Janine!

  2. Vickie Sheridan says:

    I read the same article and it does look like magic! I’m going to Southern Illinois in August to see some family tombstones. I have already purchased my foil and can’t wait to try this.
    Thanks for showing us your results.

  3. Amazing results! I can’t wait to try it out.

  4. Great idea! Thanks for sharing! :)

  5. Donn Dufford says:

    Janine –
    Here’s a tool I just learned about. Shown to me by a friend who restores graveyards. Takes two people and a cooperating sun. One person holds a light weight mirror, about 18″ x 5 or 6′ tall, several feet away from the gravestone to be read. The person may have to stand 15+ feet away. Facing the side of the stone, (not facing the front) angle the mirror to catch the sun’s light. Reflect the light across the front of the stone. The second person reads the stone. I watched him bring unreadable gravestones from the 1750s back to life. Amazing.

  6. That’s my favorite tip in recent months, too, but I haven’t had a chance to try it yet.

  7. Nancy Roemer says:

    I’d keep the foil forever.

    • You know what’s interesting, Nancy? I drove that foil around in the back of my SUV for a little while and when I took it out to show it off, the rubbing was no longer visible on the foil! So it seems to be ephemeral and I make sure I have excellent photographs while the writing is visible.

      Thanks so much for commenting.

  8. I’m definitely going have to try this! I had heard of another way but hadn’t tried that yet. Rub Cornstarch on headstone and use a squeegee from top to bottom to fill in the engravings and get rid of the excess. Take your pictures, then squirt water on the headstone to clean it off. It’s not supposed to be harmful to the stones or the environment. Now after reading your way, the cornstarch seems too time consuming & messy. So glad I read this before my next gravesight visit in the Spring! Thanks so much!

    • Laura, you’re welcome! This definitely seems easier than the cornstarch method you described. And it doesn’t seem to harm the stones at all. Please do read the articles I linked to in my post for more detailed info on the technique.

  9. Several years ago, we were on a trip across Pennsylvania with my cousin and her husband. We found many of the headstones difficult to read but my cousin’s husband had chalk with him. He rubbed it across the stones and they were much easier to read. Our photos came out quite clear. I was skeptical about the chalk as I had read that it was not good for the stone but there was no stopping him. When my husband and I went back to a couple of the cemeteries a year later the chalk had washed away and the stones were as the had been before using chalk. Is there any significant damage from the chalk?
    I will carry foil and also cornstarch and water next time.

    • MaryAnn, I have read that chalk is damaging but don’t know definitively. But it’s not a risk I’m willing to take when foil is so easy! Thanks so much for your comment.

    • Rhonda Wathen says:

      Chalk, flour, corn starch and shaving cream are ALL harmful as they encourage further growth of lichen and fungus which break down the porus stone. Please do not use any substance on stones. Thanks

  10. That’s GREAT information! I went on a cemetery hopping expedition in 1999, visited four cemeteries in Center County PA. and took photos of many family gravestones. Now I can go back and get the inscriptions on some of those hard to read stones. I found over 40 relatives…when I originally went to look up only 5 of them!

    • Paul, what a wonderful cemetery trip that was! I’m glad you found this post helpful and am excited that you might be able to get more information from the stones! Thanks for your comment.

  11. The cheapest foil works best…dollar store flimsy foil

  12. Marie Melvin says:

    I love this ! I going 2 try it .. Thanks !

  13. Mert Parsons says:

    Wonderful information!! When you apply the thin foil over the stone, do you use something specific to do the rubbing? Or is just your hand enough?
    Thanks for the info!

    • Mert, I used a damp sponge to rub over the foil. I’ve also read you can use a clean makeup brush. But the damp sponge worked well for me. Thanks for commenting!

Leave a Reply