New Hanover County, North Carolina GenWeb

New Hanover County Census
New Hanover County Maps & Deeds
New Hanover County Military Resource
New Hanover County Newspaper Items
Miscellaneous New Hanover County Records
Resource Links
New Hanover County Vital Records
New Hanover County Wills

Safe Solutions for hard to read tombstones

When you visit a cemetery, you are likely to come across some tombstones that are weathered, worn, and difficult (or impossible) to read. For years, some methods have been thought of as acceptable means for making the stone easier to read, such as making a rubbing of the tombstone or chalking the stones. We now know that these methods are, in fact, dangerous to the stones and often do more harm than good. In some areas, tombstone rubbings have been banned because of the damage they can cause to old, brittle, and fragile stones. But never fear; there are several excellent methods for reading these old stones that are safe and effective.

Rubbing, Chalking, and Other Bad Ideas

Tombstone rubbings have been popular for centuries, and are often still touted as a fun and interesting way to keep a visual record of a tombstone. But the truth is, it is harmful to tombstones and is currently being banned and outlawed in many different areas. Rubbing is, in itself, very abrasive to stones. It will eventually wear away the carving on stones and loosen bits of the stone causing flaking and breaking. Remember, even gentle rubbings cause decay. With photography what it is today, there is no reason to do a rubbing for recording or memorialising a tombstone. Photographs can provide a much greater and more artistic visual remembrance of any stone.

Chalking is, sadly, a method that is still being promoted by people in the field as being a safe way to read hard to read tombstones. Unfortunately, there is still a lack of knowledge about this subject. Chalk is very abrasive and can damage and stain stones. Some people think that the chalk will simply wash away, but there are instances of chalk staining stones which is still visible years after the fact.

Additionally, there are those who think using flour or shaving cream are good methods for making stones more readable. Flour is harmful because it can penetrate into small pores of the stone, and when wet, the flour will swell and can cause flaking of the stone. Also, it is food for micro-organisms that can then live and grow in the stone, causing expansion and cracking. Shaving cream is dangerous because of the chemicals it is made up of which will deteroriate the stones, much like acid rain.
Aluminum Foil Method
It seems there are so many "don'ts" when it comes to tombstones, that you might fear there is no hope for reading the information on that all important but weathered stone. Don't worry; there are still some innovative methods that provide outstanding results. Probably the greatest and easiest of these methods is the aluminum foil method. With this, one begins by simply placing a thin sheet of aluminum foil against the stone, or wrapping it around the stone. The cheaper and thinner foil works best for this method, as the heavier name brand varieties can be too thick to work with. Then with a lightweight brush, such as a clean makeup brush, you gently press the foil into the carvings of the stone. Remember, if securing the foil with tape, only tape foil to foil, never put tape on the actual stone.

For an enticing visual example of how this method works, please visit the Find A Grave memorial for Jane Goold. The pictures used are a great example of how even small engravings can be "brought out" and read with the foil method. Another fine example is at the memorial for Sarah E Wright. Note that in the picture, the name on top of the stone is unreadable with the naked eye. Once foil was placed on the stone and gently pressed into the carvings, the name magically appeared. For another picture example, visit the memorial for Dr Archelaus Green Smith. Note how the foil is wrapped around the stone; foil is taped only to foil, and the carvings become readable with the foil gently pressed into the stone. And there is one final example of a stone that looks like it would never be able to be read again for Mary J Vandevanter. But the foil has made the information carved on the stone once again readable.
Mirrors and Light
Not all stones that appear hard to read are weathered to the point that they actually are unreadable. Sometimes the only thing lacking is good lighting. This point was made clear to me by something that I experienced first hand when I visited a nearby cemetery for the first time during the winter months. In winter, not only are the days shorter, but the sun is lower in the sky than it is during the spring and summer. The light is not as bright and full as it is during other times of the year. During my winter visit to the cemetery, I observed many very old stones that appeared to be so worn that I fully believed no one would ever again read their inscriptions. I thought that the weather of 200 years had deteriorated the carvings in the stone to the point that the carvings were little more than slight bumps and ridges on a rough stone.  I could not have been more surprised when I returned to the cemetery during the early days of spring. Suddenly it was as if the old worn stones had been replaced with newly carved, but old fashioned, tombstones. They were of course the same stones, but were given a new life under the bright spring sun. The sun shone against the stones casting shadows into the carvings, making them distinct and readable. Once again, the memorials of centuries ago were telling their tales.

In a similar fashion, the time of day and type of day you visit a cemetery can make a difference. If you visit on a cloudy and overcast day, or if you visit late in the afternoon or evening, don't be surprised when you find older stones unreadable. If you want to be able to read old engravings well, plan your visit according to the best lighting conditions. Visit in spring or summer, on a bright clear day, and watch the clock. Often visting around 11 AM or noon is the best time, since the sun is high in the sky and casts important shadows from a steep angle. Just the slight difference in the angle of the sun can help or hinder reading old, faded stones.

If you are unable to wait for the spring or summer to roll around, or are unable to get to a particular cemetery during noon on a bright clear day, all is not lost. Just remember to come prepared: bring a mirror. You don't have to pack a large sized mirror, even a small compact mirror can be useful. The trick here is to cast the light from the sun onto the surface of the stone at such an angle that the engraving casts a shadow to make it more readable. Take a mirror and experiment. The exact method you will need to use will depend on where the sun is in the sky, which way the stone is facing, and so on.

Now that you are familiar with the dos and don'ts of enhancing hard to read tombstones, you can visit those important cemeteries safe in the knowledge that you are not harming the stones or causing undo amounts of damage which will ruin the stones in the long run. While you are there, consider photographing the stones in order to help preserve them and their information. If you are interested in reading more on the subjects covered here, visit the links below.
Reading Gravestone Inscriptions
Cemetery Conservation and Tombstone Care