Taphophilia. Strange word, fun hobby. What is it? Taphophilia is a love of old cemeteries and graveyards. Worried you were the only one who finds exploring old burial grounds fascinating? You aren’t. There are groups and societies such as The Taphophile Society, Cemetery Conservators for United Standards, and Meetups for graveyard lovers. There are also travel taphophile gatherings, like those led by Lauren Rhoades at Cemetery Travel.
Learning about old gravestones and death customs and getting excited about visiting historic cemeteries isn’t weird at all. Taphopiles enjoy everything from quick, quiet strolls through the local cemetery to planning their yearly vacation around a particular historic graveyard.
I am fascinated by the rich history of old cemeteries and the mysteries that can be discovered among the stones. Every one tells a story.
In Victorian times, in fact, pieces of that story appeared on the gravestone itself. Grave markers in the Victorian age were fascinating. Often these featured unusual and very intricate carvings. These stones make it easy to believe you’re in an outdoor museum or art gallery in many ways.
However, Victorian-era cemeteries had a lot of problems. Overcrowding, disease and improper burial practices were the norm during this time.
Victorian Graveyards Were Problematic
In the late 19th century, most people were buried in the city where they had lived. However, this became a rather large problem. There were too many bodies and not enough space to bury them. The Paris Catacombs are a prime example of this. Since cremation at this time was unfamiliar and thought peculiar, there were simply too many bodies in local cemeteries.
Overcrowded graveyards caused another problem: the spread of disease. Improperly buried bodies in overcrowded cemeteries were a physician’s nightmare. In his book, Dirty Old London, author Lee Jackson notes, “Coffins were stacked one atop the other in 20-foot-deep shafts, the topmost mere inches from the surface. Putrefying bodies were frequently disturbed, dismembered or destroyed to make room for newcomers.”
Something needed to be done, but what?
The Answer to a Grave Matter
Garden cemeteries became the answer to this serious problem. Here, there were monuments, beautiful paths for mourners to walk, and lovely landscaping. One great example of this new type of cemetery is the Gothic Highgate Cemetery in London. George Eliot, Henry Moore and Karl Marx are just a few of the notable people buried here. The cemetery boasts over 50,000 graves.
In Vermont, it’s not unusual to find a family cemetery as close as one’s backyard…literally. There is an old farmhouse about a quarter mile from where I live. In its yard, tucked under some mature trees are six old gravestones. Along a main road about a mile away is another family plot.
Burial on private homesteads was the norm here in the United States, at least until the 1830s. Then garden burial grounds became more prominent and frequently used.
A Short History of Symbols on Gravestones
Have you ever wondered why there are so many stone lambs in cemeteries? Lambs were synonymous with children and were often used in marking of an infant or child grave. Calla Lilies are symbolic of marriage and were popular on gravestones in Victorian times. They also symbolize resurrection.
Open books most often portrayed the Bible, however, they were also used on the gravestones of scholars or others who were well educated. A Celtic cross symbolized eternity as did an urn draped in a cloth. A broken column was symbolic of a life cut short, and frequently used as a young person’s grave marker.
Great Books on Taphophilia, Cemeteries and Grave Carving
Any of these books would be a good pick for taphophiles or those who simply want to learn more about the history of graveyards or the art of gravestone carving:
- The Art of Memory, by Thomas Dilley. Offers an in depth historical look at cemeteries in Grand Rapids Michigan, in the late 19th and 20th centuries. This book is packed with gorgeous, full-color photos and lots of interesting facts and historical research. Perfect for anyone with an interest in graveyards, especially those with a special connection to the state of Michigan.
- A Brief Treatise on Tomb and Grave Stones of the Eighteenth Century, by
J. David Gillespie. This book focuses more on the process of gravestone carving in the 18th century. It also includes many pictures and illustrations to help readers learn how to locate the (sometimes hidden) signature of many carvers.
- Carved in Stone: The Artistry of Early New England Gravestones, by Thomas E. Gilson. I’m partial to this book seeing as it focuses on New England gravestones. However, with the author’s careful attention to detail and the personal accounts which pepper its pages, it’s sure to intrigue any ardent taphophile.
Taphophilia: a Link to the Past & Hope for the Future
While many would argue that taphophilia and interest in historical death customs such as Victorian death jewelry are morbid, I disagree. No matter where you live, who you are or what you do in life we are all ultimately headed toward the same finish line.
An occasional walk through the cemetery and spending a little time learning about mourning rituals reminds me of the preciousness of each and every day. Remember that movie, The Dead Poets Society? I loved the students’ mantra, carpe diem, Latin for “seize the day”. Rather than acting as a morbid reminder of death, taphophilia helps us to remember to embrace each and every day as though it were our last.
What do you think? Are you drawn to beautiful old cemeteries? Do you like to wander among the gravestones and wonder about the lives of the people buried there?
I’d love to hear your thoughts on taphophilia or any of the most remarkable or beautiful graveyards you’ve visited. Please share in the comments below.
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