Prepared by Elisabeth Lindsay.
A rubbing is the transfer of an image from one surface to another through the process of "rubbing." The process involves laying a piece of tracing paper over the top of and inscription or engraving and rubbing the surface of the paper with the a pencil or crayon to bring forth the image. The process is commonly used to make rubbings of cemetery headstones in order to create a "copy" of what is on the headstone. This capturing of information is often seen as an act of preservation. However, rubbings can actually damage the stone's surface and is prohibited by some cemeteries. Photography is suggested as an alternative.
Headstones become weathered over time such that inscripitions and engravings become illegible. Historically, rubbings have been used to "surface" what could not otherwise be seen. Some stones are so weathered even a rubbing cannot bring out the image, and the process itself is harmful. The process of rubbing can loosen weathered material and cause the stone to crumble. Repeated rubbings, of course, create further damage; thus, rubbings are discouraged and even prohibited by some cemeteries. Photography is a safer option. Many tombstone projects have been conducted or are underway by various groups in all parts of the world to safely record tombstone inscription and preserve this important history. For information the care and keeping of cemetery headstones, the National Park Service offers preservation workshops. You can find information on these workshops and the preservation of stone markers at the National Center for Preservation Technology & Training web site.