Rubbing Against the Past


I grew up in Maryland, surrounded by civil war sites and colonial relics. There are old things back there. Old places.

I love old places.

For awhile we lived with my grandma. Behind my grandma’s house, maybe a half mile away, was a very old cemetery. We had to cross some train tracks to get there and we’d always leave shiny pennies on the track, picking up the smashed ones from the time before. The cemetery was marked only by a short iron fence that sagged over, choked out with weeds and vines. The graves there were old–some of the oldest I’d ever seen as a kid. Some were mid-1700’s.

I always took three things to that graveyard: a black crayon with the wrapper peeled off, a handful of notebook paper, and a couple of my siblings. (I was the oldest and usually had to have a few of them in tow wherever I went.) I’d lay the lined notebook paper across the surface of the gravestones and rub gently with the side of the crayon. The things that showed up on those sheets of paper made me giddy. Names and dates, the textures old and uneven.

It’s been years since I’ve done any gravestone rubbings and from what I’ve read some cemeteries now frown on it. I know it’s to preserve the fragile and crumbling stones, but still… it makes me sad.

If you’ve never done it, you should try it. Take some kids along for some crazy, dead fun. Just call ahead to make sure it’s an area that’s still cool with rubbings. A black crayon and lined notebook paper works fine, but there are definitely other materials that will yield better results. Instructions are here. 


If you give it a go, let me know. I’d love to see pics and hear stories of what you’ve found!


Suzy G.

  • Kathy Palm
    June 6, 2014

    I have done rubbings and it is cool! 🙂

  • Kira Butler
    June 6, 2014

    I designed a book and typeface from grave rubbings once! Wrote a little story, took a bunch of photos, took a bunch of rubbings, and put it all into my senior project in college. (Called the whole thing “Graverobbers”.)

    This is a decade old now but the site’s still up:


  • Cait
    June 6, 2014

    That is awesome, Kira! Really beautiful job. 🙂 It’s old, but like the stones themselves, it still stands up as fabulous work– I am totally impressed.

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