Volunteers clean centuries-old gravestones at St. Luke’s

Close to 20 volunteers showed up to Historic St. Luke’s Church cemetery Saturday morning, where they used Popsicle sticks, brushes and gentle solution to clean lichen and dirt from centuries-old gravestones.

Historic St. Luke’s Restoration is a nonprofit organization dedicated to preserving the 17th-century landmark, along with documents and more than 100 acres of cemeteries at 14477 Benn’s Church Blvd. The group began hosting cemetery preservation workshops in November and has had three workshops since then, with an average of 20 volunteers at each.

“I’ve been delightfully surprised by how many people are in it,” said Rachel Popp, education coordinator for the church, of the workshops. “Some people are uncomfortable with cemeteries — a lot more people than I thought have been interested.”

The nonprofit is aiming to host five workshops per fiscal year to achieve its goal of cleaning close to 700 gravestones in the historic cemetery section. The staff estimates the project will take close to 14 years to complete, with the current average attendance. This means once the project is complete, the group will likely have to begin again because of the lengthy process, Popp said.


So far, the groups have been able to clean 30 gravestones.

The events are beneficial to volunteers as well as to the church, Popp said.

“Some people are interested in helping with our cemetery preservation,” Popp said. “A lot of people have small family plots, or relatives buried somewhere have historic stones, and (volunteers) need to be able to properly clean them.”

Popp gave a demonstration Saturday to the volunteers before they began cleaning the stones. She photographed the stones beforehand, and volunteers used a natural bristles and Popsicle sticks to remove lichen.


First, they attempted to remove most of the lichen from the stones by hand. Then they fully wet the stones and gently scrubbed them. A Virginia Department of Historic Resources-approved solution was used to work the dirt off the stones.

“The whole point of this process is to make the stones legible, presentable and preserved, not perfect and new,” the cleaning instructions provided by the church said.

“We had a good time,” attendee and Isle of Wight resident Albert Burckard said by phone Saturday after the cleaning. “I think the volunteers were enthusiastic. Volunteers came from all over Hampton Roads — Norfolk, the Peninsula — I was really surprised.”

Saturday’s sprinkling of rain didn’t deter the volunteers, Popp said. So far, the volunteer groups have enjoyed the cleaning and have stayed through the entire three-hour events, rain or shine, she said.


“I feel really, really good about (the attendance) because when I started doing the workshops, I really didn’t know how they were going to go,” Popp said. “I think part of it is it’s really fun when you’re doing it as a big group. It doesn’t really feel like manual labor.”

There will be two more workshops this year on Sept. 30 and Oct. 21., both from 11 a.m. to 2 p.m. Lunch is provided at the cleaning. People interested in volunteering can contact Popp at 757-357-3367 or by email at

Smith can be reached by phone at 757-247-4617.