TikTok knows us all too well. That For You page just gets a little too specific sometimes. Like, for example, how TikTok seems to know my former goth teenage self spent a lot of time hanging out in cemeteries.
My feed recently started delivering me #gravetok, a tag used mostly by people who are incredibly passionate about cleaning gravestones.
Like Caitlin Abrams, known as @manicpixiemom on TikTok. She’s passed over 1.2 million followers on TikTok, all due to her videos cleaning headstones in Vermont, where she lives.
In the TikToks, Abrams uses a tool to scrape off moss and dirt before scrubbing gravestones down with a special cleaner, sometimes getting those small engraved details with a toothbrush. It’s satisfying, to be sure, watching decades or even centuries of grime cascade off. There’s definitely an ASMR-like aspect, but it’s the stories that take these TikToks beyond cleaning porn.
As she cleans, Abrams narrates the story of the person the grave belongs to. Like this woman, who, after she died of tuberculosis in 1790, was suspected by local townsfolk of being a vampire and cursing her widow’s new wife with the same disease. They exhumed her body, burned her organs, and her husband’s current wife breathed in the smoke to undo the curse. Then she died too.
“For however hard we depict life back then, it was infinitely harder for women and children and people of color," Abrams told me. “It’s good to give those people their name back because they were already on the sidelines of history.”
You may be unsurprised to hear that Abrams has always had an affinity for spooky things, which, same. For her, cemeteries aren’t creepy, but peaceful.
“I like the serenity of them. I like that you’re looking at a stone that someone 150, 200 years ago picked out for their loved ones,” she said. “They’re like outdoor museums.”
It’s kind of a prerequisite for this hobby, which people on #gravetok do completely voluntarily.
Anita Kallinicos is the Florida woman behind @headstonecleaner, which has 422,000 followers. She too finds cemeteries to be a special place.
“I love the peacefulness, the quietness,” she told me. “I can get centered there, collect my thoughts.”
Beyond that, it’s a spiritual experience. She started because she wanted to take care of neglected veteran headstones, but has expanded from there. The first time, she simply chose one she was drawn to. It turned out to be the first woman who was buried in that particular cemetery.
“It was amazing. It was weird that I was drawn to her headstone,” she said.
Now, she’ll find herself driving a loop around a cemetery a few times before finding one that just speaks to her and is in need of some loving care.
“It’s something that I feel compelled to clean, to know who this person is under all this dirt,” she said.
Talking to Abrams and Kallinicos, you can tell that it takes a certain sort of empathy to dedicate so much free time to caring for the dead. As they spoke, I got the feeling that as much as they enjoy the work, they also have a sense of duty to people who are long gone.
Abrams told me she’s worked on a family plot where disease claimed four out of five children, one after another.
“When you’re standing there and thinking, just absorbing the fact that someone had to stand there and bury their children, their wife, or husband, who died of a disease,” she said. “To absorb that, it puts things into perspective.”
Headstones wear over time, and unless there’s a family nearby able to care for them, their inscriptions will become unreadable. Kallinicos said she’s had families see her TikToks and reach out, in tears, thanking her for caring for a headstone of a relative.
“That’s an amazing feeling, that I felt the same as them, that I wanted them to be remembered. I wanted their name said,” she said.
But both were very clear — this isn’t an activity you can just dive headfirst into. You need permission from a cemetery to clean headstones. The cemetery makes sure nothing is being cleaned too often, and they’re also going to check that you know how to do it properly. Bleach and power washers are no-gos — you need a specialized cleaner and tools, and you also must know how to evaluate whether a headstone can even handle a cleaning. The US Department of Veteran Affairs has a guide on how to clean a headstone without damaging it.
Kallinicos said she hopes her TikToks will inspire others to — with the proper technique — care for headstones. Based on the comments and the slew of questions she gets, she’s doing just that.
But whether a small army of headstone cleaners emerges from #gravetok or not, the dead are being remembered in a whole new way.
Also, I sort of lied earlier. My gothy interests extended beyond teenagehood. It’s not just my wardrobe. One year, I took a solo trip to Salem before Halloween and spent a rather long time milling around the old cemetery, including the memorial for the witch trial victims. It was an odd place, looking at this very solemn thing while a parking lot next to it hosted a carnival with tacky decor. It was also interesting how all the tourists around me, who also came for the tarot readings and ghost tours, were taking their time in the graveyard and leaving pennies for the accused witches.
#Gravetok took me back there, figuratively, at least. Even if you’re not the spooky sort yourself, there’s a fascination with death and remembrance that haunts us all. And it’s cool to see people like Abrams and Kallinicos keeping that alive.