One by one, the headstones in Bedford’s cemeteries have been looking a little brighter. As she’s painstakingly scrubbed off the moss and lichen, one local woman has found intriguing stories in the lives they memorialize — and her passion has recently gone viral.
It usually starts with a gentle scrape of some of the most caked-on growth. Then, Alicia Williams spritzes the stones with a special solution and uses a soft-bristled brush to scrub it down, sometimes repeating the process multiple times.
And voila! The visual result is oh-so-satisfying: grizzled headstones whose names have been rendered illegible over time come out looking as good as new.
Williams found her niche cleaning off headstones in Bedford’s cemeteries in the summer of 2017 — tracking down a distant relative’s marker. Though she’s been an avid genealogist for years, she said it came about more as a form of therapy when she was adjusting to a divorce.
“It’s a work of patience … because some of them clean up beautifully as soon as I clean them and some take years,” she said. “…Now I’m understanding that it’s going to take time to heal. It was kind of like a metaphor, in a way, of what I was going through … and I’m still healing.”
Locals and officials that’ve come across her work have almost all given Williams positive feedback, and she’s found it to be empowering work because it makes a difference in the community.
And this year, with the coronavirus pandemic shutting down so much, she could still thrive in the peaceful work: enjoying the cemetery as an outdoor space, a place to walk, get some fresh air and appreciate the works of art in some of the markers.
Not wanting to make her hobby into a business, Williams started posting it to TikTok around mid-October. It was a bit of a learning curve, she said, getting together all the right equipment and getting acclimated to the format, but the videos quickly went viral and racked up millions of views between different platforms.
A camera-shy introvert, she said she felt a bit like a fish out of water but got in the groove of putting the headstone work front and center.
Her work hasn’t just taken off online — others in the community have picked up on it, too.
A few different people can be found giving the headstones some TLC now, said Michael “Smitty” Smith, cemetery administrator for the town of Bedford. He estimated Williams has worked on about 180 of the headstones there and has plans to work on full sections in the future.
When Williams first came to him about her cleaning, he gladly gave her the go-ahead, keeping in mind several headstones for people who don’t have any loved ones in the area to keep up maintenance — something cemeteries aren’t responsible for.
“She’s been awesome,” he said. “There’s no mess when she comes through and once she does one, it just makes it look that much cleaner and that much newer.”
In more than 20 years at his position, Smith said it was the first instance of someone working on the markers “out of the goodness of her heart.”
“And she’s making an awareness of it too … here’s something you can do to make your community’s cemetery more beautiful,” he said.
Williams helped coordinate a workshop to teach people the delicate art of freshening up the headstones earlier in the year, spreading her therapeutic hobby further.
Amid her work out in the cemetery, she also hits the library or the internet to learn more about the names on the headstones she’s cleared.
“You wouldn’t believe the fascinating people I’ve found in here,” she said. “There’s a vice president’s daughter buried over here … There’s just so many people here worth remembering.”
One man’s family was involved in Confederate espionage and played a role in the conspiracy to assassinate Abe Lincoln, another was an English-born man who has a street in Auckland, New Zealand named after him. She puts several biographies up on social media as well; further reading for those interested.
With Bedford’s strong background in history and the some of the stories that’ve been buried beneath these graves, Williams said she’d love to see more people take an active hand in beautifying that part of the community.
“Maybe it’s in my imagination,” she said, “but I really do feel that, in some way, people are taking more pride in what’s here because of all this — I hope!”