Reading and Preserving Gravestones

I. What not to do to Gravestones II. Reading Gravestones III. Cemetery Preservation

Part II - Aides to reading grave stones

Hopefully the following techniques will assist you in reading grave stones. We are not experts by any stretch of the imagination; however, having been in over 200 cemeteries, taken over 100,000 photos, and transcribed over 30,000 stones, we feel we have a reasonable understanding of what works. The following materials and techniques all support the goal of getting as complete a reading as possible while still doing no harm.

Water, water, water
While we tend to use distilled water, tap water will suffice as long as it's been open to the air so that the chlorine evaporates. Typically we carry plastic spray bottles filled with water to wet the surface of the stone. Small garden sprayers will work just as well but can be tedious if you're attempting to work an entire cemetery. They are perfect if your intent is to completely clean a stone. A word of caution. If you're using water available at the cemetery, check for rust in the water. Rusty water will discolor the surface of the stone and it is extremely difficult to remove.
Does Water really work?
Before using water
Stone before applying water
Stone with water applied
Stone with water applied
Plastic scrapers
These can be obtained at discount and hardware stores. The plastic is significantly softer than the surface of the stone. Thus will wear without causing any damage to the stone.
A variety of brushes is typically needed. We carry three sizes: 4" and  2" flat, and 1" diameter round brushes. While there appears to be some debate about which type of brush material, bristle or manmade, is best, we can find not firm evidence that one causes more harm then the other. Consequently we tend to go with what ever is less expensive. What is important to remember is that if you wouldn't use it to wash your car, you shouldn't use it on a grave stone.
A mirror can be invaluable in reading some of the more difficult stones. Use it to shine light across the surface of the stone to create shadows in shallow or heavily eroded inscriptions.
Pen and Paper
Regardless of how good your photographic equipment may be or how skilled you are at enhancing digital images, there are just some stones that can not be read properly from a photograph. If we have any doubts that we'll be able to fully read the data on the stone from a photograph, we also record it the "old fashioned" way. There is a case to be made for using a pocket tape recorder rather than writing the information. However, the biggest problem we've encountered with this are variations in the spelling of names. Was the name Catherine or Catharine? Was it Timmerman or Timerman? Unless you are spelling out the names phonetically these variations can be lost.
Digital camera
The higher the resolution of the camera the better. Also you want optical zoom and not digital. All a digital zoom does is enlarge a segment of the image. It doesn't actually bring the image "closer" as it does with an optical zoom. Along with the camera you need to consider additional memory cards and batteries.

Techniques for reading stones

Every cemetery is different and every grave stone is unique. What works for one stone may not work for the next. In many cases it's a matter of trial and error to get the best possible transcription. The steps we use are really rather simple.

1. Survey the stone. Don't assume that everything contained on the stone is on the front and generally orientated close to the top. We find a number of inscriptions on the top of the base or below the epitaph. Typically these are for children. On older stones, they are usually infants that died along with the mother at or close to child birth. While you're walking around the stone, make an estimate of what you're going to have to do to get a full transcription.

2. Photograph the stone. Always take a photo of the stone prior to doing any work on it. This is your record of what the stone looked like prior to doing any cleaning. For tablet stones photograph the front and back. For monuments, photograph all sides. If it's a newer stone or an older stone in excellent condition, this may be all you need to do.

3. Clean the stone. This is really the tedious part and is crucial to getting an accurate transcription. Generally we'll spray the stone with water. Remove the biological material (moss, lichen, etc.) with a plastic scraper. Rarely will we ever use the scraper on a dry stone. Next brush over the stone to remove any remaining biological material and the surface water. At this point you should be able to determine if you can get a full transcription of what is on the stone. Often we have to repeat this process numerous times until the stone is clean. A pet peeve: don't just clean the area that contains the inscription. At the very least clean the entire front of the stone. Cleaning just the inscription area is not only unsightly, it also is a sign of disrespect. The stone is the visible representation of the individual buried there. Yes it takes longer, but it makes you a good steward of the history that you're attempting to record.

4. Photograph the stone. Typically you'll be able to tell by looking through the viewfinder of the camera if you're going to be able to get a good transcription. Now you also have documentary evidence of your handiwork. If the inscription is now fully readable on the photo, you're done with this stone. If its not fully readable, move on to the next step.

5. Shine light across the stone. Using the mirror, rake the front of the stone with light reflected from the mirror. Even with extremely faint inscriptions, the reflected light will cast enough shadow so that the inscription is readable.

6. Hand transcribe. If none of the above techniques enable you to fully read the stone, it's time to do it the old fashioned way. Rub your fingers across the letters and numbers that are in doubt. Generally you'll be able to distinguish those areas that are impossible to read with the eye. While you're doing this, study how the carver made the letters/numbers, the spacing, and the context. If we have to hand copy the transcription, we do the whole stone and not just the portion that is unreadable. Remember you'll want to tie your hand notes back to the photos you've taken.

This is basically how we go about reading stones. It actually takes longer to read than it does to put into practice. The more stones you do, the easier it becomes. Remember that you won't be able to get a full transcription for all stones. Also you're dealing with a piece of history, so don't employ any methods that will cause harm to the stones. Getting a more complete transcription at the detriment of the stone is irresponsible. So do no harm and preserve a bit history for future generations.

I. What not to do to Grave Stones II. Reading Grave Stones III. Cemetery Preservation