Monday, January 3, 2011

Tombstone Rubbing

Time for a lighthearted human interest story--this is about tombstone rubbing. Sometime in the 1980s, a friend of mine was a Scoutmaster for the Cub Scouts. Scouts (both boy and girl versions), as you may know, are into activities of various kinds. You know, earn a merit badge for tying rope knots, helping little old ladies across the street, that sort of thing.

Well, my friend Mike the Scoutmaster thought it would be a great activity for his Scout troop to go tombstone rubbing in graveyards. At the time Mike and I worked together near Rochester New York. Rochester’s Mt. Hope Cemetery offered many fabulous examples of Victorian-era stones, so they spent many hours there. The idea was a success and the Scouts enjoyed not only the stone-rubbing activities, but seeing history up close -- Susan B. Anthony and Buffalo Bill's foster son (Johnny Baker) are buried here.

Tombstone rubbing is a process by which one creates a physical impression of a tombstone's surface design. Typically a large piece of paper is fastened to the stone's surface and is rubbed with the side of a crayon to bring out the words and the carved details of old tombstones. People do rubbings for a variety of reasons--their own enjoyment, preserving the historical record, genealogical studies, etc.  Here are some examples of Tombstone Rubbings if you've never seen one.

So back to our story. The Boy Scouts of America were scheduled to have a Jamboree* at the Rochester convention center, during the era when Mike was Scoutmaster. These are regional, national, and even international events at which individual Scout troops and visitors gather to see how Scouts do things in various parts of the world. Mike thought it would be interesting to show people how tombstone rubbing is done, i.e., have the Scouts demonstrate the activity and let interested visitors have a go at it themselves. The only problem: where to get a headstone with which to demonstrate?

Being the resourceful person Mike is, he goes to one of those gravestone memorial stone cutters, explains his need, and walks off with two borrowed stones. No doubt outtakes from the carver’s sample display—you’ve seen them lined up out front of such shops, or like in the photo here, piled up out back. These are misprints (misspelled name, incorrect date, etc.) or just stones people made deposits on but never picked up.

So picture this: Mike and the Scout Troop are all set up at their table. People pass by, Mike engages them in discussion, the Scouts have a blast demonstrating and explaining their project. Except that’s not exactly what happened. While I'm not usually one to let facts get in the way of a good story, I think its best to hear it in Mike’s own words:
“We had an old lady who was one of the first people to stop by our table at the Jamboree. She almost keeled over when she saw her husband's gravestone on display! She screamed that I had stolen the stone from his grave. Then she saw that his name was spelled wrong. The company had made an error on the original stone and had not told her they had made a duplicate to place on his grave. “

Can you imagine yourself in that situation? Poor Mike thought he was providing a community service, but as they say, no good deed goes unpunished. I believe he later absolved himself of the grievous offense by bathing in a pool of sacred lambs’ tears.

References and Links of Interest:

*Scouting Jamboree - The national Scout jamboree is a gathering, or jamboree of thousands of members of the Boy Scouts of America, usually held every four years and organized by the National Council of the Boy Scouts of America. Referred to as "the Jamboree", "Jambo", or NSJ, Scouts from all over the nation and world have the opportunity to attend. They are considered to be one of several unique experiences that the Boy Scouts of America offers.

How to Make Tombstone Rubbings

Want to try it yourself?