Make a Grave Rubbing

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Grave Rubbings: Things to Remember

Be considerate of others who may be present in a cemetery -- both the living and the dead. Image by Patti Wigington 2009

Many modern Pagans include ancestor worship as part of their Samhain celebrations -- it's not out of the ordinary to meet members of the Pagan community who can recite their genealogy back ten or more generations. In addition, because it's common for Pagans today to view death not as ending but as the beginning of the next phase of spiritual development, grave rubbings are popular with many Pagans. It's great to use those of your own relatives and family members, but if you find a headstone that strikes you as interesting, there's nothing wrong with making a rubbing from it.

*NOTE: We here at About Paganism & Wicca recognize that some people feel grave rubbings are destructive no matter what precautions you may take. However, because there are also graveyard experts who say that a carefully done grave rubbing should do no damage to a headstone in good condition, we will continue to include this article here on the site. Use your own best judgment, and if you are opposed to the creation of grave rubbings, then don't do it.

It’s important to keep in mind that if you’re tromping about a cemetery, you should be respectful. Not only of the people who are lying there, but also of those living beings who may happen to come along while you’re there. There’s nothing wrong with enjoying yourself, but please make an effort not to disturb someone who may be grieving. Not everyone views death in the same way, so while your family may accept it as part of nature’s cycle, another family might be overcome by a sense of loss. Also, bear in mind that many cemeteries are private property. Before wandering into them, check to see if you need to get permission. If you do, be sure to get it before you end up trespassing.

Headstone rubbings are a unique way of preserving the past and getting some pretty neat décor out of it as well. While doing a rubbing usually doesn’t usually cause damage to headstones, particularly newer ones, there are certain precautions that should be taken. If a stone is worn or crumbling, pass on it. Rubbing an already-damaged stone can cause it to flake and chip to the point where it’s irreparable. Instead, choose stones which are in good condition – the best results come from either polished granite stones or solid slate markers.

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Grave Rubbings: What You'll Need

Be sure you clean up all of your debris when you're finished with your grave rubbing. Image by Patti Wigington 2007

You will need: lightweight paper (white butcher paper works nicely, but you can experiment with other colors as well), a large crayon (preferably black, but again, feel free to try new stuff) or rubbing wax, masking tape, and a soft-bristled paintbrush to clear debris off the stone. You might also want to take a cardboard tube with you to store your rubbings for transport home. I also like to bring a notepad and pencil to jot down notes about the cemetery and the person whose headstone I’ve rubbed. A pair of garden scissors can be helpful for trimming off weeds at the base of the stone.

Once you’ve chosen your stone, brush it off lightly with your paintbrush. You’d be surprised how much dust and organic material can accumulate in the carvings, to say nothing of bird poop. Once it’s cleaned off, use the masking tape to keep the paper in place over the area you wish to rub. Try to extend the paper past the top and sides of the stone – that way you won’t get random crayon marks on the stone itself.

Start your rubbing by filling in the outer edges of the carved area. This will give you a point to work towards. Once you’ve done that, move to the center and begin working outward, back towards your edges. Use the flattest surface of the crayon or wax, and make light, even strokes. If it looks like your rubbing isn’t showing up well, don’t worry. You can go back and add more definition later. Keep your strokes uniform to prevent variations in coloring. As you do your rubbing, you may want to offer a small prayer or blessing to the person whose stone you are using.

Once you think you’re done, step back and look at the rubbing from a distance. Chances are that by viewing it from a few steps away, you’ll notice some irregularities in the shading or detail. Go back and fix them, without putting too much pressure on the stone. When you’re satisfied with the result, carefully remove all the tape. Be sure to clean up stray bits of paper or other garbage. Roll your rubbing up and place it in your tube for safekeeping.

Once you get it home, matte and frame your work and hang it up on your wall. A collection of grave rubbings is a good conversation starter all year long, but particularly at Samhain. If you have access to the gravestones of your ancestors, a wall of framed rubbings can become the perfect altar to your heritage.