Taphopile. Never heard of that word? The Urban Dictionary defines the word taphopile as:  “Someone who is interested in funerals, gravestone art, epitaphs and cemeteries.”

Well, that pretty much sums up myself and thousands of other “wonderfully odd” people out there.

Photo ©Amberrose Hammond – A cemetery in Cape Cod

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. All of those people from centuries past with their life stories and secrets buried with them in the ground and the potential to dig them back up — the stories that is, not the bodies. That would be gross.

Looking at old tombstones instills an incredible sense of human history. As a little kid, I would roam cemeteries always looking for the oldest stone. I’d find a good one and think, “Hey! This guy died in 1875! Wow!” That was so old to me. When you live in west Michigan, the 1800’s are about as old as it gets. When I went to New England as a teenager for the first time, the tombstones were actually old with 17th/18th century dates chiseled onto the stones. A few years later, I visited England and Scotland and well, that blew everything out of the water in terms of age.

But it wasn’t just looking for old stones that was fun, it was the stones themselves that held my attention as a kid and still does. Modern funerary monuments are drab, soulless chunks of granite that don’t reflect the same sentimentality old stones have. There’s romance in the old mausoleums, carved angels and mysterious symbols. It’s a forgotten art that will never be revived.

Strange Cemetery Symbols and Stones

Doves, weeping willows, open books, lambs and angels are just a handful of some of the common old symbols found on tombstones. Most of the meanings are pretty obvious but every once in a while a strange one appears such as this one.

The Downward Pointing Hand – “Bad Chauncey, bad!”

Heartland Village Cemetery, Livingston, MI. ©Amberrose Hammond
   This is what I call the “you go to hell” symbol or a “hell hand.” It just looks that way doesn’t it? It says to me, “You see this guy Chauncey? He’s not going up, he’s going doooown.” 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 when I first saw it. While most hands carved onto stones are pointing upwards signifying a return to heaven, this symbol seemed just the opposite.

Chauncey 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.  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 sure enough, had an upside down pentagram carved on it.
“Well I’ll be damned,” I thought. There really was an 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? This was the early 90’s and it wasn’t as simple as just going to the Internet and looking this question up like many would today.
So the “witch’s grave” it stayed.
A year later the mystery was solved. 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” 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 that had been flying around and told us, “This symbol represents the Order of the Eastern Star.”
Huh? Say that again? Wait…no Satan? No authentic “witch’s grave?”
Bummer.
It was the symbol for the woman’s auxiliary unit of the Freemason’s.
We, l I’ll be damned again.

Order of the Eastern Star symbol

And after all those stories and all that drama surrounding one little tombstone visited by hundreds of ignorant kids. God only knows what kind of strange stuff went on over the years by this poor woman’s grave because of the misinformed masses.

The Ultimate Cursed Tombstone
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 and get her headstone changed or removed, but the stone carver had a signed contract and payment in full, so he had to fulfill Mary’s wishes.

There’s no confusion here that Ms. Mary C. Dolencie was royally ticked 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 by putting a curse on her tombstone. It doesn’t get any 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 souls of every cat that has ever died.
Awesome.

Yarmouth Ancient Cemetery, Massachusetts and the back of Mary C. Dolencie’s tombstone.

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