This Woman Tells The Stories Of People Who Died 100–300 Years Ago, And The Internet Can't Get Enough
"These parents lost three children to three separate diseases within the span of about a decade."
Silas Reed was 11 weeks old when he died and, at the time, the only words 19th century medicine had to describe his cause of death was "lung fever," which, in hindsight, is assumed to be a name for pneumonia. Unlike Silas, his older brother Freddie lived to be 8 years old before he died from typhoid fever a year later.
Caitlin, who volunteers with four cemeteries and cleans the historic stones of everyday people who died between 1700 and the early 1900s, started sharing the stories of the dead on May 28, 2021. About two and a half months later, her TikTok account has skyrocketed to host 984,100 followers.
With the use of records housed by the cemetery, as well as ancestry.com, familysearch.org, newspapers.com, and fultonhistory.org, Caitlin has a knack for piecing together the lives of those who were here before us. Sometimes, she's able to find their images or connect them with family buried nearby. Other times, she simply has their name and cause of death. Either way, watching as she scrubs away accumulated dirt and moss — revealing a name underneath that was once etched for grieving families to remember — it's hard not be fascinated.
Caitlin further reflected on why so many people are drawn to her videos, saying: "Over the last few decades especially, death moved from something that everyone experienced on a daily basis in their own home to something that happens primarily to the elderly and far away in a hospital or nursing home. Of course it is absolutely incredible, the progress that modern medicine has made, and we should all be thankful for it, but it does mean that we, especially younger generations, keep death at something of a distance."
Being a self-proclaimed history and genealogy buff was what led the 35-year-old to her first cleaning. Previously working with FindaGrave — a website that connects those searching for images of their loved ones' graves with volunteers who live near the desired cemetery and are willing to take and send a photo of the stone — Caitlin was tasked with finding a stone that ended up being unreadable. So, after being asked, she learned how to safely clean it.
"I read multiple sources, saw videos online, spoke to my local cemetery association for ideas and advice, and assembled my cleaning kit," Caitlin said. "I started with another stone in May, and then turned to the requested stone once I felt confident."
"I developed an interest in gravestone iconography and what graves can and can't tell us," she continued. "Cleaning stones was something I could do myself to help preserve and protect these stones for others to learn about and enjoy. Where I live, most of the history and record-keeping is maintained by older, retired people, and I believe it's time for those of us in the younger generations to begin taking up that mantle."
Her ever-growing audience appreciates the new life Caitlin breathes into the stones, preserving not only the rock, but the stories of lives once lived — which makes them lives worth remembering.
And others praise her efforts beyond the grace it grants the dead, but also for what her actions would mean to their families.
For those interested in grave cleaning, Caitlin suggests building a kit. Hers features D/2 Biological Solution, natural fiber and acrylic fiber brushes, wooden paint sticks, plastic putty knives, lots of water, and a garden sprayer — never a power-washer for old stones.
From there, volunteers should learn the best cleaning practices and seek permission from local cemeteries.