Tuesday, June 28, 2011

Are You a Tombstone Tourist?

Cemetery in snow

When someone asks what I do for fun, I reply that I’m a tombstone tourist.  It’s nice that there is a word to describe those of us who love to go to cemeteries.  Otherwise, we would have to do a lot of explaining, (which I did until I found ‘the word.’)

A winter sunset in
the cemetery
Brian Neighbors -
A Tombstone Tourist
Tombstone tourist is a term that caught on after Scott Stanton published his book by the same name in 2003.  (The book is about popular musicians and where they are buried.)  Before that, those of us who frequented cemeteries were known, singularly, as a ‘taphophile’ – someone who has “a passion for and enjoyment of cemeteries”. Or in the plural form, by the term ‘taphophilia.’ 

Neglected Crypt
Military Cemetery
Of course, there are other terms that attempt to describe those of us who love visiting graveyards, searching for tombstones and admiring mausoleums.  Just a few of the more popular are ‘grave hunter,’ ‘cemetery enthusiast,’ and ‘graver.’  All sound a bit adventurous, a bit like a PBS documentary title. But I prefer being called a  ‘tombstone tourist.’  It has a more up-beat sound and it makes more sense to me, because we are tourists – on a journey, making discoveries, enjoying ourselves, and our pursuit.   I know I am not a graver - it just sounds a bit odd and morbid to me.

Sunlit Mausoleum
Frankfort, Kentucky Cemetery
When asked what a tombstone tourist is, I can talk (at length) about the cemeteries I have visited, and the ones I want to, expounding on the treasures found there – the exquisite architecture, the impressive history, the genealogical aspects, the magnificent statues, the puzzling symbols, and the fact that I get to enjoy all of this – outside – without crowds, deadlines or paying an outlandish amount for an entertaining afternoon.

Sunlight on a stone
Old Cathedral,
Vincennes, Indiana
And we have history!  Tombstone tourists have existed for thousands of years.  In China, ancestor worship – where family members visit the graves of ancestors, decorate them and ask for their guidance or favor - has been in practice since ancient times. In numerous countries, pilgrimages are still made to the burial sites of saints and other religious figures, to honor them and seek assistance.

Autumn in the cemetery
A Tombstone Tourist Day for me
The advent of the internet has changed what we do, in a way.  Now, you can ‘visit’ a cemetery on line.  While it’s not the same as strolling through a windy autumnal cemetery, searching for an ancestor’s grave, it does make sense if time or finances are holding you back from making the trip.  You can still locate an ancestor’s final resting place on the internet, complete with a photo, on sites such as findagrave.com and interment.com.  Or visit the websites of some of the most famous cemeteries in the world and see them vicariously - still an adventure.

An undisturbed path
through the snow
Summer in the cemetery
But a true tombstone tourist relishes that walk among the stones, surrounded by nature and the elements.  There’s something about following a cemetery road or graveyard path, wherever it may wander, and being surprised, and delighted, by the great discoveries you make just around the bend.  Nothing can take that thrill away.

Tombstone Tourist?  Yes, that’s me!

~ Joy


  1. Thanks so much for this post. I never thought about calling myself anything before, even though I do organize my vacations around visiting cemeteries. I'll have to come up with a label for myself now. :-)

    A small correction, though: "Taphophiles" is the plural form of taphophile. Taphophilia is the love taphophiles have for graveyards. --philia means fondness for something.

  2. An interesting post, I enjoyed reading this.

    Tombstone tourist does have a nice ring to it! I find cemeteries can be wonderful uplifting places that have much to teach much about life and so it's nice to have an objective definition for ourselves!

    Look forward to reading more.

  3. Thank you cemeterytravel and thanatourism for the comments. I was pleasantly surprised when I discovered we did have a name we could use to describe what we do.

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