I have never done a gravestone rubbing and generally consider myself to be opposed to the practice. Perhaps this is because I got my start in gravestone studies in Northeastern Connecticut, where many of the gravestones are made of delicate red sandstone and rubbing is absolutely forbidden due to their fragility.
Yet, I must concede that a good gravestone rubbing is a thing of tremendous beauty. I once saw a rubbing of the Charles Bardin stone that nearly took my breath away — the technique made the image of God seem to be bathed in light rather than surrounded by monotone slate.
I was poking through the Farber Gravestone Collection yesterday and came across some stunning rubbings. Just look how a well-done rubbing illuminates the details on the Jonathan Wyatt stone (1775) in Newport:
I can appreciate these beautiful reproductions, but I'm not sure that the good outweighs the possibility for harm. For now, I'll stick to photographs.
A rubbing made by a real expert is indeed both a work of art and a valuable historical document. It can pick up details that a photograph can miss, and it has an immediacy (especially with respect to size) that photographs often lack.
I almost wish important cemeteries would have expert rubbings made of all their stones once, for documentary purposes, and then forbid the practice. Yes, I did gravestone rubbings when I was a kid, and it was fun, but I just don't see that it can be justified any more on very old stones. Kids can still do it in modern cemeteries, on twenty year old granite stones.
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