Preserving the past, one stone at a time

Published 1:49 pm Wednesday, November 23, 2016

By John Edwards


Isle of Wight history is etched in stone in more places than you might imagine.

Throughout the county — in churchyards, pastures and little-known wooded settings — tombstones record the lives and deaths of county residents.

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One of the larger concentrations is also one of the oldest. Historic St. Luke’s Church’s original burial ground and an adjacent Victorian-era cemetery together are home to approximately 650 gravestones. And that doesn’t count the unmarked graves known to exist in the shadow of the 17th century church building. An effort has now begun to protect those stones and the historic information they contain for future generations.

Many of the marked graves at St. Luke’s and elsewhere simply record names, while others tell a bit more, but collectively they embrace a large segment of Isle of Wight’s past. {mprestriction ids=”1,2,3,4,5,6″}

Unfortunately, many of the tombstones at St. Luke’s and throughout Isle of Wight are deteriorating at an alarming rate. And the deterioration is in part due to the material grieving families once used to mark the passing of loved ones.

From the 1700s up through the early 1900s, the stone of choice for tombstones was marble. What could be better? It’s a beautiful stone, it can be carved with relative ease with the tools available back then and it was, at least for families of some means, readily available.

But marble is soft, at least in comparison to granite, and its relative softness makes it vulnerable to wear. And it is particularly vulnerable to acid, which in small quantities, has fallen from the sky in the form of acid rain for the past century.

Granite, which has been used more regularly than marble in recent decades, can deteriorate as well, but not nearly so rapidly.

Thus, this dilemma: The oldest stones at St. Luke’s and elsewhere are also, generally, of marble and are thus most susceptible to the polluted environment of the world today.

The best protection for old tombstones and the messages they impart is to clean them, and as part of its mission to preserve St. Luke’s and its grounds, the Historic St. Luke’s Restoration staff has begun a tombstone cleaning project. Over the course of the next several years, the young staff members at the church — with what they hope will be a cadre of volunteers — plan to scrub lichen and other mold off tombstones and slow, if not halt, the aging process of stones, particularly those of marble.

Saturday, a group of 15 volunteers gathered at the church to work on the Jordan family plot near the visitor’s center. Education Coordinator Jennifer Popp led the training workshop, demonstrating the very time-consuming method of safely cleaning an old piece of stone.

One volunteer was Corey Keel. New to the community, Keel is a sailor aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, now at Newport News Shipbuilding. He’s living in Smithfield and commuting to the shipyard.

“I volunteer wherever I go,” he said of his interest in the St. Luke’s project.

Assistant St. Luke’s Director Collin Norman said the St. Luke’s staff had attended a workshop sponsored by the Virginia Department of Historic Resources to learn what they, in turn, imparted to volunteers Saturday.

Among the things they learned is that you can apply too much tender loving care to a tombstone. While cleaning them is important, it should only be undertaken once every decade. Cleaning them more often than that can actually increase the damage.

St. Luke’s Executive Director Todd Ballance said the cost of tombstone preservation is virtually all in the labor. The chemicals, brushes and other equipment cost very little. For that reason, St. Luke’s is hoping to interest volunteers in helping with the work on a continuing basis during warm weather, he said.  {/mprestriction}