11 October 2010

Rubbing Headstones

Last Monday, you may have noticed a tweet or two between me and @whipstitch (a.k.a. Father Muskrat's Pretty Bride). Ms. Whipstitch (real name: Deborah) is an amazingly talented woman, has a wicked sense of humor, and convinced me that we should experiment with rubbing headstones.

Yeah, you read that right.

Allow me to explain. Back in August, we all got together for an Atlanta Tweet-up and as Deborah and I sat across from one another, an idea formed. I mentioned wanting to eventually preserve my paternal grandparents' headstone, via a charcoal/paper rubbing, because the surname carving was based on my grandfather's signature. That's when Deborah told me about a technique, involving rice paper and ink, used to preserve ancient Mayan carvings that were slowly decaying. After teasing me with that tidbit, she said "So how about you and I go over to Oakland Cemetery and try rubbing headstones with muslin and water-based paint? That way, I can incorporate the headstones into quilts!"

Ladies and gents, I was sold.

And that's how I found myself at Oakland Cemetery last Monday, getting acquainted with a few of Atlanta's late residents.

Our first headstone was that of Colonel Lovick P. Thomas. We picked him to be our inaugural headstone because he was buried next to both of his wives. Colonel Thomas was obviously a busy man. This was our first try, using one piece of muslin and a heavily-loaded roller. Paint bled through to the marble headstone and Deborah and I frantically scrubbed off the excess paint, hoping a cemetery volunteer wouldn't see us. We decided then that maybe two pieces of fabric would work better. That, and a quick exit from that particular row of graves.

With Ms. May Louise, we discovered that a lighter touch with the paint and two sheets of fabric worked best. The Edward Gorey-esque definition of the words and the lack of paint on the headstone made us grin like idiots.

William C. Loughmiller's headstone was our favorite. When you walk up to it, you can barely read it. But after Deborah gave it the special Whipstitch treatment, his secrets were revealed.

You can clearly make out Mr. Loughmiller's birth and death dates. See those interlocked rings at the bottom? They denote that Mr. Loughmiller was a member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. Without the rubbing, you couldn't even see that tidbit. The quote reads A happier lot than ours, and larger light surrounds thee there. Before we did this, most of this stone was unreadable. Deborah? I think you and I need to offer our services to Oakland for a minimal fee. And by minimal I mean We're rollin' in the dough, baby!

I loved doing this. This quick hour-long project is something I could easily turn into a full-time hobby. Mainly because getting up close and personal with someone's headstone, touching the stone, and revealing it's secrets that may be unreadable to the human eye, reminds me that the person in the ground below had hoped to leave his or her indelible mark in stone so that future generations may remember them. Well, Mr. William Loughmiller? You are remembered.

If you want to see Deborah's finished results, go check out her blog here.


Dave2 said...

Very cool! I'd love to do this in some of the old cemeteries I've explored in Boston!

Irrational Dad said...

Clever! Me, I'd have just taken a picture and gone out for a hot dog.

Expat No. 3699 said...

Wow! Very interesting. I can see framing and hanging them.

Unknown said...

Cool. This is an idea I need to take into Jackson County, Iowa, where a fair number of my relatives on my Mother's side of the family are buried.

Annie said...

So totally cool. I see a walk through our local cemetary (c. 1805) in my very near future.

Michael from dadcation.com said...

That looks fun...thanks for inviting me!

hello haha narf said...

my mom loved to do something similar to this, but she just used charcoal and thin (rice?) paper. i would never have thought to use ink. way cool. and i love, love, LOVE the idea of incorporating headstones into quilts. not sure why i find that so fascinating, but i do.

a few weeks ago i spent hours in a cemetery photographing old german headstones. thankfully babelfish.com was able to do some translating for me there on the spot.

thanks for sharing your adventure.

sybil law said...


I would love to do this for my cousin. The headstone of my aunt isn't old, but she lives far away and she might like it.

Avitable said...

That is really cool!

Megan said...

Very cool idea!

Military Mom said...

Heather- I used to love to wander old cemetaries when I was younger-very cool.

Sorry I haven't been around much lately, but I am trying to remedy that. Still love your blog!

Shelli said...

That is Sooo cool!

The Way I See It.... said...

Just came across your blog on headstone rubbing! I love to do this!! I've tracked my ancestors all over the country and keeping rubbings makes the individuals come alive... And they do show so much detail that otherwise is hidden!
I enjoyed your blog...
Okies Kid