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Plots’ points send a message

| August 27, 2023 12:00 AM

Cemeteries figure large in my upbringing.

My family often braked for graveyards in our decades of Montana adventures, and I fondly recall the first cross-country meet of the season in high school, which took place in an Anaconda cemetery.

Shivering in our singlets, we plunged in among the graves, set on a steep hill overlooking town. The air felt thin and crisp in fall. I never felt so alive.

I often seek out cemeteries for solitude, big trees, the quiet, easy walking, tiny history lessons written in names and dates, and recently something else.

“I think I found a good one!” I shout at my friend Kia, who’s game for traipsing Demersville Cemetery with me this hot August afternoon. On the way, we had talked of some recent losses: the death of her friend’s child, my marriage.

Last time we went cemetery touring we also postholed in January snow around the C.E. Conrad Memorial Cemetery, four miles north. Signed as “the best last place,” the registered historic landmark boasts thousands of graves, including those of several Montana governors, and the Conrad Mausoleum.

Then there’s Demersville Cemetery, which charms in a down-at-heel way. Dogs bark from the neighboring Flathead County Animal Shelter. Portable toilets on an adjacent property stud the horizon. This summer day the terrain is parched and bumpy. Grasshoppers ricochet off our knees.

“I like it!” Kia says, appraising the headstone’s artwork and lettering. On closer inspection, we see the stone and inscription are spotted by lichen.

The stiff brush in my Oldstone Enterprises rubbing kit is meant to remove lichen, which some say can damage the stone and erase the epitaph.

Kia and I debate the lichen, and I raise the brush.

“It could take thousands of years to grow back,” she interjects. I sigh and put down the brush. Turns out the lichen rubs the right way, artistically — as organic bursts playing across the paper.

We schlep equipment from one headstone to another: a tube of paper, knee cushion, scissors, wax and other tools. At each stop we grapple with cutting a piece of paper to size — maddening even in a modest breeze — then tape it in place. Passing the wax puck over the stone is slow and steady; it takes time to learn the pressure required. We chuckle about a dying art.

Lichen issue aside, the maker of gravestone rubbings must leave no trace and do no harm.

We rub and watch the reveal: Words and lines clearly appear on the paper. More than a century ago, the engraver took care to carve in honor of a person who passed. We take care to read.

The typography is gorgeous, sometimes slanted in unusual directions, and carefully drawn and proportional.

Headstone imagery beams forth with details undetected by our naked eye: A ship suddenly gains a flag and oar. The waves underneath ripple.

For the last rubbing of the afternoon, we crouch in front of Arabell S. Tiffany’s headstone, circa 1910. We chose it for her name, the typography, and the frame around the edge, but there’s more.

At the top, I push the wax along and suddenly “Love” appears where you would otherwise never see it.

Margaret E. Davis, executive director of the Northwest Montana History Museum, can be reached at mdavis@dailyinterlake.com.