Taphopile. Never heard of that word before? The Urban Dictionary defines the word taphopile as: "someone who is interested in funerals, gravestone art, epitaphs and cemeteries." Well that pretty much sums myself up and thousands of other "wonderfully odd" people out there.
Credit: Amberrose Hammond - Cape Cod Cemetery
For as long as I have been on this planet, I have been in love with cemeteries. I have a major case of taphophilia. What attracts me to them? The history for starters. All of those people from years and centuries past buried in the ground. As a kid, if you went to a cemetery, you roamed from tombstone to tombstone looking for the oldest one. You'd find an old one and exclaim out loud, "Hey guys! This guy died in 1875!" When you live in the midwest of the United States, the mid 1800's are about as old as you get. When I got the chance as a teenager to go to Boston and Cape Cod, the tombstones got even older. The 17 and 1600's were chiseled onto the old New England stones. A few years later, I visited England and Scotland and everything doubled once again in age. Looking at extremely old tombstones gives an incredible sense of human history.
But it wasn't just looking for old stones as much as it was the stones themselves that held my attention as a kid, and still does. Modern funerary stones can be drab, soulless chunks of granite that don't reflect the same sentimentality old stones had. There's a romance in the old mausoleums, carved angels and statuary. It's a lost art.
I love looking at all the old cemetery symbols on the stones. Doves, weeping willows, open books, lambs and angels are just a handful of some of the more common ones. What do all of these mean? I enjoy writing the occasional blog post because I use it as a means to teach myself something and to share what I already know with others. I'm going to use this series of cemetery posts to explore the old symbols and stonework found in cemeteries in the United States and around the world. So let's begin with a couple unique ones!
The Downward Pointing Hand - "Bad Chauncey, Bad!"
Heartland Village Cemetery, Livingston, MI Photo: ARH
is what I call the " you go to hell" symbol or "hell hand." It just looks that way doesn't
it? It says to me, "You see this Chauncey guy? He's not going up, he's
Or it's as if the hand is "chastising" poor Chauncey for all eternity. So this one made me laugh and scratch my head in confusion at the same time when I first saw it. While most hands carved onto stones are pointing upwards
signifying a return to heaven, this symbol seemed the opposite.
L. Crouse and his brother were instrumental in establishing
the town of Hartland, Michigan and there was nothing bad about the guy. The downward pointing hand can actually refer to an unexpected or sudden death but usually represents the "hand of God" coming down from Heaven to bring someone home.
"The Witch's Grave"
It was around 1995 when some of my friends mentioned the "witch's grave" that had a Satanic star carved on it. Like something out of a good horror movie, I wanted to see this so-called "monument of evil" and had someone show me where it was. We walked into our large local cemetery (Lake Forest in Grand Haven, Michigan) and headed towards the older burials in the back. My friend pointed out a headstone that had an upside down pentagram carved into it.
"Well I'll be damned," I thought. There really was a upside down pentagram on it. Creepy.
Now being in 9th grade and unaware of many things, I thought I was looking at the spookiest stone in the cemetery. Why did this person have a Satanic symbol on their tombstone? Now mind you, this was the early 90's and it wasn't as simple as just going to the Internet and looking up this question like many would today.
So the "witch's grave" it stayed.
A year later I would get my answer about that stone and start to develop my love of cemetery symbols and history. I was taking an anthropology class in high school and one day we all piled into a bus and went to the local cemetery for a tour. Our art teacher was a fellow "taphopile" himself and described in detail what many of the symbols and statuary meant. He also pointed out the infamous "witch's grave," aware about the rumors and stated, "This symbol represents the Order of the Eastern Star."
Huh? Say that again? Wait...no Satan? No authentic "witch's grave?"
It was the symbol for the woman's auxiliary unit of the Freemason's.
Huh. Well I'll be damned again.
Order of the Eastern Star symbol
And after all of those stories and all of that drama surrounding just one little tombstone visited by hundreds of ignorant kids. God only know what kind of strange stuff went on over the years by this poor woman's grave because of the misinformed masses. I also learned another valuable lesson that day: how easy cemetery legends and lore are created and spread faster than a virus, but that's for another blog.
The Ultimate Cursed Tombstone - "She got the last words." Yarmouth Ancient Cemetery - Yarmouth, Massachusetts
When Mary C. Dolencie died, she was pretty pissed off. So much so that before her death, she made sure the back of her tombstone read the following:
May eternal damnation be
Upon those in Whaling Port.
Who, without knowing me,
Have maliciously vilified me.
May the curse of God
Be upon them and theirs.
Mary's memorial on FindAGrave.com states, "According
to local folklore, Mary was at odds with her neighbors in Whaling Port
over the number of cats she owned. The neighbors went to court to try
to get this headstone changed or removed, but the stone carver had a
signed contract and payment in full, so he had to fulfill Mary's
We hear stories about people cursing each other, but they are usually not this blunt! There's no confusion
here that Ms. Mary C. Dolencie was royally pissed off before she passed
away at the age of 79. By the way...this wasn't 1775, or 1656...this was 1985. We were shocked when we visited this cemetery and our friend Derrick point this beauty out!
The comments below her memorial on FindAGrave pretty much commend her for being totally bad-ass and going all medieval, putting a curse on her tombstone. It doesn't get any more angrier than that. And what a way to "stick it to em'" right?" She's probably driving a Harley in Heaven, listening to Judas Priest and most likely commands the attention of every cat that has ever died. Awesome.
Yarmouth Ancient Cemetery, Massachsetts. Mary C. Dolencie tombstone. That damn flash hurt my eyes as you can tell.