Tombstone Photography – Hallowed Stones

Our November 9, 2011 “Hallowed Stones – Cemetery Restoration” program by Mark Davis – Stone Saver Cemetery Restoration was well attended. Lots of questions were asked during and after Mark Davis’ program. An encore presentation to his January 14, 2009 program when a dozen or so brave souls ignored a winter weather advisory of near zero° wind chills and several inches of blowing and drifting snow. His program emphasizes maintaining and restoring the original tombstone presentation. I have photos from his day long 2005 workshop in Auburn, DeKalb County, Indiana on my personal web site. Mark is now too busy restoring tombstones scheduling 18 months in advance to offer workshops anymore.

Mark mentioned pre-1835 tombstones are likely a tan or gray colored sandstone, a soft easily damaged stone rare in Indiana, although I have seen a few in the oldest parts of older cemeteries. Next came white Italian marble imported from Italy in slabs, often adding a mass produced emblem and then hand sculpted names and dates popular until the late 1800’s. Gray granite tombstones a much harder stone became popular in the late 1800’s.

Marble stones could last 500 years under ideal circumstances, but are soft and easily damaged by lawn mowers, grass trimmers, absorbing chemical salts, and more. Water and soft plastic bristle brushes with hand labor are the safest cleaning techniques. Concrete, silicone rubber, bleach, weed killers, glues, non-stone adhesives, and chemicals can permanently damage and discolor the stone.

Empty square holes held tintype photos, I’ve seen a couple in Indiana and have to wonder who took them. Mark had one photo of an eight year old girl whose tintype was still in the tombstone, another was a 150 year old paper newspaper obituary still intact in a metal tombstone box in Colorado where the very low humidity prevented the paper from rotting as would occur here in our humid Midwest climate.

One series of questions about not damaging tombstones to revel hard to read information using common techniques like chalk rubbings, shaving cream and flour to read the tombstone data caught my attention. If not completely washed off with clean water, some type of permanent damage is possible especially when baked on by the extreme heat of July and August summer droughts.

The recommended non-destructive technique is to document the tombstones by taking photos before any attempts at cleaning or restoration. If you don’t know what you are doing, then hire someone who does. It can cost thousands of dollars to recreate one authentic replica tombstone. There are plenty of websites with information such as Gravestone Study Association and others linked on my 2005 workshop in Auburn, DeKalb County, Indiana web page.

Take Photographs

If the tombstone information is hard to read then take photographs when the angle of the sun creates shadows of the dates and names normally around 2:15 pm on a sunny day depending on the season. I have taken 1,000’s of tombstone photos in dozens, perhaps 100’s of cemeteries around Indiana and Ohio over the past 10 years. I use a digital camera and a tripod, but have seen the negative results of using chalk, shaving cream and worse. Pioneer cemeteries normally do not have running water, and most modern cemeteries no longer provide water for watering live plants since only removable artificial decorations are now recommended.

When possible I make at least 2 visits to a cemetery. The first visit is to take as many photos as possible of all tombstones in the area to later analyze the lay of the cemetery, family relationships, and the quality of the images to reveal all available information. I notice the location of tombstones relative to similar or recognizable names on other tombstones, trees, shrubs, buildings and any thing else that affects the angle of sunlight.

Sunny tombstone photo

4:07 pm CDT

Shadow tombstone photo

12:48 pm CDT

As shown in the photos above, the position of the sun according to the season, time of day, cloud cover, etc. all determine the clarity of the photos. The photo on the left was taken at 4 pm CDT (Central Daylight Time) with the sun shinning directly on the stone, the photo on right was taken the next day at 12:48 pm CDT with the sun coming in from an angle. I go into more detail on my Tombstone Photo page where I show another example of the difference time of day and angle of the sun shining directly onto the stone makes on the final photo, or how the sun shining from an angle from the side creates shadows highlighting dates and words chiseled into the stone.

Mirrors to Reflect Sunlight

Another non-destructive photography example is using mirrors to reflect the sun onto tombstones in the shade that reveal otherwise invisible information. A picture really is worth a 1,000 words as seen in the photos below from this Mirror Photography page.

Shady photo

In the shade

Shady photo

Mirror reflecting sun

On both of my personal pages I provide more information with links to related cemetery restoration and photo pages as well as Mark Davis – Stone Saver Cemetery Restoration company page.

The blog “How To Take Better Gravestone Photos” discusses using a camera flash similar to the mirror technique on Marian’s Roots and Rambles blog when there is no sun.

Microchip Technology

At the end of program Ron Stanley of R & T Monuments gave a quick overview of the latest technology of an RFID microchip that can be glued on old monuments or in a drilled hole in new monuments for access by smartphones and mobile devices using internet connections.

This video Tombstone Technology: Passing Information on Generation After Generation with Curt Witcher of the Genealogy Center shows the R & T Monument microchips recorded June 27, 2011 by IndianaNewsCenter.

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