Unusual hobbies – how to be a taphophile



Do you ever wonder why some people take an interest in epitaphs, tombstone rubbings, or just appreciate spending time in cemeteries? Or are you one of those people yourself? In which case, you may already know you’re a taphophile…

What is a taphophile?

A taphophile is someone who takes an interest in cemeteries, tombstones, or memory of past lives. I consider myself a bit of a taphophile, and I’m in good company: Amanda Norman is a well-known English tapho-photographer. Some say William Shakespeare and Edgar Allen Poe were taphophiles themselves.

The word ‘taphophile’, taken from the Greek, means “to love graves.” ‘Taphophile’ is often mixed up with ‘necrophile’ when they are completely different! Necrophiles are sexually or physically attracted to dead things or people. Taphophiles are interested or sometimes obsessed with cemeteries. Taphonomy is also known as the study of decomposing or decaying things.

Expect a weird look or two when people hear you say the word ‘taphophile’. You can explain that it is only natural for people to question such an unusual hobby – but really it just adds to your knowlege and interests. As a self-confessed taphophile I’ve been asked a lot of odd and interesting questions. There are plenty of ways to explain your tapho heart to others without creeping them out.

What taphophilia is to me

There are many reasons why you can spend time in cemeteries. I like to incorporate my tombstone rubbings in artwork. Also, I take pleasure the history of it; I have rubbed tombstones from the year 1843. It’s wonderfully rewarding to look at your collection and think how much time and dedication you have put into your hard work. Plus you can always add your rubbings or artwork to your cabinet of curiosities

I only spend a small amount of time on my pastime compared to some taphophiles out there. My excursions amount to a few afternoons here and there in summer or autumn, wearing practical clothes rather than my favourite outfits – I expect to get my knees dirty!

So… what do taphophiles actually do?

  • Recording tombstones (e.g. photographs or taking tombstone rubbings if permission from the authorities has been granted)
  • Researching or creating epitaphs
  • Visiting and exploring cemeteries
  • Researching historically famous deaths

There are a myriad of ways to indulge your interest in cemeteries and, if your interests also head in that direction, the histories of famous deaths. Taphophiles may explore their love of cemeteries through conducting grave rubbings (with the church’s permission) or writing epitaphs and studying the epitaphs they find. They may also engage in photography, poetry or artwork on subjects revolving around cemeteries.

Taphophiles may enjoy getting to know the cemeteries in their area, or planning trips further afield to visit cemeteries of note. Any taphophile near London is near-certain to make occasional ‘pilgrimages’ to Highgate Cemetery. A grade I heritage site, Highgate Cemetery was built in the Victorian era. The Victorians’ approach to death and its presentation led to a wealth of gothic tombs, mausoleums and buildings, including the richly landscaped Egyptian Avenue. It became a fashionable place for Victorians to visit, and boasts a number of famous tombs including Karl Marx and the man now known as the ‘Highgate Vampire’.

Then again, a cemetery doesn’t have to be famous or ancient to excite your interest. You can be richly absorbed in the landscape and atmosphere of the most humble cemetery, be it old or new.

How does one explore an interest in epitaphs?

An epitaph is a (normally) short documentation honouring someone who has passed. It’s usually found on that person’s gravestone. An epitaph can be many things, either created by the passed one or an admirer. Poems, songs, short stories and plays have been written as a dedication. Some people are capable of creating a story of someone just by seeing the epitaph on their gravestone.

Famous epitaphs include:

“Consider, friend, as you pass by: As you are now, so once was I. As I am now, you too shall be. Prepare, therefore, to follow me.” (unnamed Scottish tombstone)

“I told you I was ill.” (Spike Milligan).

Creating your own epitaphs for the purposes of art and researching others those of others, whether through literature references or by heading to your local cemetery, can be a pleasure, and a thoughtful one at that.

What is grave rubbing?

At some point in your life, perhaps at school, you may well have been taken to a graveyard and encouraged to put a piece of paper over a tombstone and trace it with charcoal or a pencil. This is known as tombstone rubbing. Some dedicated tomb rubbers with spend hours touching up their rubbings and transforming them into art. People also rub tombstones to contribute to their research in geneaology. It can be fascinating to find the history in the stone that you are rubbing. Be careful not to only take rubbings of famous death stones; you may be called an “autograph hunter.”

Choosing which kinds of paper / marker to make grave rubbings with can add a beautiful artistic element. You could use black paper, and wax crayone in bronze, silver or gold to create an almost medieval effect. Charcoal on white paper is classic and ethereal.

How to make tombstone rubbings with respect – important tips

  • Thoughtless grave rubbings can damage tombstones, so it’s really important to check with the cemetery first to see if grave rubbing is allowed.
  • If the tombstone is delicate – either crumbling or wobbly or flaky – you could damage it, so please do consider taking a photograph instead. Preserve tombstones for the appreciation and contemplation of generations to come.
  • If anyone is using a cemetery for funerals or rememberance, they may well find it hurtful to see you use the cemetery for art or research. Please consider saving your activities for another time, rather than disturb their space.
  • If you wish, you can clean the tombstone before you tape on your paper to hold it steady (see link for tomb cleaning tips and more)
  • Taking your crayon/charcoal, rub from the outside in, or from the top down. Rub lightly at first, then with increasing (but still gentle) pressure.

Useful taphophile links