View Full Version : Historic cemetery may gain new life

11-12-06, 09:22 AM
Historic cemetery may gain new life
St. Helena church catalogs repairs
Published Sunday November 12 2006
The Beaufort Gazette

Not only is St. Helena's Episcopal Churchyard the final resting place for dozens of storied veterans since the 18th century, it is a veteran of war itself.

Marble table stones, a popular type of tombstone in the early 1800s, survived conversion from markers of the dead to places of death for Union soldiers. The church and its graveyard served as a hospital for occupying forces in 1864.

Almost 100 years earlier, the grounds endured trampling by horses from occupying British troops as they used the church as a stable during the Revolutionary War, which church archivist Bob Barrett said is somewhat odd since at the time the parish was considered part of the Church of England.

"But it wasn't destroyed by the horses anyway," he said. "It may have been the best place to stable them, but they looked upon rebels as being traitors to the church, too."

After almost 300 years of surviving war and tumultuous events in Beaufort history, St. Helena's Episcopal Church wants to ensure that the churchyard endures

300 more.

Last week, national graveyard conservation experts arrived to start cataloguing grave sites as part of a massive preservation project the church is undertaking for the churchyard.

"This will give us a complete guideline and show us what long-range preservation we need to do," said Charley Webb, chairman of the churchyard committee at St. Helena's. "(The conservationist) told us it's not something you do in a year. It might take 25 to 30 years."

Perched on a small stone wall encircling a family plot Friday morning as the Veterans Day parade trumpeted in the distance, Lynette Strangstad, an expert from a Wisconsin preservation company, diligently concentrated on her work of recording.

"I'm assessing the conservation needs of the cemetery stone by stone, marker by marker," she said. "It's in pretty good repair overall."

Strangstad has analyzed numerous historic cemeteries and said there are no truly unique features in St. Helena's churchyard. But, she said, the enclosure wall, though not made entirely of original material, is rare because most towns have torn such walls down by now. Preserving the character of the cemetery is important, she said.

"It tells us a lot about our culture -- how we deal with death," Strangstad said. "The funerary elements tell us how we lived from one century to another." Strangstad noted. The churchyard wasn't structured by era, in that once one area was filled, another began to be used. At St. Helena's churchyard, burials a hundred years apart might be right next to each other.

Local historians tend to think the churchyard is special, though, and consider it one of the most historic in the nation, Barrett said.

The parish was founded in 1712, and there were burials in the churchyard as early as 1724, according to church histories.

Among the first was Col. John Barnwell, or "Tuscarora Jack," whose grave is marked by an iron fence and a plaque. But Barrett said it is believed that the actual burial ground lies beneath the church building that has expanded twice.

The churchyard is full of Barnwells and other prominent figures in Beaufort's history, including two Confederate generals.

But locals perhaps celebrate most the more unexpected burials in the churchyard, including two British soldiers killed in the battle of Port Royal at Grays Hill in 1779.

They were interred at a spot just inside the Church Street entrance two days after they died, but it wasn't until 1979 that the site was marked with a gravestone, Barrett said. The grave now sports two modern Union Jacks placed there by church members.

Many of the earliest graves weren't marked, either, or at least not with anything more durable than wood crosses, Barrett said, causing a number of over-burials during the churchyard's history.

One still-living parishioner remembers witnessing the discovery of an over-burial almost 90 years ago. While on a walk with her father, she came across gravediggers who had just dug up a human skull, Barrett said.

When the church was constructing its new Parish House in the 1930s across Newcastle Street, a few marked graves and a common grave of about 25 skeletons were found, according to church histories

Some say the remains were from a cemetery next to a Presbyterian church that used to exist nearby. Barrett said others speculate whether the remain were people buried outside the church back when those killed in a duel or who committed suicide weren't allowed to be buried in the churchyard.

Most of the plots in the churchyard were spoken for about 100 years ago, Barrett said, so in the 1950s, the church opened the "new cemetery" adjacent to it where current members can purchase plots for upwards of $400.

On rare occasions someone from an old Beaufort family is buried in a remaining space in a family plot within the old churchyard, Barrett said.

As for the future conservation plans for the churchyard, Webb said it will probably take another six to eight months to receive a report on what the experts think should be done. Since such graveyard experts are rare, the study "ain't cheap," said Webb, who added that he didn't have figures on its cost.

After receiving the recommendations, volunteers will be enlisted to help clean off gravestones and tidy up the churchyard under the direction of conservationists and determine how much money the church is willing to raise or spend on the project, Webb said.

"This is a process that requires a lot of patience," he said. "When the final report comes out, we'll be more than happy to (give) information to the public."

The preservation project is important because history is so important in this once fairly isolated southern town, Barrett said.

"The history of the church you can't separate from the history of the churchyard," he said. "We have an obligation to those buried to perpetuate their memories through gravestones."