Taphophilia: The Love of Cemeteries

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Author: ElderDaniel
VR Publish Date: Oct 08 2005

Taphophilia: The Love of Cemeteries
By Dan Shaurette
Click on the thumbnails to see the full photos.

"Show me your cemeteries, and I will tell you what kind of people you have."
-- Benjamin Franklin

As autumn unfolds before us, I look forward to this time of the year as a very spiritual moment. The passage of time treads on, proving to us mortals just how fragile we really are. For just as surely as we are born, only one thing stands with us as the ultimate truth and guaranteed happenstance of our life; it will one day come to an end.

In 2003, I wrote an article describing a few customs worldwide that all revere a very holy time of year. October 31st to November 2nd is known collectively as Hallowtide. Whether you celebrate Samhain, All Saint's Eve, or Halloween, or enjoy festivals like Los Dias de Los Muertos, the original reason for the celebrations were to honor our ancestors.

Personally, this time of year means even more than winter holidays, like Yule and Christmas. I enjoy Halloween for dressing up and having fun with friends, but it is more than that. I become very solemn as I remember all of my family and friends who have passed away.

One thing I like to do to feel close to them again is visit their gravesites. I don't remember anniversaries or birthdays for all of them, so I usually choose the end of October to visit them when I can. Over the years though I have come to enjoy visiting different cemeteries, often just to admire the gothic architecture and sobering peace that I find there.

Click to see full photo.

A taphophile is someone who loves cemeteries and funerals. Some people may at first be uncomfortable with visiting a cemetery, especially if they do not even have relatives there. But there is nothing morbid in the interest, as far as I'm concerned. More people are coming to understand this thanks to TV shows like "Six Feet Under".

Speaking of Hollywood, the mausoleum at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery had double duty as a movie screen for visitors to watch classic movies on the weekends last summer. Billed as "an evening below and above the stars", the cemetery has enjoyed a new life as a way to share in the history of Hollywood.

Originally, the cemetery started the tradition by showing silent films by Valentino on the anniversary of his death. But the owner was approached by a film society that needed a new place to show their favorite films. What better place than the graveyard where some of the stars themselves were buried.

At first, this might seem callous -- "typical Hollywood" cashing in on opportunity. But really, it is quite remarkable to imagine. For myself, I would love to experience a movie there, just once. Others would probably never experience it because of their discomfort at such a place. However one might feel, though, it is fair to say this could only happen in L.A. Maybe only a taphophile could truly enjoy it.

Taphophiles are not necessarily obsessed with death per se, but fascinated by the trappings of burying the dead. It's a necessary process, dictated by virtually every society in one form or another. It is the study of those differences of a culture's perceptions of death, known as thanatology, which also fascinates me.

There is a beauty that I find in cemeteries that I find in no other place. Not all cemeteries are created equal, however. I'll admit that part of my fascination is rooted in the fact that most of the graveyards I've grown up around are what are known as "memorial parks". These are well-manicured places to pay your respects, but virtually all graves are marked with simple flat grave markers.

It seems then that I find charm with cemeteries in other states. One reason is that a cemetery truly is a remarkable mirror for a community. You can see how wealthy or flamboyant a certain legacy is, what a family's beliefs are, and understand the culture they lived in.

I try to take a camera with me when I visit a cemetery. I suffered too many times finding an amazing statue or other tribute to someone's life and wish I could marvel in the design. I personally have never done gravestone rubbings before, primarily because I prefer photography. I have heard the pros and cons against using different types of paper, chalk, etc., and it overwhelms me, to be honest.

In preparation for this article, I was going through some old photos, and I realized that I had none from Arizona. Not even from Boot Hill in Tombstone, which I have visited but the photos didn't come out because we missed the hours when the area was open to the public, and the lighting then was not enough.

So I decided that I was going to find some local cemeteries and treat myself. I visited maybe five or six memorial parks. I enjoyed my visits, the peace and reverence of the time spent there. But there was nothing photographically interesting to me. It was not until my last visit, to Greenwood Memory Lawn, in the heart of Phoenix, which I must pass by all the time, that I was overwhelmed by photo opportunities.

I found exactly what I was looking for, and felt like a complete moron. A moron who just happened to look at his feet to see the treasure he never noticed was right there. I found some amazing statues, unique headstones, and two incredible mausoleums.

I ended up using two rolls of films and still plan to go back to take more pictures. Especially of the amazing Veterans' Memorial there. It was an emotional sight to behold. I sincerely wished I had not run out of film. It reminds me of the Vietnam Memorial Wall in D.C., which I have only seen in pictures.

