Less than one year after launching a TikTok account dedicated to cleaning graves, Caitlin Abrams has amassed more than 2 million followers and 31 million likes. She can’t pinpoint exactly why her videos are so popular, but she thinks it has something to do with people’s natural interest in understanding the past.
“I think people are kind of having the same epiphany I had: These stones represent an actual person. If you can start to pull together all the facts and reconstruct that person’s life, it brings history to life in a way that sitting in a classroom reading a book doesn’t do,” she said.
In her videos, Abrams, 35, pairs footage of herself carefully removing dirt and moss from weathered, old stones with stories about the men, women and children buried underneath them. She talks about once-common causes of death like diphtheria and typhoid and how many relatives are buried nearby.
“It’s my way of giving back to these people and honoring our shared history of humans. I’m making it so other people can enjoy their stories and stones for a little bit longer,” she said.
Now that she’s somewhat of a viral sensation, Abrams is using her platform to empower others to engage with the past. She wants to help budding genealogical researchers figure out what websites to use and what questions to ask.
“I say all the time, ‘You can do this, too!’” she said.
After stumbling onto one of her videos last month while scrolling through TikTok with my husband, I had to reach out to Abrams to learn more about her work. Here’s what she told me about the power of the past and the spiritual significance of cleaning graves.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Deseret News: Cleaning graves is an unusual hobby. How did you get started?
Caitlin Abrams: I’ve been interested in history and genealogy pretty much my entire life. I’m from New England and one of the benefits of being from here, especially if you’re white, is that there are a lot of historical records available.
Additionally, when I was 9 years old, I lost my best friend to cancer. Since I grew up in a nonreligious household, I didn’t really have a language to use to understand his death. I think my interest in studying history and trying to find answers about death grew out of that experience.
As an adult, I moved back to New England when I was pregnant with my daughter. As I came into my own as a parent, I went back to my roots and started going into cemeteries again to look around.
I got really interested in the symbolism on the stones and in the inscriptions. I did a deep dive into that and started an Instagram where I was showing what I found. I was researching the people’s lives and people were really interested in it.
I was also volunteering for Find a Grave. I got a request to find a grave near me and, when I did, it was stained and mossy. The descendant of the person asked me to clean it, but it was January and too cold to clean. I spent about five months researching the process and getting my tools.
I cleaned that one and then others without the idea that I’d share it. But I saw other grave cleaners on TikTok so I gave it a try. It blew up in a crazy way.
DN: Any theories on why your account is so popular?
CA: I recently spoke with a graduate student about it and he said something that made sense to me. He said that the study of history, for so long, has been top-down. But now we’re kind of moving away from that to a bottom-up approach where normal, everyday people find and tell stories.
If you didn’t grow up with genealogy, it feels like something that’s untouchable and complicated, something you can’t understand. When you can have someone lay it out in a way that makes sense, it helps make it more real in your own mind and helps you visualize what the records are telling you.
Another thing is that I’m very genuinely interested in this work. As humans, we respond well when other people are excited. It gets you excited, too.
DN: I’d bet you’d still be grave cleaning even without 2 million followers watching you. Why do you feel so connected to this project?
CA: It feels good. I find the actual work very satisfying. It’s a good practice in patience.
I have this book that was written around 1908 that lists all the names and inscriptions and dates on stones in the graveyards in my small town. When I look at it, I realize how many of those stones aren’t here anymore. Those people’s stories are all gone.
By cleaning, I can help people be remembered for a little bit longer.
DN: When I watch your videos, I feel like I’m seeing something sacred unfold. But I read a Vermont Public Radio interview where you talked about not being religious. Do you think it’s weird that I see grave cleaning as spiritual practice?
CA: I find a lot of weight and beauty in our shared human experience, in our shared human history. When I’m at cemeteries, even though I don’t believe in an afterlife or God or anything like that, I feel like I’m connected to the energy of shared humanity.
So, as an example, think of seeing four stones in a row that look like each other. And then looking at the dates and realizing that a family lost four kids in one day. With research, you can find out that they had diphtheria, which leads to a horrible death with coughing and choking. Even though we don’t go through diphtheria these days, you can imagine how terrifying it would be to watch your kids go through that.
For me, to sit with the weight of that discovery is to feel something that other people would describe as a spiritual connection.