Reading Headstones

By Mary Harrell-Sesniak, RootsWeb Review columnist

Ah, the old shaving cream technique.

A recent article of mine suggested applying wetted, non-toxic, colored sand to illegible headstones.

Many readers reacted strongly and responded with their own ideas, so I wasn't a bit surprised to read that shaving cream was among the suggestions. Transcribers use it to read those elusive weathered epitaphs, and it works. They slather it on, and use either their hand or squeegee to remove the excess. The crevices then transform into readable text.

I thank them for their input, but personally I don't support the shaving cream technique.

It does wonders for tombstones; that is, if you don't mind leaving a sticky, gooey substance that sometimes causes permanent damage. Better to use a natural method. But don't take my word for it. The Association for Gravestone Studies says this about it:

"Our professional conservators tell us it is definitely not a good idea to use shaving cream on porous gravestones because there are chemicals, greasy emollients, in shaving cream that are sticky and very difficult to remove from the stone with a simple washing. Indeed, even with vigorous scrubbing and lots of rinsing, the cream fills in the pores of a porous stone and cannot all be removed. The result of leaving it there is that in time it may discolor or damage the stone." (

So do your part in saving cemetery stones. Try the Association's idea of shining light on the text with a mirror. This is a non-invasive way of getting otherwise illegible lettering to appear.

Here is a sight I came across that shows some pictures of how well a mirror can work to bring out the lettering on a headstone:

Obviously, there are varying opinions, and even the experts haven't arrived at a consensus. So start with non-invasive techniques, including using digital software to enhance images. After that, consult the cemetery staff and local boards, as local laws and rules determine which techniques are allowed. Ask them to put on workshops and organize groups to transcribe and photograph as many cemeteries as possible.

But since some stones will still be illegible, get involved in making a local policy.

I believe that a gravestone is a historical artifact first, and a piece of art second. It needs to be cleaned, conserved, and preserved for future generations, and that is the responsibility of the cemeteries and families. So if an epitaph has arrived at the point where it is illegible, take efforts to document the text before it is too late. But if you aren't a lineal descendant, a member of a cemetery staff, or a conservator, find someone who is to help you.

When I find a family grave, I like to think my ancestor is grateful that someone came to pay respects and even happier if an effort was made to tend to the plot.

My cousin is careful when she uses the sand technique, and pun intended, I do consider her to be an expert in the field. Not only has she uncovered long-ago forgotten and submerged stones, she has trimmed the weeds, cleaned the stones, and re-erected them amongst the ancestors. And I do the same whenever I can. We're off again soon on another ancestral hunt, and I imagine we'll visit a cemetery or two.

So let your conscience rule. If someone stumbled upon your time-weathered stone and couldn't decipher it, what would you want them to do? Personally, I give my lineal descendants permission to take further measures if they think it needs to be done.

Better to have visitors know who's who than to be lost to the elements.

Previously published in RootsWeb Review: 22 August 2007, Vol. 10, No. 34.

(Posted 30 September 2007)

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