I was introduced to cemeteries as interesting places to visit while I was still in primary school. My father had taken it upon himself to clear the bush encroaching on a chapel and cemetery situated not far from Sheba Gold Mine in the then Eastern Transvaal, where he was the Mine Captain. It was from seeing the graves of babies and children younger than I was that I learned about the scourge of malaria, while other graves informed me of the horror of a local train disaster.

It was in this half-forgotten cemetery that I became fascinated by the different epitaphs and shapes of gravestones; where I discovered my interest in the choice of symbols and biblical verses; where I learned something of the life expectancy in the late nineteenth century; and found interesting references to where people had come from – these were all things my father was happy to talk about.

Over the years I have discovered that there is much of historical significance to learn from visiting cemeteries, be it social, military, or related to families and religions. Should you spend any time there, you soon realise that cemeteries are, in a manner of speaking, outdoor museums that require you to look carefully – and possibly do later research – in order to interpret what you are seeing. My father was a keen amateur historian, who was particularly interested in the turbulent military history of his adopted country. As a result, many of our journeys were broken so that we could visit significant graves and monuments along the way.

I did not know then that during the years to come I would continue in this vein, as well as visiting various battle sites, with my husband. I also didn’t know that there is a word, tapophilia, to describe this interest in what old cemeteries have to offer. The word comes from the Greek taph (tomb) and philia (fondness or admiration). Sadly, many cemeteries in our platteland towns have been more or less abandoned either because of indifference by the local municipalities or simply because the towns are no longer thriving. Some, like the old cemetery in our town, are no longer safe to visit on one’s own although the aptly named New Cemetery is a different matter.

Of particular interest to me are the many symbols evident in older cemeteries especially. Angels are commonly regarded as the messengers of God who act as a guide to help the soul of the departed towards Heaven. Winged cherubs watch over the graves of babies and children to convey their innocence. The unbroken circle of a wreath represents everlasting life.

While the Celtic or Irish cross, taking the form of a cross within a circle, generally represents eternity.

A broken column indicates a life cut short; a memorial to the death of someone who died young or in the prime of life, before reaching old age.

Obelisks, on the other hand, apparently became popular after the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1801.This one also depicts the commonly used Masonic symbol of the compass and square, which represent faith and reason.

Having found the word, tapophilia, and given my interest in cemeteries, the depiction of symbols and the history reflected by gravestones, I realise I must be a taphophile.

31 thoughts on “TAPHOPHILIA

  1. I too, then, am a taphophile! I enjoy a stroll through cemeteries wherever I find them. Learnt a lot from this post! I often did not know the significance of what I was looking at in the angels and obelisk tombstones etc. Enjoyed this. 😊

    Liked by 1 person

    • I have picked up so much interesting information from visits to many cemeteries in the platteland as part of informal tours relating to the history of our country: collectively, groups of people carry a lot of interesting snippets of knowledge with them that they are willing to share.

      Liked by 2 people

    • I am grateful for that interest, especially given the number of isolated cemeteries and battle sites I have visited over the years while accompanying my husband!

      Liked by 1 person

  2. I hadn’t really thought about the symbols on grave stones. Of course they all mean something. What a revelation. I did know they meant something to the person that was buried or their kin. I just didn’t know what they meant. I am glad you brought these meanings to me. The next time I am in a cemetery i will think about those meanings more.
    I am also glad you brought the word Tapophilia into my vocabulary. I know someone that this applies to. I can’t wait to tell her about it.
    I didn’t grow up in the town we now live in. There is a section of town that has tomb stones that look like trees. There are several of them. I thought that it was just a fad around the time those were made. Now I would like to find out if they have further meaning. I don’t recall seeing them in any other cemetery.


    • Fashions in gravestones can come and go just as they do with other aspects of our lives. I understand that a headstone in the shape of a tree relates to the Bible’s tree of life and tree of knowledge and as such is a symbol of both eternity and humanity. I do not recall seeing any like that here – yet.


  3. Thanks for the new word of the day, Anne! Living in New England, we have some of the oldest cemeteries in the country, my favorites being from the late 1700s. It is interesting to try to piece together family stories and always poignant to see how may babies and children never reached ten years. Our modern vaccines have saved many a child’s life, something ‘anti-vaxxers’ sadly seem to have forgotten.


  4. Me, too! I really appreciate your pictures, and the vicarious experience of visiting with and learning from your father – so sweet. I don’t remember ever visiting a cemetery as a child; none of our relations were buried anywhere near and it was not something our family ever did.


  5. I’m with Eliza. One trip through a Maine cemetery will reveal just how many children died before vaccines and antibiotics became available. Too many people have no sense of history. Strangely enough, I find cemeteries peaceful and beautiful and I love walking through them.


  6. We have an old cemetery, with many military personnel buried there from the Civil War. It is well over a century old, with not only the military heroes dying an early death, but sadly women and children as well.


      • It was Anne – I had been there fifty years before with an art class I had taken as a teenager. We did etchings on the tombstones. So fifty years later, I did a walk through. It was nice to return there. I pass this cemetery all the time … volunteers help to keep it up. There have been no recent burials (most likely for decades, probably no one new since I was there.)

        Liked by 1 person

  7. I am a taphophile as well. In fact my car’s license plate represents such. I love cemeteries and the history surrounding them. I also enjoy the beauty to be found. It’s a very peaceful and beautiful place.


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