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What’s a Taphophile? A Love of Cemeteries Explained

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Contributing writer, cemetery historian

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My name is Minda, and I’m a taphophile. Unless you’re a taphophile, you probably don’t know what it is. But if you love visiting cemeteries, you probably are one. 

I became a taphophile nearly twenty years ago when I started writing my first book Cemetery Walk. I can’t tell you how many cemeteries I visited in those early years – or since. There have been a lot. And there are always more to see!

You may be thinking that this is a strange way to spend your time. “Normal” people don’t go to cemeteries unless they have to, right? Honestly, I couldn’t disagree more.

Jump ahead to these sections:

In 1831, the Rural Cemetery Movement began in the United States. Also known as the Victorian or Garden Cemetery Movement, it swept across the country. It was the mid-1850s when the garden-style cemeteries were created throughout the Midwest. 

These cemeteries were indeed designed to look like gardens and natural sanctuaries where the dead would rest eternal and their living loved ones could come to visit. Just look at the beautiful, ornate gravestones and finely carved sculptures, and you will realize they were meant to be seen and appreciated. Statuary worthy of a museum was not created to be hidden away. They were made to show those who passed by that those interred here were cherished, loved, and respected.

What’s a Taphophile?

A taphophile by definition is someone who is interested in cemeteries, gravestones, and the art and history that goes along with them. Some taphophiles are also interested in funerals and funerary traditions over the years. 

Taphophiles are not ghoulish folks with death obsessions. In fact, they can be quite the opposite. Taphophiles want to know about the people buried in our cemeteries. They want to learn about the history of individuals, ancestors, and even the community.

Why Are Taphophiles Fascinated With Cemeteries and Funerals? 

Someone may be drawn to cemeteries while searching for relatives’ graves or simply trying to find a grave in a cemetery. A photographer may realize they’re full of possibilities. Each taphophile has their own reasons. The ones below may resonate with you.

Cemeteries are our history

When I enter the gates of Chippiannock Cemetery in Rock Island, Illinois, I see the founders of the city. I see the railroad magnates (Philander Cable and his nephew Ransom Cable) who connected Rock Island with the rest of the country. I see the man who lit the city (Ben Harper, head of Rock Island Gas Works) and built the opulent Harper Hotel and the Opera House.

Directly across from the gates is the Soldiers and Sailors Monument, which was erected in 1915. It was made possible because the local children went door to door collecting pennies from fellow citizens. As I make my way up the hill, I pass by veterans of the Civil and Black Hawk wars, a city mayor, and the editor of the newspaper who went toe-to-toe with one of the cruelest gangsters in U.S. history (Minnie Potter and John Looney).

All the graves in between are of the people who, to quote George Bailey in It’s a Wonderful Life, are the ones who did “most of the working and paying and living and dying in this community.” Each and every one of them has a story, and each and every one of them made an impact on the lives of others. These are the people I want to know more about. Their stories are the ones I want to know and share.

Cemeteries are ‘outdoor museums’ 

Close your eyes and imagine a place with local artifacts dating back to the early days of a community. All around you are hand-crafted pieces of art, ranging from small folk art to life-size sculptures of the human form. Representations of architecture can be found throughout. Examples of stunning stained-glass windows can be seen here and there. Oddly enough, there are also squirrels running around.

Of course, you are in a cemetery. But it also sounds like a museum. Except for the squirrels. 

Like traditional museums, it’s important for these “outdoor museums” to be kept safe and intact. One way to deter vandalism in cemeteries is to keep them active. A good way to do so is for people to take walks or jog in them. Visit them regularly. Vandals are less likely to target a cemetery is there’s a chance someone will be there to see them.

What Can You Do If You Want to Start a Cemetery or Funeral Hobby? 

If I had a nickel for every time someone told me they thought they were the only one who liked cemeteries, well...I’d have a whole lot of nickels. 

There are so many people who are already interested in cemeteries. This is due to a couple of reasons. One, cemeteries are great, and people are appreciating them more. Two, more and more people are interested in their family history and genealogy. Taphophiles own genealogists a big thank you for “normalizing” our hobbies that include cemeteries.

If you feel there’s a taphophile in you, here are some helpful tips to get started.

Visit a cemetery 

The best way to start is to learn more about cemeteries is to jump right in. You’ve likely been to at least a few cemeteries already. Visit a cemetery near you and take a good look around. Really look. Even if it’s a cemetery you’ve been to a thousand times. You may take walks through it once or twice a week. It’s almost guaranteed, though, that you will see something each time you visit if you play close enough attention.

