Credit: Sol Cotti

The Best Before & Afters on CleanTok Come From This Volunteer Grave Cleaner

published Oct 25, 2021
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Caitlin Abrams has never been weirded about by cemeteries. The 35-year-old says she’s been into history and genealogy her entire life — so much so that several years ago, she started hanging out in cemeteries to study gravestone symbols. Eventually, she decided she wanted to do more to honor the dead, so she signed up for a website called Find a Grave, a volunteer-based network where people can make requests for photos of a relative’s grave. 

In early 2020, Abrams, who works full-time creating instructional software, received a request from a person in Iowa seeking a photo of a grave in Vermont, where she lives. When Abrams found it, the grave was in rough condition — she had to trace the letters with her fingers to make sure she was at the right place. She wanted to clean the grave to honor the requestor’s ancestor, but because temps were below freezing, Abrams worried her attempts would damage the stone. 

So she spent the entire winter researching how to clean graves, inquiring with her town about volunteering, and gathering up her supply — and once warmer weather hit, she took to the cemetery. Now, Abrams shares her process on TikTok, where she’s accumulated 1.6 million followers. 

Turns out, washing down a grave isn’t the isn’t the same as, say, spraying down your patio furniture. Centuries-old marble needs a lot more care than elbow grease. Abrams says the primary goal is to do no harm — make sure not to damage the stone any more than it already is. That means no wire brushes, drills, metal scrapers, power washers, bleach, or household cleaners. Instead, she restores graves with soft brushes, water, and a biocide that’s safe to use on marble and granite. 

While her videos share an inside look at the grave-cleaning process, that’s not necessarily the part that connects most with her followers. Abrams also narrates her cleaning videos with the stories behind the names on the graves — another easy but important way to honor the dead and, hopefully, enlighten her followers. “We know stories about prominent white men, but you don’t really get to hear everyday drama people lived with,” she says. “The past can give us perspective on what we’re going through.”

Another benefit of unearthing all these stories: Abrams says she’s noticed sharing little-known history can keep people from idealizing bygone eras. For example, she says TikTok commenters frequently tell her they used to idolize the Victorian era, and that her posts helped them understand people had some pretty big problems then, too. Take, for example, vampires.

Abrams’ friend, who works at a local historical society, clued her into a story about a 19th-century “vampire panic” in rural New England, during a period when tuberculosis was ravaging whole families. “Some people in small towns became convinced their dead relatives had become vampires and were cursing them,” Abrams says. 

Abrams learned of the nearby grave of a young woman named Rachel Burton, who had died of tuberculosis. A few years after Rachel’s death, her husband remarried to a woman who also developed the disease. “The whole town was under the impression that Rachel was cursing her from the grave, so they dug her up, took out what was left of her heart and liver, and burned them on a blacksmith’s forge, and had his new wife inhale the smoke,” Abrams says. Unfortunately, the magic didn’t work (and the new wife died). But more than a century later, Abrams got to clean Rachel’s grave and share her story with 1.6 million people — a powerful way to honor her memory. 

While preserving history is a big part of her hobby, Abrams says she cleans graves for herself, too. She lost a close friend to leukemia when she was nine, which introduced some big, existential, questions. Spending time contemplating the lives of the departed helps her reconcile with them. “I’m trying to get my arms around death so I can understand it and make it a little less terrifying,” she says. 

How to Clean a Grave

If you want to follow in Abrams’ footsteps, she recommends doing proper diligence first. You’ll want to get permission to volunteer as a grave cleaner, so try contacting your town clerk to find out who manages your local cemetery. 

Then, you’ll need supplies. Abrams uses a dedicated cleaner called D2 Biological Solution, a biocide that soaks into the stone and kills moss, lichen, and algae without damaging the integrity of the stone. With a gentle, battery-powered sprayer, she wets the stone to minimize potential damage from scrubbing. After scraping away any large moss or lichen growths with a plastic putty knife, she adds a generous layer of D2 and allows it to sit a few minutes to do its work. 

Then, with an assortment of soft brushes, Abrams scrubs the grave in circles from top to bottom, on all sides, while it’s actively wet — and if needed, she’ll scrub at the details in the letters with a soft grout brush or toothbrush. “After letting it sit for 5-10 minutes, I rinse and walk away,” she says. She may not see significant results right away — Abrams says the solution works over time, she often returns months or a year later to a new-looking grave.