Chalk One Up For the Ancestors
by: Kathleen Last
Copying tombstones, either for your own family or to record a listing to share with others, can be a rewarding pastime. Over the last few years I have tried several methods to make it easier to read those old, worn stones that we all run across. Here are some of my tricks, tips and suggestions.
Before leaving for the cemetery I gather together my box of chalk, two or three pens, a clipboard with plenty of paper, and a small soft bristle scrub brush. All except the clipboard will fit nicely in a belly-pouch so your hands are free and everything is handy when you come across that stone that refuses to be read.
I have found that colored sidewalk chalk, those fat sticks the kids love to write with are great. They are easy to hold onto and come in a variety of colors. Chalk does no damage to the stone and leaves no lasting residue to further corrode the stone. It quickly washes off with the next rain. An added benefit is that it seems to eliminate the moss and lichens that are on many old stones.
If the stone has moss on it, gently rub it with the brush. If you still can't read the information, rub the chalk across the stone, as you would if you were taking a charcoal rubbing of the stone. All you need is enough to lighten the stone.
You want to avoid getting too much chalk in the engraving. Stand back and see the difference. If you still can't read it, go over it again with the chalk putting more on the areas that are hardest to read. In most cases the lettering on the stone will show up nice and dark and the background much lighter. This also works well if you plan on photographing the stone.
When copying information from a tombstone, all information should be copied as it is written on the stone, including any "spelling" errors. Stone engravers made mistakes in spelling a name as well as the census takers did. In many cases the person buying the stone could not read or write and the engraver would spell the name as he thought it should be spelled. If you want to put in the correct spelling when typing the list the correction should be put within bracket ( ) to indicate the information was added by the person copying the stone.
Dates need to be double-checked when copying. Keep in mind that a 4 can very easily be read as a 1. The left-hand side of the 4 is never as deep as the right and that part of the number seems to disappear. If you are unsure look at the 1 in the year and notice how the top left is curled. If the 1 you are looking at does not have the curl, it's probably a 4. The 5 and 6 are often read wrong, as are the 3 and the 8. When in doubt, use a little more chalk on the numbers or try to feel the engraving with your finger.
After you have copied all the information on the stone stand back and re-read the stone and compare it with what you have written. Make sure you can read what you have written! I sometimes get so excited over finding a long lost relative that I scribble down the information and run home to e-mail my cousin. When typing the e-mail I find that I forgot to put down the year, or his age, or I can't decide if I wrote Jan. or Jun. Checking your list before leaving the cemetery will save you the hassle of having to make a return trip.
In some instances you will not be able to read some part of the stone. The stone might have become broken, or so worn that parts all totally illegible. In cases like this get as much information as you can and make a note of the reason the stone can't be read. The condition of the stone is not going to get any better so whatever you can get now might be the only record of that stone a few years from now.
If the stone is broken into several pieces try to fit the pieces together. For some reason (probably to annoy us genealogist) many of the tombstones break right where the date is. If any part of the letters, top or bottom is legible, by carefully studying what's left it is often possible to make out some of the date. Compare what you have with other similar stones to see how the letters and numbers look.
If your cemetery trip was successful and you found many of your relatives it might be a good idea to plan a second trip there. If you are transcribing the cemetery to share with others this is a good way to ensure that there will be fewer mistakes. Bring along your first list and double check to make sure the information was copied correctly. Re-check any stones you couldn't completely read.
Sometimes just the different angle of the sun can make a difference in reading a stone. Be sure to look around for tombstones that you might have missed the first time. With the larger stones check on the sides for inscriptions that might have been overlooked.
Good luck with your cemetery trip and remember to enjoy the fresh air and sunshine. Just keep in mind that when it starts to get dark it's probably time to get home and have supper.