A lot of people think there's something weird about tombstone rubbing.

They have a point.

Hanging around graveyards when your kinfolk don't reside there is a bit suspicious. But for some, tombstone rubbing, the art of transfering the designs and epitaphs of old stones onto paper with a hard wax, is an offbeat way to creat "instant art."

It's also a guaranteed vicarious trip into the past.

Let you and your imagination wander through a cemetry. You'll discover the spirits of wives who died at age 20 and those children struck with the tragic maladies we've supposedly conquered. Somehow when you sit down and work, observation becomes first-hand participation in history.

"It's therapeutic," says a first-time rubber. "You feel like you're doing something creative, and nothing can go wrong."

A gravestone carving can be as high-minded as gates to heaven or as foreboding as a skull and crossbones. Some epitaphs are poignant: "She was the sunshine of our home." Others are punchy: "Here lies my wife, much lamented; she is happy and I'm contended." And, of course, for the more laconic, "R.I.P."

The "rubber," after brushing the tombstone of its lichen and bird dropping, simply tapes a piece of strong paper - rice paper is deal - to the stone's face and transposes the textured image onto it with a piece of hard wax.

Better obtain permission before starting a rub. A cemetry caretaker might not be as enthusiastic as you are about your new means of artistic expression, especially when it involves an old and crumbling stone. Roberts Lederer recently organized an expedition into St. Mary's County for the Smithsonian Resident Associates program. After one church refused to allow the group access to its tombs, she concluded that "People sometimes get a litte touchy about cemeteries."

Graveyards weren't always so ill-omened.

They served as family picnicking grounds back in the old days, and tombstones were lovingly carved as works of art, immortalizing grief - or, as the case might be, relief Proclaims one, "Deeply regretted by all who never knew him."

Somehow modern-day slabs just don't have that same kick.

Helen Keer went on the Smithsonian trip after having seen brass rubbings - basically the same technique but transposing imprints from monumental brass works - in New York. She sought out the most moss-eaten tombs to rub, as she enjoyed picking out detail on her paper that had been illegible on the stones themselves due to corrosion.

Would she go again? "If someone with a car said, 'Do you want to ride out in the country and go on a rubbing?,' sure I'd go."

Jane Dalton, an early American history buff, talked her friend Bev Davis into going on their first rub several weeks ago. Davis was a natural choice: she's always found cemeteries "peaceful" and enjoys sitting in them. "People think that's weird," she freely notes. She was skeptical about the excursion, for she'd always limited her graveyard activity to tranquil meditation. Now one of her rubbings hangs on her office wall.

Dalton is planning a second attempt. "It's intimate. You become really involved in these people's lives," she explains. "You are literally sitting on their graves." That reason, as much as aesthetic considerations, explains her reluctance to rub recent stones. She feels more comfortable sitting on the marker of a sould long departed.

They visited an old churchyard. Davis looked for floral designs, finishing four in two hours. "It's the greatest thrill. You tape on the paper and use this crayon and form an imprint." Dalton worked more slowly, seeking out "sweet, touching" sayings and simple, primitive designs.

She also did rubbings from the tombs of one of the early ministers and his wife. "They were the leaders then," she observed. "I got a feeling of the community, the church and the individual coming together with them."

Mary Ann Kephart first became interested in rubbing during a stay in Europe, and even attended a tombstone seminar in the midst of her daughter's graduation festivities at Brown University. The people who wrote the epitaphs "weren't as imaginative here as in New England," she concedes, as she tries to remember any wacky stones she's seen in the Washington area."They were more the frontiersmen-type."

Instead, she has used the rubbing tecnique on slabs marking the boundaries of her family's Poolesville farm. Anything textured, she says, is potential material for a good rub. One enterprising New York artist specializes in manhole covers.

Michael Humphries, the archeologist at St. Clement's Island/Potomac River Museum, recently began receiving phone inquiries from "a whole gamut of people" about tombstone rubbing and decided he should learn a bit about it. He still can't much see the appeal, but he claims to have found a favorite epitaph, from a jokester on the Maryland Eastern Shore who got in the last word - "I told you I was sick."

Humphries now knows enough about rubbing to stress the importance of proper materials, especially masking tape. This securely fastens the rice paper to the stone, preventing wax from damaging it. If the stone is awkwardly shaped in a way that makes taping difficult, Humphries counsels that is begining rubbre leave it to the more experienced.

"Wherever you find an old church, you'll find an old cemetery," says Jane Sween, the librarian of the Montgomery County Historical Society. The rule of the rubber is to call a church rectory or a municipal cemetery's office to get the go-ahead, rather than just to wander into an inviting-looking graveyard. Most welcome visitors, but a few, especially those hit by vandals, restrict entrance family only.