I am a Taphophile. I have Taphophilia. It is not a horrific, strange disease, and as scary as the word looks, it is not communicable (but I will do my best to pass it on to you).
The root of the word Taphophilia is Greek. Taphos for grave and phileo for love. The actual meaning of the word as used today is a passion for and an enjoyment of cemeteries. Photography, genealogy, study of architecture, inconography are all subjects that fall under Taphophilia. A Taphophile is an individual who engages in one or more of these interests.
I have, from a very young age, harbored a fascination for cemeteries and graveyards. There is a difference between the two. Cemetery means burial grounds that are taken care of, whether by family members or hirelings, and can be open or closed to new interments (burials). Graveyard means burial grounds that have been neglected, perhaps forgotten, and no longer have interments.
As a child, graveyards were the best. Spooky. Creepy. Home to vampires, zombies, and ghosts. I loved the little frisson of fear that passed over me whenever we passed by a graveyard or when I saw them in movies or in pictures. The older they were the better.
I don’t recall when my love for graveyards changed to encompass cemeteries, but somewhere along the line I discovered that there was a whole lot more to the eye in both places, and a whole lot of learning to be had in them too. And again, the older they are the better they are. I have no real attachment or love for modern burial places. Too sterile. Nothing but sameness as far as the eye can see. Its the older cemeteries and graveyards that hold my love.
Walk into a cemetery created prior to the early 1900s, and you will immediately be surrounded by art, poetry, and prose. Hand carved statues. Angels, figures, flowers, symbols, and inscriptions. Created by artisans in a variety of mediums such as marble and granite. For the most part, one of a kind. The inscriptions can be moving, short bursts of emotion regarding a loved one. A bible verse, or personal lament. A bit of humor here and there.
The symbolism used tells a story about the person buried. It may reflect a personal belief or a belief of the family members. An anchor means eternal life or eternal hope and are found on sailors’ and masonic graves. Calla lillies represent beauty, clasped hands mean farewell to earthly existence or unity. Lambs are most usually found on a child’s grave. Dogs represent loyalty. Most of these are Western meanings and many are Victorian. There are some wonderful books out there on the subject of cemetery symbolism, and much can be found for free on the internet.
Crypts are another interesting feature in the older cemeteries. These structures are very reminiscent of houses, churches, castles, etc. and for the most part, if you were buried in a crypt you either came from a well off family or you amassed the funds over a lifetime to spend on a crypt of your choosing. Some of these crypts will have room for multiple family members. Some will hold only one. Some are grandiose edifices, some are simple in their nature though no less poignant.
Although you will find many crypts, burial mounds and sarcophagi (another form of crypt, more reminiscent of a coffin or casket or a human form) scattered throughout the country, most burials are in-ground. An exception to that rule would be the cemeteries in and around New Orleans. Because the City of New Orleans is below sea level and the water table in the soil is so high, in ground burials, until very recent times, were not the norm. In these cemeteries, the dead are buried in crypts, barrows, and wall ovens, and are reused by generations of family members in those cemeteries that are still accepting interments.
The loveliest cemeteries that I have seen in the U.S. are the garden cemeteries, designed by the Victorians as a park and a place of public entertainment. These cemeteries were modeled on the Paris Pere Lachaise Cemetery and the London Highgate Cemetery. The Victorians enjoyed walking in their cemeteries and even hosted picnics by the loved one’s grave! I have been to two such cemeteries, namely the Metarie Cemetery in New Orleans, and the Hollywood Cemetery in Richmond Virginia. Both are on the national historic registry and both have spectacular art, stonework, and landscaping.
When visiting, plan to wear sturdy walking shoes and dress according to the weather. Wear sunscreen and insect repellent. Always, always be aware of your surroundings. Get information regarding the safety of the area, and when in doubt, always leave immediately. Generally it is better not to visit these places alone. Vampires and ghosts are not the only thing to fear in these places.
Remember too that when you are walking around the older cemeteries and graveyards, you are more than likely stepping on someone’s grave. Headstones disappear, are destroyed, stolen, or crumble to dust over time. You never know if the land beneath your feet is hallowed ground. I find myself sincerely and repeatedly saying “Sorry that I stepped on you” whenever I am wandering through. And hoping in my heart that they both hear and forgive me.
Enjoy cemeteries? Clicking any of the pictures featured in this blog will bring you to my shop where you will find beautiful fine art prints of cemeteries (and more!).