Woman learning about history through gravestone rejuvenation

gravestone cleaning
Posted at 2:18 PM, Aug 09, 2021

BEDFORD, Va. — Millions of people are scouring the internet every day, digging deep into genealogy and learning about the generations before them. One woman has found that behind every name lies an important story.

A cemetery might not be a place that comes to mind when thinking about healing.

But for Alicia Williams, that’s exactly what Bedford, Virginia’s Longwood Cemetery is. It’s her therapy.

“It’s just more of an underground community, I mean, who hangs out in cemeteries with dead people all day," Williams said.

She recently went through a tumultuous divorce and a battle for her children.

“I had not a soul in the world that made me feel like I was good enough to exist in the world," Williams said.

This place, filled with souls Williams can only feel, became her cleanse.

“Coming out here, it was like, this stone has 120 years of dirt on it and I made it clean, so why can’t I do the same thing for myself? For my soul?” Williams said.

For almost a year, she’s been cleaning gravestones to conserve what’s there and bring these stories back to life.

“Once I get their name out and see their dates, then I can start to research them and investigative them and some of them sadly, there is not much to find out," Williams said. “Which to me makes it even more important to clean that marker because, in a lot of instances, it’s the only record that that person existed at all.”

For many, there is much more to discover. It’s why the genealogy trend is picking up. For example, Ancestry had 15 million people in its DNA network in 2019, and in just two years, that number grew to over 20 million.

Joshua Taylor, the president of the New York Genealogical and Biological Society says the accessibility factor of records and information has changed the way people approach it.

“Those are individual stories, and they are also a collective community story," Taylor said. “Getting started is easier than ever before because you can access records at home, online, in 10 minutes that could take you ten months to find.”

It’s also why eyes are glued on Williams' work.

“We are in many ways, the current generation is the most documented generation ever. In photographs, in audio or video," Taylor said.

“We live in a time where people are very passionate about restoring the historical narrative and giving a voice to people that didn’t have a voice.”

Her cleaning methods and efforts to conserve have gone viral on TikTok.

“For the most part, the thing that surprises me and still to this day, it’s been nine months now, it’s been overwhelmingly positive," Williams said.

After cleaning, she researches and discovers stories buried beneath these graves. Decades later, Williams is resurfacing this history and trying to keep their legacies alive.

“If we don’t tell as many individual stories as possible, we’re never going to get an accurate picture," Williams said. “I feel like it’s giving me the courage to slowly start to tell more of my story.”