SC tombstone sculptors strive to keep ancient tradition alive

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Iris Howe is filled with emotion as she carves her grandfather’s name in stone.

Manuel Lifchez died in October 2020 at the age of 93. A year after his death, Howe didn’t expect his death to affect him in this way again. But there is something about carving his grandfather’s name on his gravestone that reminds Howe of his presence.

Howe, a student at the American College of the Building Arts in downtown Charleston, felt the same when the gravestone, a 3-inch Welch slate, was unveiled in a ceremony in Columbia. There, Howe and his family set the gravestone at his loved one’s final resting place.

“I really felt connected to my grandfather,” she said.

The centuries-old art of hand carving tombstones became a dying out practice after the Civil War, when new technology was introduced to mass produce tombstones in response to the massive death toll in the world. war.

While many of those pledged to preserve the artistic practice live in New England, a handful of sculptors in South Carolina pledged to hand-carve memorials, finding it to be a a more meaningful and personal way of honoring the dead.

Nationally, cemeteries became more homogenized and used granite headstones with sandblasted letters.

This is done not only to produce more headstones in a shorter time frame, but also to make the structures resistant to the impact of yard maintenance tools, such as grass trimmers, Professor Joseph Kincannon said. , who teaches stone carving and masonry at ACBA.

Some cemeteries have gone even further by using metal plaques to mark graves.

“They completely remove the stones,” he said.

Rows of uniformed tombstones replaced the specially designed stones. This is unfortunate because, in Kincannon’s experience, the cemeteries that receive the most preservation attention are those populated with hand-produced tombstones.

Kincannon previously worked in Texas, where there had been a concerted effort to preserve African American cemeteries. Here, the handcrafted stones marking the graves of slaves were overshadowed by the invading weeds.

“The cemeteries which attract the most attention and therefore the efforts of the community to restore them, are those which have sculptural carvings and are carved by individuals,” he said. “Some of them aren’t great professionally lettering jobs. But they get so much interest because it’s something we can relate to. It’s something we all think we can do. That’s the beauty of it.

In the upstate near Greenville, David Gillespie started Pumpkintown Primitives in 2000, a company specializing in hand-carved slate tombstones. Gillespie’s fifth great-grandfather was a stone carver in the 1780s. The ancestor never passed the skill down to his descendants, Gillespie said, so the upstate resident has it. learned himself.

Gillespie makes about eight to ten stones a year, using scissors and mallets. The tombstones will last 300 to 400 years, he said. Most of his clients are families who appreciate history, he said.

“I think there is a lot more art that comes out of hand-cut stones than machine-produced stones,” he said. “Take nothing away from those who make machine-cut stones. It is a livelihood. You can’t blame them for that. … But I think the end result is of a much higher caliber, as far as art is concerned.

Gillespie has a special affinity for the Charleston area as the city has, in his opinion, the largest collection of slate tombstones. He pointed out the cemeteries of Circular Congregational Church and St. John’s Lutheran.

It was during a childhood visit to Circular that Gillespie was first inspired by art.

“That’s right where I got hooked,” he said.

Gillespie said he’s just one of two people he knows doing this full-time job in South Carolina. There are about a dozen across the country, he said.

Gillespie works to inspire others. He has given several lectures at the college on stone carving, as well as live demonstrations at events in Summerville.

“I just praise the Lord for this privilege,” he said. “The Lord gave me a gift. I just want to congratulate him on that.

Howe intends to continue the work after college. This summer, she hopes to gain work experience. She intends to work as a stonemason in a cathedral in York, England.


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