When people use the expression “carved in stone,” they are referencing something they regard as permanent, unchanging. Inscriptions carved in tombstones are inscribed in stone, usually granite or marble. They are not easily altered, but time and the elements ultimately take their toll.
To preserve the weathered inscriptions and keep them legible, it is occasionally necessary to offer light maintenance to facilitate the perpetuation of the sculpted lettering.
Historic St. Luke’s Church in Isle of Wight County near Smithfield hosts frequent cemetery preservation workshops to teach volunteers how to properly maintain the tombstone inscriptions in their ancient churchyard. The hands-on workshops provide the knowledge and experience needed to preserve epitaphs that are engraved in stone.
“Memory is very important to us,” said John Ericson, education coordinator at Historic St. Luke’s Church. “It has been said that the way we respect those who have come before us says an awful lot about how we treat the people that are still with us.”
Maintaining the final resting places for the people interred at St. Luke’s churchyard is a very important consideration. In addition to cleaning the ancient stones, Ericson has been engaged in collecting the biographies of people buried on the site to learn more about them and share the information with families across the country.
“Peoples’ stories are what we are about,” said Ericson. “I’m amazed by the people who give up a Saturday to do this work. They take such pride in it. They take before and after photos. Everybody is so thrilled with the results, recognizing that they have had an impact on maintaining these final resting places.”
Recently, members of the Parker family received the tender affection of volunteers who gently removed stains and lichens from their respective monuments.
“They were a very important family to Isle of Wight County,” observed Ericson.
In addition to cleaning tombstones, St. Luke’s is “getting involved” in creating a cemetery preservation fund to facilitate the repair of damaged gravestones.
“Weather can be really brutal on these markers. Slowly fading the inscriptions and the carvings but also damaging the stones themselves,” said Ericson. “Nothing is permanent that is made by man. They definitely need care. Our volunteers are doing an awful lot to preserve these markers.”
Even light cleaning does a minimal amount of damage to tombstones. It does wear on the stone. At St. Luke’s, cleaning is not done often. When it is done, it is performed in a way recommended by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources in Richmond. Cleaning is performed using the least invasive techniques on the stone so the aging markers last long into the future.
“There is some wear with cleaning; however, if we fail to clean, there is also damage that can be done there,” noted Ericson. “Failure to clean lichens from lettering or carvings can have a deleterious effect on the stone. It’s a less invasive thing to clean than not clean.”
Aging stones often become illegible. People can not read the names and inscriptions carved into the surface obscuring the primary purpose of the ledger stone. Cleaning the stones according to Ericson is the most helpful way to preserve the memory of the people who are interred at St. Luke’s. “They are very important to us,” said Ericson.
Soft bristled brushes and wooden tools are used to remove stain, lichens, and encrusted debris. The loosened fragments are rinsed off with water. A Triton X-100 solution is brushed onto the wet stone and rinsed off thoroughly. The stone is allowed to dry.
“A lot of people take these techniques and apply them in their own family or church cemeteries,” said Ericson. “We’re happy to make these connections with our volunteers. It’s information that should be widely spread.”
Crystal Kitchen was among the volunteers who participated in the cemetery preservation workshop. Kitchen helped to restore the inscriptions on two grave stones in the Parker plot – a large marker and a smaller stone.
“I live here in Smithfield. I think that St. Luke’s is one of our greatest county treasures,” said Kitchen. “I think it’s important that we give back and preserve it for future generations. Even though the inscription is carved in stone, it still needs some tender, loving care.”
Father Thomas Crowder of St. Matthew’s Parish in Newport News recently visited some of his ancestors’ graves in Oregon.
“They definitely need some cleaning and attention,” said Crowder. “I thought I would come here and learn how best to do that so that I can appropriately honor them and take care of their stones, and not do any damage.”
Jonah Peters came from Richmond to participate in the preservation project and invited a few friends to join him. Peters chose to restore the decorative work on the tombstone of Nora Wise Parker while Jessie Kanuris worked on preserving the inscriptions on that memorial stone.
“I take a lot of pride and fascination in the preservation of history, especially local history,” said Peters. “When there are smaller, local events that focus on less recognized history, I like to attend and support them.”
Jessie Kanuris teaches social studies full time so anything history related gets her attention. Prior to teaching social studies she worked at James Madison’s Montpelier. Kanuris characterizes herself as a “big history nerd in general” with a belief in getting involved in local history in particular.
“I never did the preservation thing. I did the cemetery tour in October,” said Karnuris. “When I saw they were doing this, I thought it would be just a cool thing to do. Get involved with local history and keep these things clean.”
For Victoria Windt, a workshop participant, it was not her first visit to Historic St. Luke’s Church and Museum. Windt was favorably impressed with what she -and others – had accomplished during the preservation workshop.
“I’ve been here a couple times before. It seemed to be a really great opportunity to honor the dead. I’m really happy with the results so far,” said Windt. “It’s kind of crazy to see how clean the stones can get and how much the weather and time have changed the appearance of the grave stones.”
Historic St. Luke’s Church and Museum will be hosting another cemetery preservation workshop on Saturday, May 20, 2023. For additional information, call St. Luke’s at 757-357-3367 or contact John Ericson at firstname.lastname@example.org