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How #gravetok gravestone cleaning videos went viral | Death and die

Jhe headstone in Helensburgh Cemetery is in loving memory of someone, but it’s hard to say exactly who. Exposure to 92 years of Scottish weather made it dirty and grubby, but two small white streaks in the bottom corner caught Ryan Nott’s eye on a rainy day in May. And so, the next day, the 31-year-old student residence manager returns with a trunk full of gear. He wears long sleeves to cover his arms and black rubber gloves. As the cemetery echoes with the cheers and chants of football fans watching a game on television in nearby apartments, Nott begins to spray. The headstone slowly begins to sizzle as the hydrochloric acid he splashed onto the memorial stone creates a loud, bubbling fizz. Gray smoke rises skyward and as he scrubs the memorial with a steel brush, a light sweat bead on his brow.

The stone features four intricately carved roses and each is mottled with green moss and flecks of white lichen. Nott pulls out another paintbrush, much like a children’s paintbrush, and rubs the acid into the petals. Quickly – so quickly that it almost seems like a magic trick – it becomes clear that the tombstone is made of white marble. Magnificent bright and shiny white marble on which appear the names of three long-dead sisters.

This is the 23rd headstone Nott has cleaned at this cemetery in the past year. Genealogy has been a hobby of hers since she was 12, when a teacher piqued her interest by asking the class to make a family tree. In the small coastal town where the cemetery is located, Nott has become the benchmark for ancestry research. “Over the past 10 years, I’ve gone from building 10 family trees to 250, just people saying, ‘Oh, can you do mine,'” he tells me.

But he didn’t start cleaning the graves until he contracted the coronavirus. “I had Covid until Christmas Eve and during that time I spent a lot of time on social media,” Nott says. There he discovered that grave-cleaning had its moment. On TikTok, the hashtag #gravetok has over 750m of views. Alicia Williams, a 42-year-old Virginian, has 2.7 million followers on her account, @ladytaphoswhere she describes herself as “the OG of TikTok [original] serious housekeeper.

“It’s good for my soul,” says Williams, who started cleaning graves in 2018 while going through a “nasty divorce.” She uploaded her first TikTok video in 2020, when “there was nothing to do”. His videos quickly went viral and inspired imitators. “I think the pandemic was a big factor because the only place that was ever closed was a cemetery,” she says. “I also think people were a little more face to face with their mortality.”

It’s pretty obvious that people watch #gravetok content – satisfying cleaning videos are the bread and butter of the internet – but why are people creating it? It took Nott an hour and 40 minutes to clear the grave of the three sisters, during which he sweated, accidentally splashed acid on his wrist and coughed as acid fumes blew across his face . “It’s really hard work,” says Nott (at least his mom works at the local hardware store, which means he gets friend rates on his gear).

“I wanted people to see what was happening in their cemetery,” he explains. Nott doesn’t use TikTok for his cleanups — instead, he puts videos on his Facebook page, Tales of a Tombstone, and shares them with the local community. A woman couldn’t find her great-grandparents’ grave until Nott cleaned it up and she saw the video on Facebook entirely by chance. In the caption for each cleanup, Nott writes about the deceased, including addresses where people were born before hospital births were common, “and then people write in the group that they live there now! “

For Williams, cleansing is therapeutic. “Sometimes I sob and curse everything around me, curse myself while I clean up,” she says. “I’ve been through so much in life, so much trauma, and it’s made me an incredibly responsive person, especially in the beginning. It felt like it was some kind of personal penance to make up for any bad thing that I put into the world.

“I love cleaning, but it’s learning the backstory that I love the most.” Illustration: Phil Hackett/The Observer

For Nott, this is the story that appeals the most: “I would say it’s 60/40 for me, 60 being research and 40 being cleanliness. I definitely wouldn’t do this if I couldn’t do the backstory. The grave he was cleaning belongs to Annie, Agnes and Margaret McWatters, all born in the mid-19th century. “All three sisters were born in the same house in Glasgow and all three died in the same house in Helensburgh,” says Nott.

None of the McWatters sisters married. Margaret, who died last – aged 82 – spent 13 years alone in their home. Nott looked at the sisters’ birth and death certificates and even “walked” through their home, courtesy of a video on a real estate agent’s website. But questions remain. Why didn’t they get married? Have they already fallen in love? Nott found the sisters in the censuses of 1861, 1871 and 1881 – but they were missing from those of 1891. “My father says they must all have been to Corfu for the week!”

