Let’s get the name-calling out of the way first. I am a confessed taphophile.
The word is of Greek origin: τάφος (taphos, “funeral rites”, “burial”, “funeral”, “wake”; “tomb”, “grave”) + English -phile (Forming nouns and adjectives meaning “loving” and “friendly”, or “lover” and “friend”.) In short, it simply means that I love to visit graveyards. I especially enjoy photographing the statuary, or “cemetery sentinels” as I call them…the carved granite, stone, clay, and marble figures adorning a grave.
My wife, Kerri, and I have been traveling across the United States for the past year and a half. We are enjoying this once in a lifetime opportunity to see all the wondrous landscapes that each state has to offer, as well as meeting so many incredible people along the way. But not everyone we meet is alive.
For years, the two of us have shared a passion ( or should we call it a compulsion ) to visit the many graveyards we encounter along the way. It’s kind of ironic that I am drawn to graveyards as I suffer from panic attacks that center on a fixation with death and dying. When I find myself dwelling on the finite amount of time each of us have to walk this earth, my heart starts to race, my breathing becomes labored, I sweat profusely. In short, I feel as though I am dying…in that moment. Yet strangely, I have never experienced a panic attack in a cemetery. I’m sure my psychiatrist could explain why this is, but until now, I’ve never shared this with anyone. You are the first.
When I walk through a graveyard, I feel intensely peaceful. I know it sounds crazy, but I feel, “at home.” I think of all the lives represented by the thousands of tombstones and crypts I have visited. They each present to me a continuity, as it were; a beautiful thread that unites the living and the dead, the past and the present…and inevitably, my future. I think of all the people buried beneath my feet. I imagine their lives, their hopes and dreams, and their final hours. I am not a spiritual person, but I even find myself wondering, where are they now?
My connectedness to the dead is most intensely felt in the variety of statues standing guard over the graves. They are almost always gothic or surreal, but inevitably beautiful. Well, some are decidedly gauche, but for the most part, they turn a cemetery into something bigger than life and, more importantly, bigger than death.
The funny thing is, when I die, my wife and I have agreed on a natural burial. I will be wrapped in a shroud and buried, without embalming and without a casket, in the land. I most certainly don’t want a headstone, and I don’t want a statue standing guard over me.