Spade & the Grave

death and burial through an archaeological lens

Gravestone Conservation & Social Media: Benefits and Challenges of the Online Dissemination of Gravestone Cleaning

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Hi everyone, this is a blog post version of the talk I gave at the Death, Dying, & Disposal 15 conference this past week (#DDD15). It was my very first DDD conference, and while digital, I was very excited to attend! Digital conferences are exhausting and maybe not as easy for networking or getting together in the ways that traditional in person conferences have been, but they really open attendance doors for people who might not be able to travel around the world for talks every year! I presented from St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, Canada, on the traditional territory of the Beothuk and Mi’kmaq people, and acknowledge their ownership of the land and my place here as a settler.

My talk was titled “Gravestone Conservation & Social Media: Benefits and Challenges of the Online Dissemination of Gravestone Cleaning”. If you know of any other examples of gravestone cleaning online that you’d like to share with me, I’d love to see them!

Much of the information we look for on a day-to-day basis comes from the internet, and that often includes instructions on cleaning gravestones. As a result of the pandemic and the subsequent lockdowns worldwide, internet content was and in being created in larger quantities than ever before.

However, throughout the last year, archaeologists have noticed a rise in videos popularising the cleaning of gravestones, through videos on Instagram and Tiktok, articles on Buzzfeed, and videos shared elsewhere online. While the primary individuals sharing this content are demonstrating contemporary techniques in stone conservation, there is a shared concern among gravestone conservators and historical archaeologists that there could be a negative impact from this popularity increase through social media. Widespread interest in gravestone conservation will, overall, benefit heritage as their importance gains a wider understanding. Gravestone cleaning, for many who volunteer their time to do it, can provide a cathartic experience to those who have been forced to recognize their relationship with mortality in a new way as a result of the global pandemic, or to those who find peace in a cemetery for any number of other reasons, all of which are benefits.

It is very likely that you’ve already seen some of the videos from these content creators, specifically the videos created by Alicia Williams (@ladytaphos) or Caitlin Abrams (@manicpixiemon) on TikTok or reposted onto other platforms. They are almost a form of ASMR (Autonomous sensory meridian response), typically beginning with a spray of water soaking the lichen and stain covered gravestone from out of the frame, followed by a plastic scraper removing the lichen. Text on the screen tells the story of the individual commemorated on the gravestone, while Williams scrubs at the gravestone using a soft brush and a cleaning agent known as ‘D/2 Biological Solutions’, a PH neutral cleaner that is safe to use on historic stones. Abrams’ videos are similar, with voiceover telling the individual’s story rather than text on the screen, making them feel a little more personal to a hearing person who does not need captions to understand the information.

This so-called ‘#gravetok’ side of the platform is connecting viewers with history at their fingertips. Popular gravestone cleaner, Williams, has 2.4 million followers on TikTok at the time of writing and 71,000 on Instagram, a substantial feat for the content involved. Many people have been inspired by her story and her work, and a multitude of articles have been published about her, including a recent Atlas Obscura article (O’Brien 2021). Her work points out that “there is a tremendous amount of minority history that has been swept under the rug for generations, and their stories deserve to be told” (O’Brien 2021). Bringing these stories back into the collective contemporary consciousness is a huge part of archaeology, history, and folklore as disciplines, both academic and public, and those who do it well online are able to spread their research to hundreds of thousands more than an academic paper ever would.

As something like gravestone cleaning becomes popular, especially over a period of isolation and lockdown that came with the global pandemic, many people see it as a way to get outdoors and reconnect with local history. This is an obvious benefit, as well as being a way for people to get involved with the history of their community, as well as a way for many otherwise neglected gravestones to get care. The other major benefit is that by having gravestone popularized through social media, people are interested in learning more about the practice and the process. This allows researchers and professionals, myself included, to use social media and traditional blogging platforms to reach out and be part of that conversation online which is already going on. The impact of being a professional in historical archaeology and cemetery conservation who has a platform online that is well received is huge, and creates a resource that is readily available to the public if they went to look for more information on gravestone cleaning. We, as professional practitioners of this field with growing public interest and involvement, need to make sure that among the available content is material that speaks to the public.

An image posted on Twitter by @BurialsBeyond shows a gabled cross marker, with scratches over all the inscribed lettering. She writes “As highlighted by @MortePhoto, amateur gravestone cleaning is on the rise in lockdown and irreparably damages stones and ecological systems. Last summer, amateur ‘cleaning’ efforts appeared in my local cemetery, courtesy of one man and some wire wool.” Visitors trying to do something good and remove lichen from a gravestone with a wire brush or steel wool are instead scratching into the stone itself, leaving irreparable marks in the stone. This example is unfortunately not a stand-alone, as the Rumney Marsh Burial Ground’s Instagram account highlighted in April 2021. Located in Revere, Massachusetts, U.S.A, the burial ground is fairly active on social media and posted several photos from the site on April 20th, 2021 of historic 18th– and 19th– century gravestones with white chalk or flour rubbed into all of the inscriptions and decoration. While using powders used to be found online frequently as a method to improve legibility, materials like these enter the pores of the stone and expand when they get wet. This causes the stone to break from the inside out, and cannot easily be reversed.