As a matter of fact, I visited the cemetery near where I live yesterday. I parked my car in a section I hadn’t wandered through for quite a while. Before I even got out of the car, I saw a gravestone I’ve driven or walked past for years. But last night, I noticed it had a large open book carved on the top of it. I was surprised, because I’m often on the lookout for book carvings.

I also visited the Civil War soldiers’ lot. While walking through this old military section, I noticed another gravestone I hadn’t seen before. Close to the large obelisk and at the end of one of the rows of military-issued tombstones is a special one. 

It reads:

In Memory
Unknown Dead
Dedicated By
Eliza Garfield
Tent 22
Daughters Of
Veterans

The bright white marble has turned gray and black over the many years. But it’s still readable up close. I looked around at the small lot. The number of grave markers seems small now. I wonder how many unknown soldiers are truly represented by that stone.

Personally, I like to visit the oldest cemeteries I can find in an area. For me, they have the most character and are more prone to telling their stories on their own. I love Victorian symbolism and finding interesting epitaphs. And when you find a gravestone that literally tells you the person’s story, it can be amazing. I’ve seen some stones carved with particular causes of death, from death at sea to murder.

Here’s one example: 

In Memory of
Ensign John S.
Robben
Born July 22, 1915
Walk, Ellis Co. Kans.
Died for His Country
November 24, 1943
When the Aircraft Carrier
Liscome Bay Was Sunk
By a Japanese Submarine
During the Gilbert
Islands Operations

(located at St. Anna Cemetery, Walker, Kansas)

Phillip
Rice
Colored
Born a Slave
In Va.
MURDERED
July 26, 1866
Supposed to Be
73 YS Old

(located at Blendon Central Cemetery, Franklin County, Ohio)

Visit a cemetery the next chance you get. Step back into history. Then think of yourself as a cemetery detective who’s searching for clues. Write those clues down. What will you find? What will it tell you about the people who are buried there? 

Learn cemetery etiquette 

A true taphophile is respectful of graves at all times. Below is the etiquette list I have on my site, TheCemeteryClub. Check it over and follow these guidelines for respecting and keeping our cemeteries safe.

  • Visit cemeteries only during posted open hours.
  • Be considerate of others. If a funeral is in progress or people are visiting a grave, move to another section of the cemetery.
  • Do not stand, sit or lean against monuments. No matter how sturdy they may seem, they may fall or shift.
  • When you see trash, pick it up. (It’s the nice thing to
  • If a stone has fallen, do not move it to another location (i.e. against a fence or nearby tree). It may be the only record of the grave’s location.
  • Ask permission from the cemetery office before doing a gravestone rubbing; they may not be allowed.
  • Follow all posted cemetery rules.
  • If dogs are allowed on the grounds, clean up after your pet. Do not let your pet run free.
  • Use respectful language and be considerate of others.

Cemetery history 

Research. I love researching. You never know what you’ll end up discovering. Remember those clues you wrote down in the cemetery? You can start your research by searching for information based on what you found. 

There are plenty of places online where you can start, from genealogy sites to posted newspapers. My advice is to use free ones first. Some have yearly subscription costs that can be pricey. You don’t need access to those right away if you’re a newbie. Save your money for when you know exactly what will work best for you.

The best place for you to research, in my experience, is the local historical society. What a treasure trove of information you can discover there! Plus, you’ll have the most dedicated volunteers available to assist you. Speaking of dedication, librarians will always do you right. Visits to libraries are critical.

There’s one more resource you don’t want to overlook – the cemetery’s office. Who could know the cemetery better than the staff?

Funeral history 

What about funerals? Are taphophiles really interested in those, too? Quite a few are because of their connection to cemeteries. Let me clarify, though – taphophiles are generally interested in the history of funerals, not in attending current ones. We taphophiles grieve just like the rest of you.

Are You a Taphophile?

Do you think you’re a taphophile? Embrace it! Cemeteries are historical, beautiful, and fascinating. As I mentioned before, visiting cemeteries isn’t strange. Not visiting them is strange to me. Go and look at them in a new way.


Sources

  1. Max_and_99. “Graves Mentioning Cause of Death.” Waymarking.com. www.waymarking.com/waymarks/WM12HAX_Ensign_John_S_Robben_Walker_KS 
  2. Gravestoned blog. “Murder and mystery,” June 21, 2012. gravestoned.blogspot.com/2012/06/murder-and-mystery.html
  3. Powers-Douglas, Minda. Images of America: Chippiannock Cemetery, Arcadia Publishing 2010. Books.google.com
  4. “Cemetery Etiquette.” TheCemeteryClub.com. www.thecemeteryclub.com/toolsforyou.html