Amanda Brown grew up in a bygone era where “you couldn’t come home until the streetlights came on.”
Stuck outside but equipped with a bicycle, Brown would meander around her hometown of historic Aberdeen, Washington, and often find herself at a big cemetery across the hill from Wishkah Valley.
“It was a really mossy area because it was under a lot of trees, and Washington is really moist,” she says. “I got into scraping the moss off so you could read the headstones. This is when I was 11 or 12. I was always fascinated with cemeteries and headstone architecture.”
"Some people play tennis or disc golf like my husband. I go to the cemetery and clean headstones.”
“From then on, I always had to visit the cemetery anytime I went to a new town. People always thought it was weird.”
In 2018, when Amanda, who served in the U.S. Navy from 1999 through 2003, and her husband, who’s Army active duty, moved to Newport News, Va., she found herself in a historic hub just minutes from Jamestown, Williamsburg, and Yorktown. When a friend invited her to a headstone cleaning preservation class, Brown said yes and immediately fell in love.
She didn’t get a chance to dedicate herself fully to her passion until a few years later when they moved to Abilene, Kansas, near where her husband is currently stationed at Fort Riley.
“My husband said, ‘If this is something you really want to do, go for it.’”
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Going all in is exactly what she did. Her hobby paired perfectly with her desire to honor those who came before her in the military, which she said is part of her oath. “Mostly what I’m doing is veterans and kids.”
Over the years, Brown has discovered all sorts of research tools and resources, in real life and online, including fellow cemetery preservationists.
“I found and followed a gentleman named Andrew Lumish who goes by the Good Cemetarian, and I was fascinated by his work,” she says. “I just loved the before-and-afters and the stories of the people.”
“It’s become my outlet. Some people play tennis or disc golf like my husband. I go to the cemetery and clean headstones.”
Brown’s favorite part of her hobby is learning about the people buried underneath the headstones, their lives, and their family members.
“I do heavy research,” she says. “When I find cool stuff about a person, I like to share it while I’m cleaning the headstone. I’ve found some amazing people doing this.”
In sharing her work and findings online, Brown has garnered a huge following online, where she goes by the moniker of Healthy Headstones.
Usually, Brown starts at FindAGrave.com, a website that allows users to keep logs of each headstone visit and cleaning.
“You can see the grave of the person, the date, location, a bio or obituary and then there’s also connections to their family, spouses, kids, siblings, just a huge network of dead people. It’s so much fun,” she says.
“But what I love the most is when I’m researching these people and I come across new information, like I just came across a newspaper clipping saying someone’s spouse passed away here and the family didn’t know. People say, ‘I’ve been looking for my great-great grandmother for 20 years and I never knew where she was.’ There’s a huge underground community of us who consider ourselves part of the after-death care.”
"You may not care what happens after you die, but death isn’t about you. Death is about your family.”
“People don’t realize when you’re dead, that’s not it. There’s so much more that goes into it in the cemeteries which are communal archives. You may not care what happens after you die, but death isn’t about you. Death is about your family.”
“So, when people ask me why I do this and say it’s a waste of time, I say, ‘Tell that to the guy who has been searching for his great grandma for the last 20 years and has been trying to solve this family mystery.’”
One of her most memorable connections made while cleaning a gravestone was in Junction City, Kan. Brown was finishing up a season of cleaning and decided to do one more. Brown moved a flag bent over the grave to get a closer look and discovered it was a flight officer. Upon more research, she realized it was a Tuskegee Airman named 1st LT Ramon Noches.
“There was a huge controversy around his death. I ended up becoming friends with the family. What’s really cool is one of his kids married the daughter of the first female petitioner for Brown v. Board of Education. The planning took place in her home in Topeka.”
Another time, Brown got special permission from a family to clean the grave of someone named Oliver Brown. “The cemetery is all flat stones, barely any upright. There’s nothing special on it, just a flat marble. No flowers. Just a marker. He died at 42 years old of a heart attack in the backseat of someone’s car on the Topeka turnpike.”
In addition to spreading awareness through her social channels, Brown also teaches classes through her historical society on how to do the research. And she continues to honor the lives of the dead, one headstone at a time.
“Last year I did a fundraiser for a gentleman whose headstone got vandalized, and we raised $1500 and got his headstone replaced. So many people go forgotten and cemeteries neglected, it’s heartbreaking. These people need to be memorialized.”