“A rushing wind may stir their voices. The voices may not come from the grave but from within our own, quick flesh enclosed bones. The murmurs we hear are the murmurs of those we have lost made part of us.” (www.alsirat.com)
It has taken me a lifetime to understand what I am: a Taphophile: an enthusiast of cemeteries, including a passion for tombstones, epitaphs, photography, art and history of the passing of individuals, famous and unknown. Taphophile is Greek in origin, with a literal meaning if a fondness for the rituals involved in the burial of those who have gone before. While I do not have a fondness literally for the funerals I have attended, I do have a fondness of the artwork and history that is oft attached to many of the older cemeteries: that fondness entails an appreciation of the artwork displayed in sculptures, as well as the stories told by the burial grounds.
Cemeteries, particularly older ones possessing Victorian-era sculptures at family and individual plots, have held a strong fascination for me. These Final Resting Places are paradoxically quiet and peaceful, yet remain perpetually busy conveying to us our history, and the sense of ourselves. There is a certain artwork in these older sculptures as well: not only are the statues a work of art, they also contribute to something of a written history that preserves the stories of not only the individual, but the community, and the region where the deceased lived and died.
I recall the elaborate statues and carvings in the older section of Elmwood Cemetery as well as Oak Hill in my hometown of Birmingham, Alabama: these were the first places that my young mind was exposed to: it never occurred to me the expense that was actually involved in the sculpting and erecting of these pieces until much, much later. I never entered a cemetery until, as a teen, my grandfather took me to Elmwood to see the final burying place he’d pre-purchased for himself and my grand mother; they had joined in procuring the Perkinson-Bradley plot, which holds now holds them, two great-uncles, and one great-aunt by marriage. (there are an even number of plots here, but an odd number of persons interred here, as my Great-Uncle Mellous never married, having passed on after coming home from a sanitorium in the mountains of North Carolina after a failed attempt to treat his tuberculosis. He died by his own hand before ever marrying.) At this point, I came to understand how quiet, yet full of stories and history a place of burial really is. The paradox is simple: the quietness tells the story.
Elmwood Cemetery Birmingham, AL
As I have explored final resting places, I recognized the quiet yet unmistakable role they play in communicating the fabric of who we are and how we have come to be who and what we are, while all at once, those who now occupy these spots still have their own story to tell – both to the collective and individual history of themselves, as a patchwork to the greater quilt of the spot they died in, as well as to our own individual histories. Even now, they can and do speak to us – floating on the wind that passes by us and blows through our hair. That long ago day that I visited Elmwood with my grandfather, even as a self centered teen, I felt the presence of my Perkinson kin – yes, even Mellous, whom I never knew – the silence here was loud. I had my first epiphany that without them, there would be no me. This is a wonderous thing available to each individual – an ‘identifier’ that is present for anyone to take advantage of, if and when the individual is willing and able to face taking it.
Along the way, one cannot help but to recognize the evolution of burial practices. The old has given way to a newer, less personal thing. Land is scarce: thus, we do not quite have the room to engage in burial practices of our grandparents, or their parents. The practices of our ancestors, partly out of this lack of land, as well as the expense that evolved with it, have become a hinderance, and the ways of past generations are no longer deemed practical. Some have chosen the Memorial Gardens method, whereby the individual is traditionally buried, but with no headstone, such as the ones I’ve spent countless hours, days and months photographing. Even that practice seems to have become passé: more and more, cremation is the choice of many, to the point where it has become an automatic offering – they are no longer just called Funeral Homes……….they are now referred to as a Funeral Home and Crematorium. Thus, all the more reason why I choose to celebrate the sculpture and artwork of statues, tombstones, and inscriptions of years past – while some feel it morbid, it is really a lost artform. While it may have come out of necessity, there is a certain sadness in loosing that form of memorial to generations past: and sadly, in turn, I and many others have come upon forgotten and neglected, and even worse yet, vandalized places of rest. In my endeavors, it is my hope to bring those neglected and those vandalized spots to the attention of our society: even though it is virtually impossible for one person to touch on every single abandoned or abused burial ground, it is my hope to encourage people to consider an awareness, and hopefully even action in cleaning and preserving spots that they may happen upon.
While many of us know a wide array of terms referring to the burial ground, such as graveyard, cemetery, boneyard, it is important to consider the differences. Yes, there are indeed differences.
Boneyard is strictly a euphemism, and dates back to the 1850’s. The Miriam-Webster Dictionary actually refers to two definitions……one being a cemetery and the second referring to a place where worn out or damaged objects (such as cars) are collected to await disposal. It can be used interchangeably, such as in the game of dominoes, when referring to the unused dominoes that are placed face down.
The terms, ‘cemetery’ and ‘graveyard’ have no other meanings. Ultimately, the final destination of these terms are indeed of the final destination of the human body after death. However, each has its own subtle, nuanced reference. ‘Graveyard’ is the older of the two terms, and usually refers to a burial ground that adjoins a church. In days past (and to some extent, today, as I’ve discovered in my photographic journeys), church attendees were buried in plots nearby the church. Noblemen and the rich were, on occasion, buried in crypts beneath the church. Eventually, the population began to increase to the extent that the church graveyards began to fill up, thus paving the way for the establishment of cemeteries, a bit removed from the city or town. The word ‘cemetery’ is of Greek origin, deriving from the word “Koimeterion”, defined as a dormitory or resting place. A cemetery was seen as the final resting place for people. It is not attached to a church, and unlike the graveyard, ashes may be buried in here: graveyards traditionally hold burials strictly for bodies. (the hindu.com/books/know-your-English/know-your-English-difference-between-graveyard-and-cemeteries/artical256840.ece)
Mausoleums, found not only in Elmwood but in many of the bigger city cemeteries I’ve explored, are big buildings that can hold multiple burials. The mausoleum is in fact a memorial to those who are buried there, much in the same way a tombstone is…..only much more grandiose. The litteral translation is ‘magnificent tomb’, and is a late middle English (1375-1425) term; its origins date back to 325 BC, and derives from King Mausolus, the ruler of Caria. Upon his death, his wife