Are you a taphophile? Check out this book review and reading list about American cemeteries


Are you a “taphophile” or “tombstone tourist” or just want a book about cemeteries to read as we get closer to Halloween? If so, check out this book review and book list about American cemeteries!

taphophile. Noun. (plural taphophiles) A person who is interested in cemeteries, funerals and gravestones.”

Personal note

While traveling or living in other parts of the country, I have enjoyed taking local tours, including haunted or ghost tours that often included walks through “haunted” graveyards. While I have never seen a ghost or felt much paranormal activity on these tours, I have always learned bits of interesting history about cities, areas, buildings/houses, or families.

New Book Review

As I was searching for a book to read from the HPNL new book collection, I came across the title: Graceland Cemetery : Chicago Stories, Symbols, and Secrets.

Since I have always been fascinated by cemeteries, I decided to try it out.

Inez (Selzer, 2022, pg. 22)

This book was written by Adam Selzer, who is both a Chicago historian as well as a tour guide to this cemetery. I did not realize that some cemeteries had their own tour guides, and it was interesting to read this book since he was so familiar with the cemetery as well as Chicago history.

The book includes quite a few photos and is written as though you are touring the cemetery. The book follows paths through the cemetery and the author tells interesting stories or historical facts about tombstones or people/families buried in the cemetery.

Selzer focuses less on famous inhabitants of the cemetery and more on less known, yet equally interesting, individuals or families that are buried in the cemetery. It was fascinating to get small glimpses into Chicago history and stories ranged from individuals who participated in the underground railroad, abolitionists, individuals against slavery, suffragists, pre-civil war soldiers, black civil war soldiers, writers, architects, artists, musicians, actors, private detectives, civil rights activists, civil war generals, inventors and scientists, prohibitionists, victims of the great fire, and some famous Chicago citizens as well.

Eternal Silence (Selzer, 2022, pg. 41)

I really enjoyed getting to know more about the history of Chicago through stories of the real people who lived in the town.  Even though the author only wrote a few paragraphs, up to a couple pages of history, for each person/family, it is a great starting point for someone with the desire to begin learning about Chicago history. The book includes thorough notes and references as well as an appendix and index that allow the reader to easily search the book for people or topics of history. It would also be very beneficial to anyone visiting Chicago and the Graceland Cemetery. The Cemetery’s website states that the cemetery is open to all to visit.

Even though I do not plan on touring the cemetery, the book made the environment and history of Chicago come alive just by reading the book and I could easily use it to tour the cemetery if I had the chance. If you are interested in cemeteries or even just learning more about Chicago history, give this book a try.

History of American Cemeteries

The introduction of “Graceland Cemetery” briefly gives an overview of the state of cemeteries in the origins of the country and the reasons for the creation of new, more parklike cemeteries including the Graceland Cemetery in Chicago.

Hulbert’s Baseball (Selzer, 2022, pg. 233)

When Chicago was first growing in the 1830s, most cities relied on churchyards that were becoming overcrowded. For example, in 1822, a man was hired to cover New York’s Trinity Churchyard with quicklime, and he wrote that the stench was so offensive it caused several of his workers to vomit (Selzer, 2002, pg. ix-x)!

As for the history of cemeteries in Chicago, prior to the creation of Graceland Cemetery, the City Cemetery was built. City Cemetery coincided with the “garden cemetery” movement which entailed opening cemeteries further from cities that had a landscaped and garden feel. But Selzer comments on how the City Cemetery was not an attractive place. It was built too close to drinking water, was horrible for sanitation, and had no real landscaping. It was covered in sand and after a windstorm, there would often be exposed coffins, sometimes showing half of their contents! The state of the cemetery was so poor, Selzer even mentions that graves were sometimes robbed for cadavers to dissect by local doctors.

The Schoenhofen Pyramid (Selzer, 2022, pg. 118)

Graceland Cemetery was opened in 1860 when a bereft father, Thomas B. Bryan, wanted a better location for his young son to be buried than City Cemetery. It was opened as a “garden cemetery” with purposeful landscaping and eventually became a public park, an open-air museum, and an art gallery. It was a public location and became so popular that on Sundays and holidays, it was only open to ticket holders!

This book got me interested in learning more about the history of cemeteries in the United States. In “Rest in Peace,” written by Meg Greene, the author states that in the early days of the new nation, cemeteries had become little more than refuse piles for the dead. A visitor of the country was appalled by the state of a cemetery which he claimed was a soppy churchyard where mourners sank ankle deep in a rank and offensive mold mixed with broken bones and fragments of coffins (Greene, 2008, pg. 25).

Henry Hobson Richardson’s Potter Vault (Selzer, 2022, pg. 170)

The scope of topic makes an overview of the history of American cemeteries too long for this blog post. But, the history is diverse and long due to the various cultures, time periods, and landscapes across the United States. To help you delve further into the nature and history of cemeteries in the United States, I have included a booklist. The booklist includes non-fiction books, fiction books, and some website links.


Greene, Meg. Rest in Peace : A History of American Cemeteries. Twenty-First Century Books, 2008.

Selzer, Adam. Graceland Cemetery : Chicago Stories, Symbols, and Secrets. 3 Fields Books, an Imprint of the University of Illinois Press, 2022.

History of American Cemeteries Reading List

Printable Version of Reading List – blog book list

Further Reading/Fiction/Stories

Links of Interest


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