The Architecture of Death Through the Eyes of a Taphophile

by M-Gillies

There are approximately 170,000 people buried in around 53,000 graves at Highgate Cemetery.

Tombstone tourist, cemeterian, cemetery hunter, cemetery historian, military, genealogical, and even preservationist-gravers – whatever you want to call them, it’s a grave case of taphophilia and these taphophiles share one common interest… their interest; their fascination; their obsession rests in the lore, the art, the architectural, historical and serene beauty of cemeteries.

It’s a hobby, a leisure pursuit, and even a lifestyle for the modern day taphophile, and while it may seem peculiar to those who collect stamps, and insects, attend sports games or cycle throughparks, the act… nay – the art of taphophilia is one that has a history that stretches from long ago.

Just as people made pilgrimages to burial sites of religious icons and leaders to venerate saints, cemeteries have had a long standing with capturing the fascinations of many people. For a taphophile, one who travels to different cemeteries for enjoyment, often observing old and unusual gravestones, or finding and visiting the graves of famous people, the art of taphophilia lies in the historical aspects and relevance of its inhabitants.

During the early nineteenth century, after the cholera epidemic there was a motion set in place to relocate cemeteries outside of cities, much like how Ancient Romans had practiced. This was brought on in part to burial spaces growing scarce and the risks of disease being spread throughout cities.

While cemeteries were first owned by churches, that maintained their grounds in churchyards, these cemeteries located outside the cities would soon become known as ‘Garden Cemeteries’. Initially, albeit informally landscaped with sweeping roads wide enough for carriages and smaller paths for strolling, combined with the strategic planting of trees, and architectural features that not only impressed but drew the eye toward more key features of what a cemetery had to offer, became a fashion which would prevail for the next decade, after the opening of Pere Lachaise cemetery in Paris, 1815.

By 1842, one John Claudius Loudon published a book entitled, On the Laying Out of Cemeteries. It was in this book that Loudon advocated a more practical approach to cemetery layout, in which he promoted grid-like structuring that would offer a more efficient use of space. Even after the publication, the ideas and his promotion of the cemetery as an educational, contemplative and dignified environment was well-received by Victorian society at the time.

As the years went by, the 1850s and onward saw many cemeteries adopting the approach of the grid layout. In fact, Victorians saw cemeteries not only as a place in which social status could be established, whether it be in stone or marble, but also as a contemplative place to visit, reflect and enjoy a stroll.

Then something happened. As the dawn of the a new century approached, attitudes toward death changed. Cemeteries began to be laid out different, while headstones became more discreet. However, it was only after the First World War, when the realities of death began affecting families on a more personal level that the attitudes of death changed. This was soon followed by more practical demands of burying an ever-growing number of dead, along with the cost of maintaining the cemeteries. With drastic results, the majority of Garden Cemeteries started to fall into a state of disrepair.

By the 1960s, the majority of cemeteries were no longer financially viable. Once prosperous cemeteries such as Highgate Cemetery and Abney Park were virtually abandoned by the companies that owned them. Soon gates were locked, leaving formerly landscaped grounds to grow wild and naturally as shrubs and plants engulfed and destroyed catacombs and headstones.

However, over the last two decades, there has been a resurgence in cemeteries. With local enthusiasts, volunteers and charities invigorating the attitudes toward cemeteries; their architectural, historical, social and environmental importance – cemeteries have once again been seen as a place of quiet contemplation and reflection.

With the resurgence being spearheaded by taphophiles, some of their hobbies while visiting cemeteries range from collecting vintage cemetery postcards, tombstone rubbing, necropolis photographing, epitaph collating, cemetery exploring, and in some cases, grave-dirt collecting. And while these pursuits may seem peculiar to the average person, Taphophilia, though still obscure to mainstream trends, is still a respected activity that sees many like-minded individuals taking to cemeteries to document, tour and absorb the beauty that even death can produce.

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