The following column was found in today’s (April 22, 2010) Arkansas Democrat-Gazette. A note following the column states: Associate Editor Meredith Oakley is editor of the Voices page. An earlier version of today’s column appeared on June 21, 2006. Following is Oakley’s column entitled “Grave Concerns”:
History buffs come in various stripes. A friend of mine likes to visit Civil War battlefields, designing entire family vacations around the pursuit. Another collects what I’d call military minutiae from various American wars. Then there’s my English friend, who still keeps the train spotting log he started as a child 50-odd years ago. Although none of these things is of particular interest to me, I can’t fault them. Two things I find extremely hard to resist are antique stores and graveyards. However, since I spend most of my time in Arkansas, and Arkansas has far more graveyards than bona fide antique stores, you can guess which activity consumes a better part of my out-and-about time.
Cemeteries aren’t everyone’s cup of tea. Gives them the creeps just to drive by one. I’ve probably tested more than my share of friendships by insisting on putting a walking tour of more than one on our holiday itineraries, so I try not to dally, but on my own I could spend all day reading old epitaphs and wondering about the lives of the people they commemorate.
Epitaphs fell out of favor in the last century, and that’s a shame. Stark names and dates say nothing about the deceased or their loved ones’ feelings for them. Besides, some really old epitaphs are quite entertaining. The most common sentiments you’ll find in old cemeteries around these parts are biblical in nature. Of more recent vintage are stones with inset photographs of the deceased.
If mine sounds like a peculiar diversion, bear in mind that entire societies have been organized around it, with some chapters making some¬thing of a game of finding the oldest or oddest inscriptions. Collecting brass rubbings of historically significant inscriptions on funerary plaques in churches is a favored pastime of many, particularly in old-world locales around Europe. New England’s cemeteries, the oldest in America, have a good following, too, although making rubbings of monuments re¬quires a bit more care because of the age of the stone.
A rubbing is an impression of a design, and you make it by putting a sheet of paper against the design and what else?—rubbing it, usually with some type of pencil or crayon to make the design stand out Just about any type of paper will do as long as it n’t scratch the object containing it or knering, but you have to take care in your choice of rubbing instrument.
Some types of chalk are harder than others and contain corrosive chemicals. For example, you never want to use what’s called sidewalk chalk on stones. You have to be careful with crayons and pencils, too, lest you apply too much pressure while rubbing. Plus, certain colorants in some drawing materials will stain.
I’m particularly careful when making rubbings because I’m interested only in gravestones with historic significance for me, i.e., ancestral gravestones. Believe me, I thought long and hard and did tons of reading on the topic before making a rubbing of my great-great-grandmother’s modest stone because it is in such disrepair.
In the end, I chose tissue paper and a soft crayon, which resulted in a very light impression being taken, but one suitable for my purposes, which included verifying the pertinent dates for a new marker that my cousins and I later added to the grave site so that when the original headstone finally crumbles to dust, the grave still will be properly marked.
Some folks favor putting sub-stances like shaving cream or flour on a tombstone to make the engraving easier to read, but this is a big no-no. Shaving cream has corrosive chemicals, and flour feeds any lichens thereon. Don’t think you can just wash the substance away once you’re done, either, because that merely applies more pressure to the stone and produces more erosion. Best to apply only paper to the actual stone and make a rubbing.
Tracing the family roots takes me to a lot of cemeteries, not so much because of who I know to be buried there but because of who I might find buried there. I’ve got a lot of wayward ancestors, you see, primarily people of modest means whose graves were never permanently marked. I guess it never occurred to anyone that kin-folks would want to come a’callin’ 100 years down the pike.