May 16, 2024 - News

This cemetery saver has over 1 million social media followers

A photo of Wade Fowler.

Wade Fowler has restored hundreds of headstones like this one in DSM's Woodland Cemetery. Photo: Courtesy of Fowler

A Des Moines investment consultant awakened something unexpected while restoring gravestones in his free time — a large and living crowd of more than a million social media followers.

Why it matters: Much of Wade Fowler's work as the "Millennial Stone Cleaner" is voluntary.

  • The videos he posts are generating enthusiasm among a growing movement of cemetery savers, DSM historian and filmmaker Kristine Bartley tells Axios.

Zoom in: Fowler, who works at Bankers Trust, started out cleaning stones near his childhood home in Minnesota about six years ago, he tells Axios.

  • The inspiration came decades earlier when his grandfather nonchalantly mentioned that someone should restore the markers.

Behind the scenes: A friend convinced Fowler during the pandemic that others would be interested on TikTok, Instagram and Facebook in related stories, like the forgotten graves of children.

The intrigue: Fowler was addicted to Adderall during grad school.

  • He sought a mentally safe place after recovering, which he found in the cemetery work, he told Clarkson.

State of play: He's currently working to rehab almost all the monuments in Sims Cemetery, which was established before the Civil War near the Iowa State Fairgrounds.

  • That will be completed late this summer after about a year of work, he said.

The big picture: At least 3,000 cemetery volunteers have donated more than 20,000 hours of service in the last five years, DSM cemetery manager Ganesh Ganpat tells Axios.

  • One group, for example, recently wrote a book about Woodland Cemetery — the oldest public cemetery in Iowa — and is donating all proceeds to further its restoration.

The fine print: Monuments can be deadly if they topple.

  • People or groups interested in performing preservation work need approval from cemetery managers, Fowler said.

Worthy of your time: This 90-second video showing how Fowler and a friend recovered the deteriorated words on a monument at Woodland.

See it yourself: Fowler is participating in a Woodland tour for Axios DSM members Thursday night, led by Bartley and DSM resident Mike Rowley.

Yes, but: If you're not a member, regular tours cost $10 and are available throughout the fall, including two scheduled Saturdays at Woodland.

  • People can also take free self-guided tours using QR codes posted near more than 70 stones throughout the cemetery.
A photo of tombstones.
Tombstone restoration videos posted by Wade Fowler often give a brief history of the person they memorialize and show how fixes were made. Photos: Courtesy of Fowler
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