Grave cleaner-turned-TikTok star
Russian language major and software educator Caitlin Abrams’08 has become a TikTok star for creating videos that investigate the life (and death) of everyday people — all while cleaning their gravestones. Abrams reflects on how she got here.
Caitlin Abrams’08 has always enjoyed visiting old cemeteries. Thanks to video platform TikTok, she’s able to share her passion for historic cemeteries with the world. Under the handle Manic Pixie Mom, she posts videos where she talks about the lives (and often untimely deaths) of those buried under the 18th- and 19th-century gravestones she cleans. Her short videos rack up tens to hundreds of thousands of views from her 1.8 million followers.
Born and raised in New England, Abrams moved to Vermont in 2014 and soon developed the habit of visiting local cemeteries in her free time. She spent a few years researching the deceased and sharing gravestone symbolism knowledge with a few Facebook friends and Instagram followers — a process she says “lit up every part of my brain.”
In the pandemic’s early months, Abrams became a volunteer for Find A Grave, a public database owned by Ancestry.com that allows users anywhere in the country to search for gravestone photos. An Iowa woman requested photos of her relative’s grave in Vermont, but Abrams found the stone covered in lichen and almost illegible. She spent the next several months learning how to clean the stone without harming it or the environment, with permission from the cemetery. She learned that spraying the stones with D2, a non-toxic biocide, reveals their original state and color.
She published her first few grave-cleaning videos in 2020, but between work and child care, couldn’t dedicate much time to it until this past summer. The TikTok videos took off, in spite of her initial hesitation to use the platform.
Abrams, who has taught software programs to companies and universities since graduating from Beloit, gave in.
“I’m 35 and I really didn’t want to invade the space of the youths and their dancing and fun,” she says. “Then I was like, why not? I think I can speak well and I know how to teach. It felt a lot more natural to me than Instagram, where I was constantly trying to frantically type out this story. It’s easier if I can talk. I found that TikTok was the perfect medium for it.”
A Russian language major and journalism minor, Abrams’ gift for oratory was evident in and out of the classroom. Her fascination with Russian language, culture, and history — and her Russian “mom” and professor Olga Ogurtsova — convinced her to study abroad there, even as the country was in an economic depression and her future husband was fighting in Iraq.
“I think that the experience studying abroad in Moscow was very formative in learning that you’re not as worldly as you think you are when you’re 21,” Abrams explains. “We were pretty much on our own for food, where we were going to go, what we were going to do.”
What were the top sites on her list? Not surprisingly, the resting place of Vladimir Lenin in Red Square and Novodevichy Cemetery, where thousands of famous Russians were buried, from former Premier Nikita Khrushchev to playwright Anton Chekhov. She laughs as she remembers visiting Stalin’s wife’s grave, which read something like, “To a member of the Communist party, from Stalin.”
Nearly 15 years after graduating, Abrams has kept up with the language and hopes to visit Russia again someday — when she isn’t juggling her current full-time job with her TikTok side hustle and motherhood. For now, she’s just excited to continue making others excited about history.
“I’m going to keep sharing this stuff, even if it’s only three people looking at it,” she says. “It’s a real passion project for me and something that I feel really strongly about — bringing history to life in a way that people haven’t experienced. I really like that I’m hitting younger people now because I think it’s important for [them] to start taking up this mantle of maintaining, examining, and understanding our history. I’d like to think that this helps.”