What I did find, I would like to share with you here. The cemetery itself is quite large, at least in comparison to the others I visited in town. There are plenty of roads to get to different areas, all with markers to prevent you from getting lost. If you are looking for a particular site, you can ask in the Office for a map. If you are a relative of one of their "residents", you can request a pinpointed location.

I was instantly enamored with some of the larger grave markers. Some were quite elaborate and one can only marvel at the lives those people must have had.

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I also found some amazing statues. Some were part of headstones; others marked specific areas of the cemetery.

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One statue of a proud couple looking to the west caught my eye. I had an instant feeling of hope just by viewing it.

Click to see full photo.

The most amazing statue was located in the middle of one of the southern lots, and appears to be a new addition. It is a bronze statue of a messenger angel. The detail is amazing and this photograph does not do it justice. But moreover, the incredible feature of the statue is that it turns. It looked like it makes a complete rotation every 15 minutes.

Click to see full photo.

There are two mausoleums on the grounds, and both contain columbariums. A mausoleum is a building in which the deceased are entombed in caskets in the walls. A columbarium is a building, or wall in which the urns of cremated remains are kept. The first mausoleum had the most amazing design, and down every turn my breath was taken away.

Click to see full photo.

The other mausoleum is less gothic in design, but is very intriguing. The outward style is very reminiscent of a late 1960's office building. Its two-story appearance lends to this illusion as well. I did not realize what it was at first because of this. But once you walk inside, you realize what it is. I have never seen a two-story mausoleum before. Here is a view from the second floor down the stairway.

Click to see full photo.

All told, I thoroughly enjoyed the visit. Moreover, the occasion was special because I took my kids on the trip. Their reactions were the most amazing, because kids do not have the same perception of death as adults do.

However, in their case, this is not from lack of experience. In 2001 alone, we lost my maternal grandparents, great-grandmother, and our family pet. All of which my children were very close to, and they were just as shattered as the rest of us that year.

What I wanted to accomplish though by taking them was to gauge their openness to explore the history of the area, the solemn pace of the visit, and to understand that all of these markers, beautiful or simple, represented at least one person who lived. I am happy to say that I think I have raised a small pack of taphophiles.

One thing the kids wanted to do was clean up the area around some markers, and they were heart-broken to see some damaged gravestones. I have never cleaned up a gravestone itself in order to photograph it.

My taphophilia is borne more from appreciating the sites in their current state, even weathered and worn. I do admire the efforts of organizations like Saving Graves, though. I did not allow my kids to move or touch anything, but I did brush a few mowed blades of grass away, etc. to make reading a marker easier, nothing more.

Once you can see a headstone or marker, you will find that many of them have images or motifs on them. Often times these represent that person's association with an organization or religion. But in some cases, a symbol may be there just because it was a nice design. Some people have no idea what they might be choosing; only doing so because they think they are supposed to.

This is one reason why I enjoy finding unique engravings because it would seem some meaning lies behind them. But symbol interpretation must be done with care. Just as with any piece of artwork, beauty and meaning lie in the eye of the beholder and may not agree with the intentions of the deceased or family that chose it.

Click to see full photo.

Also, do not forget that one culture may have different local connotations for a symbol. When you walk through a cemetery, admiring these details, always remember you are walking through a community and history all of its own.

Click to see full photo.

Another fascination of mine is with epitaphs, the inscriptions on the tombstones. These are often biblical quotes, or Latin inscriptions, like the common I.N.R.I., Iesus Nazarenus, Rex Iudaeorum, which means, Jesus Christ, King of the Jews, of whom presumably the deceased was a follower of.

Often they are quite powerful points of view on death. Usually they are picked by the family as a beautiful remembrance for their dearly departed. Here is a touching poem dedicated to the young child who is buried here.

Click to see full photo.

Sometimes, they are written by the deceased. I'll end this article, with my favorite epitaph, which was written by Benjamin Franklin. He wrote it when he was a young man, still working as a printer before his legacy in American politics. It is a testament to a great statesman and writer, even in his early years. It alludes to his belief in an afterlife, even perhaps reincarnation.

"The body of B. Franklin, Printer, (like the cover of an old book, its contents torn out and stripped of its lettering and gilding) lies here, food for worms. But the work shall not be wholly lost, for it will, as he believed, appear once more, in a new and more perfect edition, corrected and amended by the Author. (1706-1790)"
-- Epitaph of Benjamin Franklin

Did you know...?
There is a difference between a "casket" and a "coffin"?

A casket is a rectangular container that can be made from different materials. A coffin is a six-sided container made out of wood. However, to most people, the two are synonymous.

All photos taken by Dan Shaurette at Greenwood Memory Lawn, in Phoenix, Arizona.

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