Remarkably – because it is, after all, the internet – Nott has never received a single negative comment on any of his cleaning videos, “not even slightly negative”. As we dig into nougat wafers at a local ice cream parlor after McWatters’ grave was restored, the owner tells Nott that someone once tried to clean his store sign without asking – he wasn’t happy. Some things, he argues, are meant to look aged and aged.

It’s an ongoing debate on #gravetok – Williams has received messages saying the stones should be ‘allowed to return to nature and decay’. Nott isn’t necessarily convinced: “I know it shows the age of something, but I think it’s impressive to keep something so old so beautiful.”

The main bone of contention on #gravetok, however, is the tricky issue of permission. Nott ensures that the deceased have no living local relatives before clearing their graves, but he has no permission from any authority to undertake his work. Out of respect, some gravediggers clean only their family graves. Others accept requests.

Ryan van Emmenis is a 39-year-old outdoor cleaner from Winsford who started restoring graves with his children during the first lockdown after locals started asking for his services. He has now cleaned over 100 graves.

‘People started asking if they could pay me, but I didn’t feel right about taking the money,’ van Emmenis says – instead he set up a JustGiving page to receive donations for hospice local. Nott also cleans on request. An old lady passed one day while he was scrubbing and asked him to clean the grave of his aunt and uncle – he did it on the spot. He also earns nothing from his job, but his friend set up a GoFundMe which raised £900, which he used for equipment as well as access to birth, marriage and death certificates.

So how exactly are you cleaning a grave? Williams uses gentle products that work gradually, which means before and after photos can take months. “I’m saying if you’re not using it to wash your car, don’t use it on a headstone,” she says. (She also uses bamboo skewers to clean between the letters on a stone.) Nott uses faster chemicals and always gives each stone “a wobble” first to make sure it’s up to snuff. a good rub. Sometimes he meticulously colors faded lead letters with a black Sharpie, “because the paint was just coming off.” Nott does not touch the limestone graves for fear they will corrode. He listens to Classic FM while he cleans.

Is there a risk that #gravetok will inspire copycats who don’t know what they’re doing? Simone Nathan, a 30-year-old New Zealand TV writer who started cleaning graves at the end of 2020, says tombstoners should put warnings on their videos about getting permission and using sweet products – she herself has 35,500 subscribers.

But copiers might be needed. In recent years, council cuts have affected graveyards, as has the pandemic. In July 2020, human bones lay on display in a crumbling cemetery in Perthshire after the council reduced maintenance work during the lockdown. In February, residents of Bradford complained that the council was not spending enough to maintain Bowling Cemetery, while in April, residents of Paisley complained about potholes, fallen leaves and fallen stones at Hawkhead Cemetery. “It’s in a disgraceful state,” said one resident.

Nathan, who is Jewish, hopes to join a chevra kadisha, a society that provides proper burial and sometimes maintains cemeteries. Her cleaning has already connected her to the local community – after running out of water for her garden hose, she approached owners of galleries and cafes near the cemetery who now happily fill her tank. Many grave cleaners are also linking up online – Nott and Williams have been sending emails since February. Williams says grave cleaners were once “a much more specialized group of people who kept a lot of information.” Now it’s easier than ever to pursue the hobby.

The motivations, of course, vary. “It’s about respect more than anything,” says van Emmenis, who is also happy “to teach my children to take care of their environment.” As they clean up, van Emmenis and his children discuss the deceased. “I don’t want to sound too cheesy, but it temporarily brings people back to life,” he says.

Meanwhile, Nathan is “not really a spiritual person, but I find that’s the closest I get to a spiritual experience.” Still, she doesn’t like people messing around in the comments section and saying things like, “You look amazing! God is watching over you. “It’s not that deep,” she says, “I probably get more out of it, how satisfying I find it. Mentally, I love it so much. I’m not trying to do some big “save the world” mission.

Nott isn’t trying to save the world either, but he’s at least trying to preserve it. He has become something of a local celebrity – he works in a friend’s “old pub” on a Friday night and has been recognized by punters. A woman in a purple jacket walks past him as he cleans up and Nott says she describes herself as his “biggest fan”.

But it was the dead Nott connected with the most, not the living. We visit the cemetery and he shows us the graves he has cleaned: a 19-year-old boy who died in a motorcycle accident and two matrons from the local hospital who “died together the same day” after being run over by a car. “Each one I’ve done, I know information about them that not many people would have,” Nott says. “I really respect the people here, and part of my respect is telling their story.”