Modern Software Experience


a grave idea

gravestone rubbing

Gravestone rubbing is the practice of making rubbings of gravestones. There are various issues associated with gravestones rubbing. The Association for Gravestones Studies has a FAQ which includes Some Gravestone Rubbings do’s and don’ts.


There are many reasons to not make a rubbing at all. Practical reasons are high relief, sharp protuberances, cracks, eroded surface or brittle stone. Sandstone is particular susceptible to damage. A stone many need to be cleaned before making a rubbing, and it is easy to damage the stone when not cleaning it properly and carefully. And when there is a clean, perfect stone to rub, the cemetery may not allow rubbing at all or require that you obtain a permit first.

When you read up on gravestone rubbing and learn just how much can go wrong, how easy it is to damage stones with detergent, you may well wonder why there isn’t a world-wide ban on this strange practice yet.


Gravestone rubbing does not just strike me as rather disrespectful and undignified technique, but also as a rather outdated one. Who needs all the difficulties, indignities and risks of gravestone rubbings when you can simply take a photograph?

Sites like Find A Grave offer the ability to share such photos with anyone else and provide room for transcriptions or notes.

life size

Some argue that gravestone rubbings are a work of art. I disagree. Perhaps the stone is a work of art, but the rubbing is just a poor copy.

Some like the fact that rubbings are life size, but you do not need to make a rubbing for that. You can easily print life-size photographs.


One argument that proponents of rubbing could muster that makes some sense to me is that a picture does not capture the two-dimensional relief like a rubbing does.
I agree completely; a photograph can capture the relief in much finer detail than a rubbing can. Good use of shadows caused by natural or artificial light makes the tiniest relief detail stand out.


Stereo photography captures the relief even more vividly; a stereogram provides the same depth perception as if one is there.


In fact, stereophotogrammetry could be used to calculate a three-dimensional object from the pictures - and now that computing power is cheap, such techniques may well become common. You might be able to snap a few shots and see a 3D model on your Palm phone just a few seconds later. You could then apply shadows or colours to enhance readability or - if you fancy that - make a virtual rubbing.


The main difficulty of stereo photography is that the two pictures should align well, and that is best achieved by mounting two cameras some distance apart on a fixed stick or a rails.

synthesized reality

Most of us have just one camera and are not eager to mess around with mounting and aligning them. Luckily, we do not need to. We can get three-dimensional pictures using just one camera; just take a bunch of pictures from different angles and then load them into Photosynth.


The brief Photosynth Primer article explains what Photosynth is and how to view a synth. Making a Photosynth gives some practical tips and tricks on making your own. Much more information can be found on the Photosynth site itself.


Photosynth is more respectful and less invasive than gravestone rubbing by leaving the stones untouched. A digital camera captures all of it in full colour. Objects can be photographed and then viewed from all sides. A zoom shot captures details neither a rubbing nor an ordinary photo would capture, and the software places that zoom shot in the context of a wider shot. Shots of the surroundings place an object in context, can show the graves next to it. You could even combine overview shots and photographs of individual graves into a virtual cemetery.

not perfect

Photosynth is not perfect. It is a proprietary Microsoft technology and you need to upload your synth to their website for others to view it.

Yet I still think genealogist, especially graveyard rabbits, should add Microsoft Photosynth to their toolkit. I would much rather come across someone snapping a few pictures of my grandparents' grave than someone messing around to make a rubbing.