The Art of the Taphophile

Cemetery and Graveyard Photography

Taphophile? A real word, it's a person whose hobby - nay, obsession - is visiting cemeteries and graveyards and photographing graves. That's me.

My primary photographic love is a graveyard, and, weather permitting (though not necessarily so) you'll find me jumping in my car and heading for some fine old church or cemetery that I've identified on maps, or indeed, just spotted, while heading off looking for little old villages, as that's where the finest old churches lie hidden.

Why? Why graveyards? Why cemeteries? Most photographers might agree that what they want in a picture is not only interest, but will add to the list qualities like colour, composition and texture. Put aside any morbid misgivings you may hold regarding burials of the dead and, next time you're out and about and see a little graveyard, stop and take a wander. Don't worry about the occupants, they won't bother you.

The first things you may notice are the peace and quiet. All that disturbs the peace are the twitterings of birds and the buzzing of insects. In years of churchyard wandering and cemetery explorations I'd say that in a mere 5% of them I've seen anybody else. Most often these will be people who have come to place flowers on the graves of the dear departed. Out of respect we steer clear of such relatives. But, logically, they'll be visiting new graves and, frankly, these hold no interest for the dedicated taphophile, they're usually too new and shiny, and respect forbids us from photographing recent graves. A real bonus is coming across a fellow taphophile and discussing lenses and exposures and sharing secret taphophilic gems hidden away in some hard to find village.

Where to start? As I said, just take a drive in the country and it won't be long before you start finding suitable candidates. Most villages, no matter how tiny, have a church. Most towns above a certain size will have a cemetery. Big cities may have big glorious cemeteries. London, for example, boasts The Magnificent Seven, seven just beautiful cemeteries, each different in its own way, but each enormous, and invariably the resting place of various notables (Karl Marx: Highgate Cemetery). Fame isn't restricted to the big cemeteries; I've found the final resting places of both Agatha Christie and Jane Austen in village churchyards.

In a little country churchyard you'll find graves which are flat on the ground and others with a vertical headstone. Occasionally you'll spot the big rectangular sarcophagus stlye. But you need to visit a big cemetery to find the mausoleums. Usually neoclassical in style, and usually containing several deceased members of the same family, they're invariably impressive to behold.

But of course, time takes its toll, and it's time that affords us the luxury of colour and texture, never mind interest. Moss and lichen move in; the headstone loses its verticality and starts to lean drunkenly; the words become increasingly difficult to decipher; the whole ensemble becomes beautiful. In Victorian times relatives would often specify that the words on a stone were to be formed of lead letters set into the stone. Regrettably many of the letters have been forcibly uprooted and taken away by lead thieves.
By the time a gravestone reaches its 300th birthday it's like a work of art. But don't expect to see anything much older than the 1700s; anything older may have been uprooted and its ground reused, such was the demand for burial space in Victorian times. In any case, a stone from the 1600s may be so totally indecipherable that no words or figures can be spotted.

So, I'd be proud to display not only my own artistic endeavours, but also the visual reasoning behind taphophilia. You're expected to exclaim not only, wow, such a lovely graveyard but also wow, this guy can take a decent picture. Note that I don't tend to photograph the actual church itself, though some of the pictures will feature the church in the background. Also, I don't in general photograph individual graves, unless there's something particularly striking or interesting about them. But, very often some other feature of the graveyard will catch my eye and I'll capture it - old church doors, rusty old gates or fences, and so on. I add individual comments for a few pictures.

So now let me take you to the catalog of taphophilia photograph albums