There are challenges to disseminating research online, as many modern academics can attest to. The most difficult of which it how to make sure your information and content is heard about the background din of other content online. Popular videos showing gravestone cleaning do an excellent job not only of creating an engaging and quick snapshot of the important and impact of gravestone cleaning, but catching the viewer’s attention as they scroll by. The challenge with this dissemination is that when quickly scrolling through, a viewer is unlikely to get all the information. These videos are quick and viral, and if you were only to see one or two without the additional information about what types of cleaners and brushes, they are actually using to clean the gravestones safely, someone can get the idea that anything can be used. I have found while running workshops with Heritage NL on gravestone care or interacting with the public while doing fieldwork, that there are still a lot of outdated ideas of how to take care of gravestones circulating. Unfortunately, TikTok does not allow the user to post a caption longer than 100 characters, including hashtags, which limits the amount of information about materials and process that a gravestone cleaning volunteer or professional is able to add.

Another challenge of online conservation discussions is the pushback from individuals who have been ‘doing it for years’. Conservation is a living field, like any science, and the more we learn about repair techniques to historic stonework or how the impact of a procedure done 20 years earlier looks as time moves on, the more we are able to adapt and change to continue our care for these historic artifacts. It is important to stress the significance of learning updated techniques to volunteers, whether online or through in-person events, to encourage them to keep up conservation techniques.

There are many instances online of individuals or even heritage groups advertising the use of gravestone rubbings through events or workshops. It used to be a popular practice, resulting in such books as Jacobs’ 1973 publication “Stranger Stop and Cast an Eye: A Guide to Gravestones & Gravestone Rubbings”, and people are often resistant to the idea that it does cause damage to the gravestones. While the dangers of rubbings on granite are minimal due to the hardness of the stone, pressure on older, soft stones such as marble, limestone, or sandstone can lead to delamination and flaking. All of these result in permanent damage to historic artifacts, with an example being the gravestone of Catriena Van Tessel at the Old Dutch Burying Ground, Sleepy Hollow, New York, which is nearly illegible after years of rubbings. This grave is thought to be the inspiration for Katrina Van Tassel in the ‘Legend of Sleepy Hollow’.

Over 2 million people follow popular TikTok accounts which deal almost exclusively with gravestone cleaning, demonstrating that the public interest for that kind of content, and by an extent that kind of work, is already there. People are interested in heritage, we don’t need to go to extraordinary lengths to reach them, beyond engaging on contemporary social media platforms.

In my own work, I have run a research my blog since 2017 with moderate success and traffic, as well as being active on twitter and Instagram. The benefit that I find of still investing time into the traditional blogging format is that it creates a resource with more than 100 characters, which people can return to and reference in their research and work. I’ve had individuals tell me that my online articles on gravestone conservation were the only Canadian source they could find, which only strengthens the importance in my mind that ensuring these resources remain available is something that I need to keep doing. In addition, it is something I should be encouraging others to do as well. Academic research helps no one if it is locked behind a paywall. By putting out content online speaking about safe ways to clean gravestones, and information on what harm certain practices can do while acknowledging that they were often the norm for decades, we are contributing to the discourse of available content on the topic and hopefully informing a few people on best practices.

Today, and especially throughout the pandemic and lockdowns, people are consuming even more content online than ever before. With that, comes new trends and interests through viral videos on TikTok and Instagram, which over the last one and a half years has included an increased interest in gravestone cleaning by volunteers. As heritage practitioners and death-care workers, it is vital that our voices are added to the cacophony of online content, to provide better access to conservation advice and information that is backed by contemporary research and knowledge in the field. Every time someone tells me that they were interested in cleaning a gravestone, so they looked it up online and found my website, learned from it, and emailed me about it with questions, I know that my work is contributing in a small way to the preservation of our heritage.

Public outreach online and in person, for gravestone conservation is an amazing field, and one that so many people are so passionate about. Their enthusiasm for learning and getting their hands dirty at their local cemetery is wonderful to see, and by ensuring that there are resources readily available on all social media platforms, and by being a presence for those who are looking for more information, we can work towards preserving these historic sites for the long term.

Thank you for tuning it / reading!

Author: Robyn S. Lacy

Archaeologist / Cultural Heritage / Burial Ground Restoration

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