Are Gravestones Keeping Your From Finding Your Ancestors?

by Dan Greenland

When you visit a cemetery, you may come across a gravestone that has been weathered, worn, and is difficult or even impossible to read. What are you going to do about getting the information from that gravestone? Over the years of visiting cemeteries and taking pictures of gravestones, I have come across several methods that may help you in gaining the information from the gravestone.

The most important thing to keep in mind when working with cemetery stones is that most of the old markers are sedimentary rock. Sediment is formed by deposits of minerals, such as calcite, and organisms such as coral. When sedimentary rock is exposed to the weather it slowly erodes, basically a reversal of the process from which it was created.

Please keep in mind that the rules of working around cemetery stones are do NO harm and NEVER do any work that cannot be undone. We want to be able to preserve these stones for as long as possible.

It is important to note that not all chemicals are good for the gravestone while trying to clean the gravestone. It is valuable to know what can harm the gravestones.

Preparation for going to a cemetery to read the gravestones would include taking a bottle of water, a rag, a soft bristle brush, and of course your phone or camera. Most cemeteries will have a water tap to refill your water bottle. Smaller cemeteries will not have this water available. You will need to take this into consideration when preparing to go to the cemetery.

When cleaning a gravestone, there are several items that should not be used. Do not use the following items:

  • Shaving cream – by applying shaving cream you are dowsing the stone with acid rain and attracting biological growth that will make the stone more unreadable. Biological growth also breaks down the molecular integrity of the stone.
  • Chalk – contains several harmful substances that deteriorate stone. Old marbles, sandstones, siltstones, and the like are very porous stones. If you chalk a tombstone, you are entering the following substances into the pores of the stone-plaster of paris, silica, alumina, iron, phosphorus, and sulfur. In addition to these harmful chemicals, chalk may permanently stain the stones. Especially if it is colored chalk.
  • Paint or Markers – will permanently stain the stones. Paint also effects the stone by acting as a sealant and in turn not letting its sponge like quality take moisture in and out.
  • Household cleaners – Soaps, cleansers, bleaches, ammonia, detergents, and peroxide are a mixture of sodium salts of various naturally occurring fatty acids.
  • Household baking items – Flour, cocoa, cornmeal, powdered sugar, baking soda, and baking powder are of a perishable nature and are used in food preparation, they will rot, mold, and form yeasts. The left-over powders will work into the porous parts of the stone and engravings forming biological growths.
  • Wire Brush – Using a wire brush on a tombstone or any other stone memorial causes irreparable damage. Under the laws of many states, unauthorized tampering with or damaging gravestones is a felony.

There are many alternative methods that can be used to enhance or bring out the lettering on old gravestones that have become worn over time. These methods include:

  • Water – just getting a stone wet can make the carvings stand out much more than when dry. It also adds to the enhancement if the sun light is at a good angle. The surface will dry much faster than the lettering. In most cases, the indented lettering will stay moist and dark which will enhance the image. You may want to rub the stone with a cloth after getting it wet, to clear out any dirt that may be in the lettering.
  • Soft brush – a soft bristle brush will remove the embedded dirt. At times, you may need to get the stone wet first and then lightly brush it.
  • Mirrors – by using a mirror to direct bright sunlight diagonally across the face of a gravestone, you can easily cast shadows in indentations which makes inscriptions much more visible and easier to read. This method often brings out details that might otherwise be missed.
  • Dirt – grab a clump of slightly damp soil, (not mud) and gently rub the stone with it. After a minute or two the inscription will become very readable. After reading the stone, take a soft bristle brush and lightly brush it off.
  • Hand Rubbing – it is sometimes possible on a uniformly colored stone surface, to lightly brush the surface with the palm of your hand, which raises a light dust and leaves the recessed inscription as a dark color. It is often worth a try.
  • Regular Lighting – if you cannot wait until the sun moves into the correct position (at a right angle to the carved surface of the gravestone), a flashlight or flood light will also work great.
  • Aluminum Foil Mirror – this is a variation on the use of mirrors as discussed above. By taking everyday aluminum foil, which can easily be found at any grocery store or most convenience stores, and covering it over a piece of cardboard or some other hard substance, you can create an inexpensive alternative to a mirror that is nonbreakable.
  • Aluminum Foil Rubbing – an alternative to traditional wax or crayon type rubbings is that of aluminum foil and a damp sponge. Place foil on the marker, dull side up so the sun doesn’t reflect back into your eyes, and using the damp sponge press gently so as to not tear the foil around the carving or writing. Also try reading the foil impression under different lighting situations.
  • Photography Negatives – by using either a digital camera and viewing the pictures in negative format or scanning regular prints into your computer and viewing using the negative.

I have found that for most of the gravestones, water is the least expensive and works the majority of the time. There are times that you may not be able to see the lettering on the stone after getting it wet. I have found at this point to take a digital picture of the stone and look at the picture. Most of the time, the lettering will show up in the picture when it is not seen by the naked eye. These are the methods that I have found to work through the years of working with gravestones. There are several other articles on the internet available for further reading and helpful hints.

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