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.

22 responses to “A Strange Case of Taphophilia

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