TikTok stars embody grave cleaners. Why is ancestry analysis common?
Less than a year after launching a TikTok account to clean graves, Caitlin Abrams has garnered more than 2 million followers and 31 million likes. She can’t say exactly why her videos are so popular, but she believes it has to do with people’s natural interest in understanding the past.
“I think people have the same insight as I do: these stones represent a real person. If you can get all the facts together and reconstruct that person’s life, the story comes to life in a way that doesn’t mind sitting in a classroom reading a book, ”she said.
In her videos, Abrams, 35, combines footage of herself carefully removing dirt and moss from weathered old stones with stories of the men, women and children buried underneath. She talks about once common causes of death like diphtheria and typhus and how many relatives are buried nearby.
“It’s my way of giving back to these people and honoring our common human history. I do it so that other people can enjoy their stories and stones a little longer, ”she said.
Now that she’s a viral sensation, Abrams is using her platform to empower others to engage with the past. She wants to help budding genealogists figure out which websites to use and what questions to ask.
“I keep saying, ‘You can do that too!'” She said.
After stumbling upon one of their videos while browsing TikTok with my husband last month, I had to contact Abrams to find out more about their work. Here’s what she told me about the power of the past and the spiritual significance of tomb cleaning.
This interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Desert News: Cleaning graves is an uncommon hobby. How did you start
Caitlin Abrams: I have been interested in history and genealogy for most of my life. I’m from New England and one of the great things about here, especially if you are white, is that there is a lot of historical records.
Also, when I was 9, I lost my best friend to cancer. Growing up in a non-religious household, I didn’t really have a language to understand his death. I think my interest in studying history and finding answers to death grew out of this experience.
As an adult, I moved back to New England when I was pregnant with my daughter. When I came to as a parent, I went back to my roots and went back to cemeteries to look around.
I was very interested in the symbolism on the stones and the inscriptions. I looked into it in depth and started an Instagram showing what I found. I researched people’s lives and people were really interested in it.
I also volunteered for Find a Grave. I received a request to find a grave near me and when I did it was spotty and mossy. The person’s descendant 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 one and then the other with no idea that I would share it. But I’ve seen other grave cleaners on TikTok so I gave it a try. It blew up in a crazy way.
DN: Are there any theories as to why your account is so popular?
THAT: I recently spoke to a graduate student about this and he said something that made sense to me. He said that the study of history has been top-down for so long. But now we’re 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 untouchable and complicated, something you can’t understand. If someone has it interpreted in a meaningful way, it helps to make it more real in your own mind and to visualize what the records are telling you.
Another thing is that I am very interested in this work. As humans, we react well when other people are excited. It upsets you too.
DN: I bet you would still be doing a grave cleaning without 2 million followers watching you. Why do you feel so connected to this project?
THAT: It feels good. I find the actual work very satisfying. It is a good exercise in patience.
I have this book, written around 1908, listing all the names and inscriptions and dates on the stones in my small town’s cemeteries. When I look at it, I notice how many of these stones are no longer here. These people’s stories are all gone.
By cleaning, I can help people remember each other a little longer.
DN: When I watch your videos I feel like I see something sacred unfold. But I read an interview on Vermont Public Radio where you talked about not being religious. Do you find it strange that I see tomb cleaning as a spiritual practice?
THAT: I find a lot of weight and beauty in our shared human experience, in our shared human history. When I’m in cemeteries, even if I don’t believe in the afterlife or in God or anything like that, I feel connected to the energy of shared humanity.
For example, imagine seeing four stones in a row that are similar. And then you look at the data and find that a family lost four children in one day. By doing research, you can find out that they had diphtheria, which leads to a terrible death with coughing and choking. Even if we don’t go through diphtheria these days, you can imagine how terrifying it would be to watch your children do it.
To me, sitting with the weight of this discovery means feeling what other people would call a spiritual connection.