UNSUNG HEROES: Volunteers restore decades-old headstones in Wilmington cemetery
WILMINGTON, N.C. (WECT) - Bellevue Cemetery has been a lot of things, including a Civil War battleground, a set for productions like Sleepy Hollow and One Tree Hill and of course, a burial ground. Over the years, those who knew the people buried there have moved on, leaving the cemetery to deteriorate over time.
Bellevue Cemetery serves as the final resting place for about 6,000 people. Many of them died well over a century ago when the cemetery first opened as a burial ground for those who couldn’t afford to bury their loved ones in Oakdale Cemetery.
If you visit the grounds today, many of the headstones are nearly black and the words unreadable due to years of being exposed to the elements. With a gentle power wash and some scrubbing, volunteers Marion Vernon and Ron Smith are making each plot look brand new.
Vernon and Smith don’t personally know anyone buried in Bellevue Cemetery as it’s been closed to most new burials for decades. Still, they’re there every afternoon to help solve the problem of deteriorating plots. That means power washing the black stones, scrubbing the moss off, picking up debris and reinstalling the borders to family plots.
“Everything we do, we have to do manually,” said Vernon. “We don’t have the excavator, skid steer, stuff like that.”
While they’re carefully tending to gravesites, they sometimes come across visitors out for a walk. If you ask, Vernon is quick to share the cemetery’s history.
“I tell them about the first grave: a nine-year-old girl,” said Vernon. “She was from the Mince family. I forget what disease she died of at this moment. I still have not located her grave, but I think I know where it is.”
There are about 2,500 graves without a headstone at Bellevue Cemetery. With relatives having moved or passed away, the unmarked graves are often forgotten. Vernon hopes to change that.
“There should not be a grave without some type of stone on it,” said Vernon. “That is my goal. I won’t have a gravestone for everybody, but in some way, shape or form, I’ll have some type of identification.”
With many burial records missing, it’s proven to be a difficult problem to tackle. Vernon is slowly making progress, though. He’s found and resurfaced several graves already, marking them any way he can and recording their location. His goal is to eventually have a book of all the cemetery’s plots that will include a photo of each grave and the name of the person buried there.
Finding a grave is only half the job. For those lucky enough to have a headstone, the deep clean requires special care.
“There’s some algae or moss or something on a lot of these backsides where the sun don’t hit them,” said Smith.
Instead of using a high-pressure power washer, Vernon says he attached a special solution nozzle that helps soften the spray. It’s just powerful enough to get the debris off the stone without damaging it. In some cases, a stone requires a bit more elbow grease and needs to be scrubbed or painted before it’s considered restored.
“‘Weep not father and mother for me, for I am waiting in glory for thee,’” said Smith, reading the stone of an infant who died in 1887. She’s buried just feet away from her parents. “Brings tears to my eyes a little bit.”
Unlike a first responder, these unsung heroes aren’t saving lives. They’re saving stories and preserving history.
“We’re not going to be Arlington. We’re not going to be Oakdale or Greenlawn or Oleander Gardens,” said Vernon. “We’re going to be Belelvue and we’re going to look good and hopefully, we’re going to be here for a long, long time.”
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