Khrista Davis shares the story of a divorcee who gained online recognition for gravestone beautification
Most people find therapy in domestic tasks, cooking, arts, or even physical exercise – typical therapy outlets that are desirable. Not many people would find that in cemetery conservation and be happy, but Alicia Williams did.
Virginia native, Alicia Williams, who struggled through a challenging divorce found a therapeutic outlet in cleaning up old tombstones.
Williams is a stay-at-home mum, who was battling with her ex-husband and needed to find a way to heal.
“I was doing genealogy research one day and I can’t really remember exactly what I was looking up, I was just down a rabbit hole one day and saw someone else who did cemetery conservation and thought this was me, this is something I could do,” she says.
Williams tried with assertion and the first gravestone she cleaned was her great great-grandmother’s sister who died young. With a giggle, she says “It was a great moment and very exciting. I smiled when I saw it rinsed off and it just spiralled out of control from there. Once I’d cleaned that one, I thought, let me find some more.”
“I just approached the caretaker at my local cemetery and mentioned that I was interested in cleaning graves, I asked if I could do it for free and mentioned that I’m not charging them any money and they let me in”, she says.
Williams soon found out that her inner peace resided in Bedford, Virginia’s Longwood Cemetery, tidying up tombstones. She began to share what she was doing on Facebook with her friends and her unexpected fame came along when she posted a video on October 19 in 2020 and five days later, she found herself to be a TikTok sensation with over 1 million subscribers.
You probably wouldn’t think that videos set in a graveyard would be so relaxing to watch and pleasing to the eye, but people love it!
She says: “The nicest moment is the overall positive reception that I have gotten, especially when it comes to sharing things on social media. We live in a high conflict society nowadays and Covid restrictions have made people a little bit more sensitive.
“That to me has been the most powerful thing, the bulk of the feedback has been positive, whether it is a family member or not. For the most part, everybody is really happy with it.”
Williams’ videos consist of a time-elapsed demonstration of her cleansing the tombstones, as well as sharing tips on how to clean up plaques.
“It is always best to ask for permission from whoever is in charge of the cemetery”, Williams says. Some cemeteries are run by volunteers and owned by churches.
She uses D2 Biological Solution, soft bristle brushes, plastic scrapers on the stones, bamboo skewers to get inside the letters and inscriptions, a lot of water and sprayers.
“The approach needs to be gentle”, she adds.
“It takes time, it takes patience. Some of the stones that I work on, most of them take a few months to reach their full potential. I have one that I have been treating for about 3 years.”
“You don’t want to damage the integrity of it whilst you are trying to restore it, that’s why I don’t scrub too hard or use a pressure washer.
“I compare it to skin care, you want something gentle but effective and you have to understand that if there is something you are trying to heal up, it is not going to work overnight; you have to be patient and give it some time.”
The area Williams lives in, was a very significant area during the Civil War and as a result of that, she has found herself cleaning a lot of veterans’ gravestones.
Williams was going through a tough divorce; the process began back in June 2013 and it took two years for it to be finalised. But the separated pair battled over custody of their four children for another two years.
They all lived in Florida at the time, but she returned back to the state of Virginia with her kids, and he stayed in Florida. Being in a very high conflict time wasn’t good for her mental wellbeing.
“That was part of the adjustment, a lot of people when they get divorced and share custody, it’s in the same town or not too far away.
“It was 500 miles of distance between us, I’ve been a stay-at-home mum, I was still nursing my youngest when we split up and I had to let him go 500 miles away.
“So much of my identity was in being a mum and then all of a sudden I didn’t have that responsibility on a daily basis all the time. It was really depressing on top of all of the conflict between their Dad and I,” she says.
With the intensity of the situation building, Williams needed a therapeutic outlet, and she found her peace in her local cemetery.
She says: “When I first started cleaning tombstones, my friends questioned me as to why I was doing it and I told them it’s therapeutic for me.
“I was so reactive because of the conflict I was involved in, I practically couldn’t function around the living, so being in the cemetery and just the simple, basic act of cleaning something off allowed me to sort my thoughts out and whatever I was feeling at the time.
“Every time I would come back and see a clean marker, I felt a little part of myself heal. It has been a whole process because I am also healing through the social media aspect of it, which I never would have expected.”
“It still is therapeutic for me; I’ll have a bad day and walk through the cemetery and see what good I have done.
“At a time where people are saying all sorts of horrible stuff about me because there were disputes about the custody of my children, no matter what, I always had this inanimate object that was static and never went anyway, it was so representative of that there was something still in me to give, that wasn’t necessarily just mum or just wife.”
Williams wasn’t stripped of any titles she had before, she in fact added to that. “It has become more than just a hobby, it’s my job,” she says.
She has blossomed into a new energy. Williams has been letting things play out organically and hopes to turn what she is doing into a full-time career and be able to build and create something in the future.
She had to overcome her fear of being on camera and come out of her comfort zone in order to share more of what people wanted to see.
Her videos are on Instagram in addition to TikTok, with her views growing daily.
“When the viral stuff started taking off, I struggled the first couple of weeks because now this thing that was mine, even though I shared it here and there, I now felt a pressure to display it. But that feeling didn’t last very long, opportunities started to fall in my lap.”
“And it’s not just the opportunities to be interviewed and chat with great people, but it’s the opportunity to inspire other people,” she says.