FEATURE ‌ Gravestones at Death's Door 

Preservationists seek to save a piece of Charleston's history

Samuel Stevens is having a hard time standing tall these days. Richard Walker's bed is getting uprooted by a growing tree. Henry DeSaussure seems to be walking off to parts unknown, and Sara Lothrop would likely do the same if she wasn't bolted to the churchyard wall.

It's hard to believe you have to worry about such things as posture, aging, and weather after you've gone on to whatever your religion deems "the afterlife." But some of Charleston's oldest standing inhabitants, or at least their tired and worn gravestones in downtown churchyards, are slowly slipping to the great beyond as well.

Cemetery trolling is a tourist tradition and wouldn't hurt the uninitiated local either. The cemetery at Circular Congregational Church is one of the oldest in the region and includes priceless finds including one of the largest collections of medallion gravestone carvings in the country. There's also several stones with "death's head" carvings and other imagery that predates the angels and crosses that are standards today. Several cemeteries, including St. Philip's churchyard and Magnolia Cemetery, house national legends and war heroes.

"I consider them almost like an art gallery," says preservationist Frances Ford.

But there's some prize finds in area graveyards that should be filed under the "catch a sight before it's gone" category. Local churches and nonprofits do their part to protect aging gravestones, but with limited resources and a lack of skilled workers, it's evident by a stroll through most any graveyard that all cannot be helped.

Robert Russell, a preservationist at the College of Charleston, began working in local graveyards with undergraduate students in a month-long, daily course in cemetery conservation, but he now performs repair work year-round as projects present themselves.

"There's this pretty significant demand for repairs," he says, due to wear and vandalism.

It may defy logic, but the older the stone, the better the chance it's naturally preserved. That's because stones from the 18th century were made from slate sent down from the Northeast, where stone carvers were skilled and plentiful. The resulted carvings are stunning, even today.

"Even from this much exposure, this many years, we're talking 1732, how many rainstorms, how many hurricanes ... it's really amazing how well the slate holds up for the most part," says Jonathan Appell, a Connecticut gravestone conservator who was in the region for work last month and stopped in Charleston to drum up business.

In the 19th century, folks switched from the dingy looking slate to the crisp, bright look of marble, which turned out to be a great short-term investment, but not one for the long haul.

"You have to picture this as being all white and not necessarily a high polish, but at least a white satin finish," Appell says of one stone now darkened by centuries. "In the Victorian era, marble was the most desirable and it was sold to be a permanent material in an outdoor environment. They had no way to know this would happen."

What happened is a much sharper decay exacerbated by the elements, with faded lettering, evident cracks and breaks, and the occasional fallen stone. In the late 18th century, granite took its place as more durable than marble and a little more attractive then slate, and it has been the standard bearer since, but the older stones that came before it stand in dire straits.

"One of the hopeful things is that there have been a lot of preservation efforts," says Jonathan Poston, author of the upcoming Charleston's Early Churchyards and Cemeteries, a pictorial of the history of downtown burial grounds and cemeteries.

The Historic Charleston Foundation has assisted many local churches in cataloging gravestones and repair needs, says Poston, a former foundation employee who now directs Clemson University's Center for Historic Preservation.

While many of the area churches have special cemetery funds to assist with upkeep and repairs, the nonprofit Magnolia Cemetery relies almost entirely on families to take care of damaged tombstones. In the older areas, the age and disrepair of stones is evident. One heavy stone lies face down on the deathbed after breaking at its base.

"If a lot of time goes by, we might set one up or lay it down to make sure it's not damaged further," says long-time superintendent Beverly Donald. "The only time we ever stepped in was when we got assistance after Hugo."

Considering the damage to long-standing buildings, it's not surprising that gravestones paid a price during Hurricane Hugo. Magnolia cited damage to about six stones per acre in its 130 acres. Circular Congregational had nine to 12 stones damaged and St. Philip's had "several dozen," mostly because of fallen trees, according to records by the Historic Charleston Foundation.

"There are some cemeteries that still have Hugo damage," Poston says.

Ford, a St. Philip's Episcopal Church member, recently completed her 10th grave site repair job in the churchyard. The work was on a box tomb that had been severely damaged, with the marble lid resting in several pieces.

"It'd been broken for years and the pieces were still there, so we wanted to do it before any got lost," said Richard Hutchins, chair of the church's cemetery committee. The problem for St. Philip's in the past hasn't been finding the money, he says, because they have a cemetery fund dedicated to maintenance. "Finding somebody available that can do a proper job — that's the key."

Ford has seen a variety of stone problems since she began working in the churchyard last year, noting the first priority was fixing dangerous stones near the walkways frequented by tourists. St. Philip's has the advantage of a collection of gravestone pieces piled in the back of the churchyard. It's nearly impossible to return the pieces to the right place, but Ford said she was able to find one 500-pound piece last year.

"Every time I'm missing a piece, I go back there and look," she says.

One project, repairing one of the older slate stones, looked like an easy fix for two pieces, but the stone turned out to be in 18 pieces. Most were buried near the base of the gravestone, likely by someone who had tried to repair the stone years ago.

"It was a bear," she says. "That was like putting a puzzle back together."

The next project Ford's likely to tackle came from a quick look at cracked gravestones that were lying flat on the ground. Through some limited excavation, she discovered they were actually box tombs that had sunk almost entirely into the ground. Plans are similar to the repairs of the box tomb she recently completed, but will likely include raising the tombs with a crane.

Leaning stones are a more common problem and a sure sign of trouble, Appell says. It's not uncommon to see heavy marble gravestones lying face down in the deathbed.

"It's a very slow moving thing, but it will fall on its own if it's not corrected," he says. "When it falls it will most definitely break and then it will be much harder to fix."

The solution is to dig under the gravestone and fill in the soil with packed sand or gravel, he says. But in some cases, like Mr. Steven's six-foot-tall marker, the four pieces that make up the marker are loose, requiring a conservator to disassemble it and put it back together.

Maintenance also is a factor. A slate stone in one cemetery shows the tell-tale markings of a weedwhacker near its base. "That's something they obviously didn't have back then," Appell says, noting it's better to have ground cover around the stones that don't need maintenance.

And then there's the unexplainable cemetery mishaps. The obelisk standing atop the marker for DeSaussure reaches more than 10 feet in the air, but seems to be "walking off" the rest of the monument, really a more common problem in the North, where condensation will get under the piece, freeze, and then slide it.

"Sometimes it does this on its own," he says. "It will usually do these if it's leaning, but this is really very flat."

Cost for repairs varies depending on size and circumstances of the repairs, but can run from $100 to more than $1,000. Graveyards like Circular and St. Philips provide their own unique challenges.

"Accessibility is a factor because, generally, in historic graveyards you can't get equipment in," Appell says, "so you have to do things by hand."

Some of the older stones may be beyond repair because they're too weak. Others could receive more damage than good from a cleaning.

"Especially with highly eroded stones, you're going to remove the surface of the stone in order to clean it and that diminishes the stone" Appell says.

Circular Congregational Church plans to let its aging marble stones deteriorate naturally because of the risk of damage with repair, but church hall expansion plans has led to the church to repair some relocating stones, says Bill Simpson, the church's graveyard chair.

Students in Russell's cemetery preservation course can be antsy about being in the graveyard at first, but Russell says by the end of the course they're fascinated by the opportunity to work with pieces that are centuries old.

"Basically, this is fine-art conservation," he says.

Considering the plethora of needy cemetery residents like Stevens and DeSaussure, more gravestone foot soldiers will be needed in the fight against age and the elements.


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