How to be a conscientious cemetourist.
A brief guide to graveyard etiquette.
Cemeteries as destinations are becoming a large part of the Dark Tourism industry. What’s Dark Tourism? Visits to places associated with death and tragedy, including graveyards and haunted places.
Why this growing fascination with death? It’s not new: We’ve always had a morbid curiousity. During the Civil War onlookers picnicked above active battlefields. In the Victorian Era, the Garden Cemetery craze saw graveyards built as parks. And there’s always been money in Dark Tourism. There’s a price to see graves of the famous in Pere LaChaise Cemetery in Paris and Highgate West in London or the Chapel of the Bones made from the bones on monks in Evora Portugal. And graves of the famous, well they’ve always been (excuse the pun) popular haunts.
At the same time our modern cemeteries are becoming more pedestrian: mundane yards full of small flat stones often overtop of ashes. That value we once placed on honoring our dead is fading from our culture as acid rain quickly fades the names white marble stones. As a result, older cemeteries and stones become more rare as they deteriorate, at the same time gaining historic value.
We even have a name: Tapophiles.
A tapophile is someone fascinated with cemeteries. While it may seem morbid to the uninitiated, I don’t see it that way. In childhood, my mother and I would crawl around in the briars of abandoned Kentucky cemeteries looking for ancestors on the stones.
Who are the cemetourists?
It’s hard to stereotype the tapophile. With geneaology having grown (thanks to available internet data) some search out the graves of their recently-discovered ancestors. Some ponder their own mortality and find the graveyard to be cathartic, zen-like realm of peace. Some think it’s creepy and the goth thing-to-do around Halloween. Whatever the reason there’s more of us every day exploring. And its only fair that we all follow ground rules when visiting.
1. Research before you go.
Cemeteries that are still taking reservations often have sites that will clue you in on some good places to visit. Findagrave.com is as other great resource. You can also search a location on Instagram or Google Maps to see what the place has to offer.
2. Respect the dead.
A harmless act like sitting on a monument or doing a rubbing on a tombstone may have harsh consequences. Grave desecration carries a stiff penalty in many states and also has deep moral taboos. Obey the posted rules.
Don’t try to be helpful by righting stones felled by the moles. You can do more damage than good to these fragile rocks. If you really want to help, find out if the current owner or maintainer of the cemetery has a volunteer program or a restoration committee.
3. Respect the living.
While you’ll meet other cemetourists, most of those who visit graveyards and not the curious or those out for a walk, but families of the deceased. Give them the space and quiet they seek. Treat the cemetary as the hollowed grow that it is.
Also be courteous in parking. Try to park in spots where you don’t disrupt the flow of traffic should someone want to get by.
4. Take home a name.
There’s a story on every tombstone. And many times you’ll find more details on the internet. (Remember: it’s not a crime to stalk the dead.) I ran across a tall stone for a husband and wife shaped like a tablet for the ten commandments. He wasn’t buried there, but there were success quotes on his side. She was buried there and on her side among the quotes was one from her that said “Disagree, just for fun”. In my mind that drew up this wonderful relationship of a stodgy husband and a fun-loving, mischievous wife. It roused a series of questions: Why did she die at 43? At 86 was he still alive? Or maybe he remarried and was buried with his second wife leaving this one alone in the ground. So even without doing any research online, I felt I knew this couple, just by the photo I took of the stone. And curiously I later discovered that this woman was a much-loved teacher who taught my sister.
Finding at least one personal story in every cemetery gives that place meaning. It helps you realize it’s not just bones buried there, but people with histories.
Whatever your reason for your morbid curiosity keep it respectful so we tapophiles don’t get a bad name.
More tapophile research:
Dying in America: A history of the American cemetery.
Speak of the Dead: A guide to tombstone symbols.
Fraternal Societies and the business of death
Bring marble sculptures to life
I sincerely appreciate those who buy me a coffee below to help with the cost of this research.