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 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.

Comments

  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!

  14. Thank you Janine for that info about the foil, I am going to try it soon when I go to the cemetery again.

  15. Marilyn Sliva says:

    Wow, Janine, that is exciting & looks so easy. I went to the cemetery a few weeks ago & couldn’t find headstones for a lot of my grandfather’s family but I still took a photo where the grave should be. When I got home and looked at the photos I realized that I think there is a headstone for my grandfather’s uncle (I zoomed in on the picture) but when I was there I didn’t really pay attention to it because it seemed unreadable. Now, on my next visit, I’ll have to try your method. (The stone looks like a type of military stone & I just found out he was in the Spanish American War, so it looks promising). Thanks for the idea.

    • That’s exciting, Marilyn! I hope the foil reveals that it’s your grandfather’s uncle! It is indeed easy, though I found it easier to do with my husband’s help than when I tried it alone at another cemetery. But I was able to do it by myself. Thanks for commenting.

  16. Shawn B says:

    A while ago, I tried to take a rubbing from a long gone relative. I took photographs at different angles.. when i got home, I inverted a few of the digital images (they’ll look like negatives) and you could easily read the inscriptions. It may not work all the time but nowadays, everyone has a digital camera. I wouldn’t be surprised if a few of your photoshops on your phones have them.

  17. Depending on the importance, you could even frame the foil for preservation. Hang it in a hallway, etc..

    By the way, does anyone know how to clean lichen, etc., off my Gr.Grandmother’s stone from 1883?

    • I love the idea of framing the foil. What i found, though, was that after I took foil out of the back of my SUV (a few days after rubbing the gravestone with it) the letters were gone. I wonder whether putting it under glass (as in a picture frame) would preserve it.

      I’m afraid I don’t know the proper way to clean lichen off a gravestone. Perhaps this article from the International Southern Cemetery Gravestones Association will be helpful: http://www.iscga.org/how-to-clean-a-gravestone.html.

  18. Great Help, now I can revisit all the Gravestones I could not read.

  19. Robert Ward says:

    I used this method many, many years ago while living in New England. I found that the heavier aluminum foil worked best because I used an old, soft bristle tooth brush which helped to make a deeper, more detailed rub. We even used the rubbing as a mold for plaster castings by backing it with a piece of plywood and pouring in plaster. But beware, some cemeteries do not allow any type of rubbings at all…..rice paper and crayon, aluminum rubbings….nothing. It is always to check with the owner or the caretaker of the cemetery just to make sure.

    • Robert, thanks for your comment. It’s interesting that you found heavier foil helpful. The instructions I followed called for cheap foil and it worked well, though I used a sponge, not a brush. I think it’s amazing you made a plaster casting of the foil rubbing! Thank you for the advice to call ahead and make sure the cemetery is okay with the foil rubbing.

  20. Just a thought but once you have your foil and have photographs, why not use plaster of paris of some other medium to make a cast of it from the foil, you will then have a more permanent reminder with which you could do other things with such as frame

    • I love that two commenters in a row mentioned a plaster casting of the foil. I had never thought of that. Probably I personally wouldn’t go to the effort since the photo works well for me and I don’t have a natural spot to store a casting. But I appreciate the suggestion!

  21. Thank you so much for sharing this. I just called my daughter 8:05am & left message on her answer machine, because I was sure I would forget to tell her later. I am putting foil and sponge in car today (being prepared). Thanks again.

  22. Shaaron Grogan-Sheahan says:

    Thank you for presenting this idea and thanks to others who have other suggestions. I have just save it all to my computer for future trips to the ancestral cemeteries.

  23. Betty Saunders says:

    I’ve always carried two different coloured bars of soap and rubbed them into the unreadable stones. The next rainfull will wash it off. No damage done.

  24. I have photographed over 100 cemeteries here in Ontario, Canada. Check out http://www.gravemarkers.ca
    Sidewalk chalk, preferably white, but a pale yellow or green also work and usually makes an inscription very legible with no damage to the stone because one or two rainfalls and the chalk is gone.
    I use different methods depending on the kind of stone and inscription. If I could include some samples here I would, but I tried to copy and paste and it didn’t work. If you try the above website you will find most of the ones I’ve photographed. Click on Ontario-Eastern Ontario-Renfrew. This will take you to the different cemeteries in the different townships. I did about 80% of those cemeteries listed.

    • Diane, I think it’s wonderful that you have dedicated yourself to photographing gravestones to help others! I have read that chalk is in fact damaging to the stone. (Save a Grave: http://saveagrave.net/hard-to-read-stones and New Hanover County North Carolina Genweb: http://www.ncgenweb.us/newhanover/cem1.html are two examples.) I am not an expert, but wanted to mention that for the benefit of those reading the comments.

      • Janine, I understand your concern, so also for the readers benefit…….I read the item you sent and as Murray is in the 16th year with his website there has never been a problem with our use of chalk, nor ever any damage to the stones reported because of it. Otherwise, he wouldn’t recommend using it for hard to read stones. Incidently, his website is very close to the one million headstones/markers photographed here in Canada.

  25. Charmane says:

    Thank you, brilliant idea. Jeffries is also in my tree, the family were living in Manchester. Lancs. UK. really think they originated from Ireland.
    Kind regards,
    Charmane

  26. Patricia Brauner says:

    Since you can take a digital image of the rubbed foil, why not then smooth out the foil (maybe on the hood of your car) and reuse it?

  27. I live in Massachusetts and am often struggling with the ability to read an old stone. I sometimes spray water on a stone which can help the letters stand out, but not always. I have also played with photo software to enhance the lettering, which can be helpful. I can’t wait to try this aluminum foil technique!

  28. I’ve tried this but I can’t get the foil to stay in place and I end up frustrated. When I move my hand to another area of the marker to continue rubbing, the part that I just finished rubbing lifts from the surface and the inscription starts to disappear. Are you supposed to wrap the entire headstone like a mummy? What method do y’all use to keep the foil in place, then stand back and take a photo?

  29. Pearl King says:

    I tried this with dollar store brand foil and a damp sponge. I was able to get a few letters or numbers here and there but not enough to read a whole stone. Don’t know what I did wrong.

    • Pearl, I’m sorry to hear you had difficulty. I don’t know what to tell you, but I imagine that it depends how deeply the letters are etched on the stone. For me, the letters appeared seemingly miraculously. Perhaps it will work for you on a different stone.

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