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How to be a Tombstone Tourist- the Art of being a Taphophile
Do the stories cemeteries hold fascinate you?
Have you ever gone by a cemetery or particular marker and wondered who that person was? What were they like in life and what kind of legacy did they leave? What made their family choose that particular design to commemorate their loved one? Well then, my friend, you may just be a taphophile too!
Today's technology makes it easier than ever to do research online for low or no cost- plug a name and some dates into your search bar and you can be off and running. Whether you're interested in discovering your own family history or are simply curious about the symbolism and personalities waiting to be discovered in the graveyard, becoming a tombstone tourist in your own right.
Unless otherwise noted, all photos were taken by/are property of the author
Cemetery Symbolism- Books
Tombs with a view
Graves (particularly older ones) can provide surprising insight into the person as they were in life. Stonemasons would work with the families, creating a personalized memorial that just can’t be duplicated in today’s world of picking a style out of a catalog.
Living in New Orleans I have the advantage of being where cemeteries are called “Cities of the Dead-” because of our high water table, most of our burials are in elaborate above ground tombs. This is great from a symbol hunting point of view, but because the tombs are used by many generations, often dozens of times over the years, the decorations on the graves generally tell us only about the family’s patriarch who built the tomb.
The pocket-sized field guide you should never be without!
This little book has hundreds of graveyard symbols and an unbelievable amount of obscure information packed inside. You'll definitely want to have as you explore- it lives in my glove compartment, just in case I make an unexpected stop in my travels!
Cemetery Symbols- Clasped Hands
Photos of James Dinkins & his plotClick thumbnail to view full-size
Cemetery Symbols- Torches
Captain James Dinkins, C.S.A.
I’d always wondered about the grave in Lakelawn Metairie Cemetery that’s flanked by two bronze German Shepherds, so I decided to look into it. Other than the dogs, it’s a very simple coping-style plot, but someone had clearly gone to a lot of trouble. What I found out was fascinating, and I smile every time I pass it now.
Despite being only 15 when the Civil War broke out, Captain James Dinkins served in the Confederacy under several commanders (most notably Bedford Forrest). He was the youngest commissioned officer in the Confederacy, fighting in 27 battles over the course of the war.
Born on a Mississippi plantation, Captain Dinkins returned home from battle to find his family’s fortunes had fallen. The first thing he did was scrape up cotton to sell so the women of the house could have bolts of cloth to sew clothing as theirs was badly tattered. For several years he farmed the family’s land to get them back on their feet before travelling the rails as a railroad-man. Eventually he settled in New Orleans to become a businessman, founding the Bank of Jefferson in 1900.
The Captain is buried alongside his wife, Sue. They fell in love not long after they met at age 10, and he knew immediately he wanted to be wed. Her family said she was too young, but he continued to ask, dozens upon dozens of times, for her hand in marriage. Her parents finally allowed the match when they were both 21, and they remained devoted to each other until she died a month before their 68th anniversary.
His final birthday- his 94th- was held at his St. Charles Avenue mansion and was marked by his annual party. The press attended and asked him his opinion of the world’s pre-World War II tensions. He said “No, we are not going to war. The last one was too devastating.” It was noted that he still read the papers every day and kept up with current affairs, being in generally good health.
Sadly, two months later, while visiting his daughter in South Carolina, he slipped and fell, becoming bedridden and entering his final decline.
At the time of his death in 1939 he was the oldest ranking member of the Confederacy, and the last remaining member of the Army of the Tennessee. The Captain remained active in Confederate causes up until the end, attending reunions and writing a book about his years in service called “1861-1865 by an Old Johnnie.” Captain Dinkins was buried in his Confederate’s uniform and the grave is watched over by those two sad-eyed German Sheppards.
- New Orleans Tomb & Cemetery Lookup
For many more symbols and hundreds more photos, visit my tomb lookup page to browse much more information!
Cemetery Symbolism- Tempis Fugit
How to get started digging around in your local cemetery
(Sorry- terrible pun, but I couldn't help it)
These days it's easier than ever to research a family and their history. If you're going for a cemetery walk, here are some things to consider first.
Before you go:
- Sign up for Find A Grave first. It's free, and you might be surprised at what you'll find. You can look up your local cemetery and see if someone, somewhere, is searching for someone in that graveyard. Plus, if you find something really interesting you can post it to share with the world.
- Consider signing up for Random Acts of Genealogical Kindness- much like Find A Grave, but you can list cemeteries you're willing to visit for researchers and members can contact you by email for help- and are willing to help you if you're researching your family tree too!
Ready to head out? Remember:
- Cameras are better than rubbings! So many of us have either had a field trip where we did tombstone rubbings or we've seen it on tv. These days rubbings (placing a paper over the headstone and rubbing with charcoal to transfer an impression to the paper) are banned in many areas because they can do extensive damage to the grave. Ultimately, taking photos from a couple of angles and editing them to high contrast black and white or sepia will give you a better idea of the text anyway.
- The Find A Grave printout for your cemetery You don't have to spend all your time looking for them, but if you happen to come across any of the names you'll make some family researcher very happy!
- A notebook You never know what you'll come across that you'd like more information about. I always think I'll remember, but if I had a dime for every photo I have of some small detail or quirk that I look at later and wonder WHAT that was about. Write it down. You'll never be sorry- if it's less interesting when you get home, you'll at least have the option of checking it out.
- Wear your grubbies-The safest outfit is one you don't mind getting dirty. You never know when you'll be down on your knees to get a closer look at something, or leaning up against a dusty surface. Sneakers or similar footwear is preferable, especially if fire ants are prevalent in your area (I learned this one the hard way).
- Take care of yourself! Cemeteries are usually wide open to the elements- make sure to use your sunscreen and bring a bottle of water. Here in New Orleans our cemeteries have more concrete then grass, so they get amazingly hot, amazingly fast- after seeing several people passing out from the heat I now carry extra water to give out to visitors.