A Strange Case of Taphophilia

The Crocker Angel at Mountain View Cemetery, Oakland, California

I’ve been thinking lately about how would I label my cemetery obsession. A post on A Grave Interest inspired the question. Joy chooses to call herself a tombstone tourist, after Scott Stanton’s book about visiting the graves of musicians. Joy has a lot of interesting thoughts along the way. Her original post is here.

An essay in the Association for Gravestone Studies winter 2011 newsletter also considers the question. She says that the current nomenclature is “taphophile” (“taph” from the Greek for tomb and “philia” meaning an inordinate fondness), but I’ve always found the term too clinical. Professor Davies says her love for graveyards leans more toward bibliophilia (a love of books) than necrophilia “or any other equally gross or morbid derangement.” In the end, she rejects the term taphophile and decides to call herself a cemeterian.

Doyle P. Glaze II has labeled his Facebook group as cemetery hunters, which puts a more masculine spin on the subject.

Of course, lovers of graveyards can’t claim to be a movement officially until we all accept (or have thrust upon us) the same label. Perhaps we come to our fascination for these liminal spaces from so many different directions that no single word or phrase is going to encompass us all. I’m all right with that. It’s just made me happy to know so many cemetery organizations are out there, doing the good work, researching and documenting and protecting these fragile places.

For myself, I’m tempted by the label “cemetery lady.” I envision these women as the ones who plant flowers and tidy up and lead tours, although I only occasionally do any of those things. Unfortunately, my mental picture of the ideal cemetery lady looks like my silver-haired grandmother, so I haven’t quite grown into the role yet.

In a way, though, I’m a cemetery collector. I collect vintage postcards from cemeteries, marveling over the comfort with which our ancestors visited graveyards. I have a library of cemetery books, gathered for research and their lovely pictures. I even have a half-dozen or so cemetery photographs framed and hung on my bedroom wall. I gather clippings about graveyards, along with brochures, maps, and other ephemera. All of those things are incidental to actually visiting graveyards themselves: to walk their paths, smell their flowers, see their statuary and read their epitaphs. My love for cemeteries began and ends with standing in front of a tombstone.

I’ve gone beyond being a fan of cemeteries. Enthusiasm is closer to what I feel. Amateur has the right meaning, since I study cemeteries for the love of them, but it also has the connotation of being inexperienced, which I can’t claim to be any longer. Maybe devotee is the best word for me. I am devoted to cemeteries.

About Loren Rhoads

I'm the author of The Dangerous Type, Kill By Numbers, and No More Heroes. I am also the co-author (with Brian Thomas) of the novel Lost Angels and the author of the essay collection Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel. In addition to blogging at CemeteryTravel.com, I blog about my morbid life at lorenrhoads.com.
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12 Responses to A Strange Case of Taphophilia

  1. Steve says:

    Taphophilia has always seemed a strange term to me. Perhaps it’s too scientific or too exotic or maybe it smacks just a bit too much of a New Age twist. Akin to the idea of cemetery collector, I’ve always fashioned myself as a memory collector, pocketing the histories, large and small of men and women long gone and yet still oddly alive when we stroll past the stones marking the very last spot they visited before pushing on.

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  3. Rose says:

    Having been a nurse for 30 years, I’m used to terms like “taphophile”, and it’s brought me some comfort to know that others like to do what I do. I am a taphophile, but what I do is go for a “visit” as my Oma taught me so many years ago. Now I’ve found you! Most don’t understand that I wasn’t upset when I couldn’t check into the little inn in Provence for my French cooking class….I’d seen a cemetery down the road that I could visit (and I’m a better cemetery visitor than I am cook). I risked arrest in a small town in Sicily by climbing over the fence (it was supposed to be open!). Finally my interest in art, history, and world religion has come together.

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  5. Wayne Morris says:

    I tend to call myself a Tomb Reader, being a non distructive twist on Tomb Raider. Mind you I am not a Lara Croft look a like by any stretch… being a nearly 50 bloke. i like Steves “memory collector” I like to think that if we read a tombstone we are remembering those that have gone before, I have an interest in military graves particularly those of Victoria Cross holders and enjoy the hunt for these often forgotten graves.

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  6. Carla Shirosky says:

    I never label myself as one thing or another. To me it boxes me in with no place to grow. I used to be deatly afraid of cemeteries!! Growing up, we lived close to the vandilized and burned out remains of a gorgeous mansion of a prominant family in our area. My dad thoought it would be “fun” to drive up to the property and while we’re huddled in the back seat, dad bangs on the door. After mom found out, she told us something that still sticks to me today…..”the dead can’t hurt you. It’s the living you must watch out for.” From then on I’ve loved cemeteries. I used to visit them more often then I do now because I’m in a wheelchair and struggle a lot and also, eventhough I don’t wheel myself over flat headstones, I don’t want anyone to think I’m being disrespectful. Went out to one place I’ve never been before and loved looking at all the very old graves.

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  7. Ron says:

    Loren, thanks for your interesting article; it’s very therapeutic knowing there are other cemetery lovers out there like me and we’re not so rare! It can feel almost discriminatory in that, most people think us odd or eccentric and that’s only if we choose to *share* with them our interest in cemeteries! For me personally, I keep my fondness mostly secret because, who wants to explain it to people? Briefly, I’m a 60 year old man living in Florida and I usually visit our local and very beautiful burial grounds at least once a week. I feel a strange kinship with those who have passed – almost as if they’re my friends. I especially love following up the odd historic fact concerning various graves and I love watching out for centenarians- those who while here on earth, outlived the odds. An especially interesting grave is of a woman who was born in March of 1899 and passed in December of 2001! Imagine, this lady lived in 3 different centuries!! I find my cemetery more tranquil, peaceful and a recharge to my batteries than most of the usual activities my friends like. And check this out: every once in a while, I spot a coyote who roams the grounds. I’ve not seen her in a while, but I think like me, she prefers the solitude of that inspiring place. Well anyway, take care!

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    • Loren Rhoads says:

      I’m so glad you shared your story with me. I hadn’t thought to look for centenarians, but I love the idea of the lady whose life spanned three centuries. I’m going to start looking for more. Thank you for getting in touch.

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