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Spend Halloween weekend bringing damaged headstones back to life

Steele Creek Presbyterian Church Cemetery is hoping the public will help with restoration efforts this Halloween weekend.
Sarah Delia
Steele Creek Presbyterian Church Cemetery is hoping the public will help with restoration efforts this Halloween weekend.

Walking through Steele Creek Presbyterian Church Cemetery feels like a movie set. The headstones are perfectly spaced, creating clear neat paths. Golden rays of sunshine beam down. Vibrant red leaves slowly swirl to the earth.

Tommy Warlick, with theCharlotte-Mecklenburg Historic Landmarks Commission, stands in the oldest portion of the cemetery. The oldest stone dates back to 1763. The church building is currently owned by the airport and no longer in use by the congregation, which has since moved. The congregation still takes care of the upkeep of the cemetery. Both the church and cemetery have been designated by the historic landmarks commission.

This cemetery is a record-keeper of time and Mecklenburg history. Revolutionary War soldiers are buried here. So are notable Charlotteans like Reverend Billy Graham’s parents.

"This is a really good reflection of the historic character of Mecklenburg County, it is unlike much of the county, not highly developed with new buildings," said Stewart Gray, who is also with the landmarks commission.

The only thing that pops this picturesque fall bubble is what flies above.

Airplanes from nearby Charlotte Douglas International Airport are so close, when they descend it almost looks like they are headed toward a runway on cemetery grounds.

This lichen covered headstone shows how damaging the organic substance can be.
Tommy Warlick
This lichen covered headstone shows how damaging the organic substance can be.

Of course…that’s not the case, but both Gray and Warlick have a theory — they believe pollution from planes is having a negative impact on the headstones. Increased nearby car traffic doesn't help either.

Warlick points to a headstone covered in a pale green organic substance called lichen, a cross between fungus and algae. Left untreated, it has taken over the majority of this headstone. Warlick and Gray believe that pollution is accelerating its growing process.

"Lichen and fungi are things that you normally see growing on a tree, or something like that, because they're organic materials and they feed off of carbon," Warlick said. "That's what sort of attracts them and what causes them to grow and grow a little bit more. The chemical reaction that happens when acid rain hits these stones and sort of, dissolves the calcium carbonate is that it releases carbon, it releases gypsum, which is a very carbon-rich substance."

Some of the lichens are newly formed and can easily be scratched off.

Lichen growing on tombstones speeds up the aging process.
Sarah Delia
Lichen growing on tombstones speeds up the aging process.

Gray holds a large lichen flake. One side is green, the other side is black — which used to be part of the headstone.

"You know, there's some examples right there," Gray said, pointing to a headstone. "Lichen is going to town on it. And as the lichen grows, it, it deteriorates the stone."

Gray and Warlick admit there’s a lot of research yet to be done when it comes to fully understanding what’s going on. But they have been visiting other similarly sized cemeteries — cemeteries nowhere near an airport. And they say those cemeteries aren’t having the same issues.

Part of the reason they are so worried about the deterioration of the headstones is because of what we’re standing in front of — a Bigham headstone.

"So the Bighams were two brothers, William and Samuel, Irish immigrants. They were both professional stone carvers," Warlick said. "Their stone shop was the only stone carver shop in Mecklenburg County at least through the late 1770s."

Having a Bigham headstone commissioned was a symbol of social stature at the time. The brothers created funerary art through a relief technique that left imagery on the stone raised — arguably a more sophisticated, complicated method versus carving into a stone.

Gray and Warlick estimate there are some 70 Bigham stones here. And it’s those headstones they are starting with in their preservation efforts. Lichen seems to really like Bigham stones, which were typically made of soapstone, some from marble.

Standing in front of a Revolutionary War soldier’s grave, Warlick points to the top of the stone. There are supposed to be two crossed sabers according to old photos of this headstone in particular, but now the headstone is flat.

So this weekend, members of the historic landmarks commission along with the Steele Creek Presbyterian Church congregation are going to be applying a solution called D/2 to as many Bigham headstones as possible. This solution helps to scrub off the damaging lichen and preserve the stone. The public is invited to come and help as well; the group is meeting from 9-11 a.m. Saturday, Oct, 29, at the cemetery.

"These really talented stone carvers really put a lot of time and energy and effort into not just engraving stones, but doing these sort of relief sculptures," Warlick said. "And to have them just sort of slowly deteriorating away, like the General Hart stone that you saw, is just sad."

Headstones have a purpose, Warlick points out — to remember someone. If the design work and information fade away, then it’s nothing more than a stone. The hope is that, with these preservation efforts, they’ll be able to counter damage from the lichen. The hope is that the artistry found in this cemetery will live on, as will the memorials to those buried here.

Details for Saturday's event can be found here.

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Sarah Delia is a Senior Producer for Charlotte Talks with Mike Collins. Sarah joined the WFAE news team in 2014. An Edward R. Murrow Award-winning journalist, Sarah has lived and told stories from Maine, New York, Indiana, Alabama, Virginia and North Carolina. Sarah received her B.A. in English and Art history from James Madison University, where she began her broadcast career at college radio station WXJM. Sarah has interned and worked at NPR in Washington DC, interned and freelanced for WNYC, and attended the Salt Institute for Radio Documentary Studies.