Taphophilia

I love cemeteries.

I am a taphophile. And maybe you are too.

Taphophilia is “a love of funerals, cemeteries and the rituals of death.” [1]  You might also call me a Tombstone Tourist but I like the term taphophile best.

Cemeteries are art, history, genealogy, class, religion all rolled into one. A grave allows a tangible connection with ancestors or the famous. You can touch what they left behind, a part of them that is still here. I had the privilege of walking through Père Lachaise Cemetery and visiting with Oscar Wilde, Edith Piaf, Gertrude Stein, Alice B. Toklas, Jim Morrison, and many others in Paris. When else do we ever get close to or touch celebrities and heroes?

Grave markers are informative about the deceased, beyond their vital statistics. Do they have a monument marking their burial or a simple plaque? Is there a family mausoleum amongst well-kept grounds or are they buried in the commons? Does an epitaph immortalize a facet of personality to this day? Is the gravesite well maintained or forget by family? Walking a cemetery can divulge interesting information not conveyed by paper records.

I keep my cemetery walking shoes in the boot of my car. For many years I have fulfilled Find-A-Grave photo requests around my local area. When working in Burlingame, CA, I would take my lunch hour to fulfill requests.  The closest cemetery was the Golden Gate National Cemetery (GGNC), a military burial ground. It was here, in March 2013, that I met Tom Brocher, a fellow taphophile. Tom had recruited a few volunteers committed to photographing 100% of GGNC and posting the photos to Find-A-Grave. I was easily recruited to this massive undertaking and agreed to photograph Section 2E (see map).

Approximately 7,700 deceased are buried in Section 2E, starting about 1961. I was going to need data to accomplish this project. Who was buried there? Did the memorial already have a photo posted? Which burials were missing memorials on Find-A-Grave? Where could I get a database of all the GGNC burials? My first stop was with the Veterans Administration – National Cemetery Administration; a fast dead end. The government provides a Nationwide Gravesite Locator, but information for an entire cemetery is not downloadable. I’ve also proven error in this government source, which they’ve refused to fix.

Searching around the internet I found what I needed at The Tombstone Transcription Project – California, San Mateo Cemeteries.  They’ve posted 262 text files extracted from the VA National Cemetery Admin in 2006. I merged the files into one Excel spreadsheet. Now our volunteer group had a list, with plots numbers, to organize our photoshoots. In October 2014, Find-A-Grave responded to our requests by sending an export of all GGNC memorials on the site. This file gave us the Find-A-Grave memorial ID, indicated if a photo was already present and most importantly burial after 2006. Merging these two sources, matching names and plots while eliminating duplicate exercised my Excel skills.

I had been walking every row of Section 2E on my lunch break, snapping a photo of each tombstone. Then I’d walk the back of the tombstones, taking a photo of any that contained information. Military cemeteries are easier to photograph because of their uniformity. The markers are all the same and all a row. In non-military cemeteries, it takes more effort to set up a shot of a huge obelisk marker versus a ground plaque. Over many trips, I walked and photographed the entirety of Section 2E. Sequentially photographing the tombstones was essential to later matching the images to memorials. Now with a database in hand, I started posting photos and adding missing memorials to Find-A-Grave.  Tom’s group of volunteers achieved a “99% photographed” rate in June of 2015.

My Find-A-Grave profile tracks that I’ve added 6,297 photos, 435 memorials, and fulfilled 145 requests. Given all the time in the world, I will keep walking cemeteries, learning about those who’ve passed on, and indulging my taphophilia.

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[1] Wiktionary, Wikimedia Foundation, Wiktionary: The Free Dictionary (https://en.wiktionary.org/: accessed 5 August 2020), “taphophilia”.

Military Tombstone
Military Tombstone
Military Tombstone
Military Tombstone
Military Tombstone
Military Tombstone
Military Tombstone
Military Tombstone
Military Tombstone
Military Tombstone
Military Tombstone
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