Grave Robbing for Mystery Writers

Grave at Muckross Abbey

taphophilia (n.) an abnormal attraction to & desire to visit cemeteries & graves; from the Greek taphos: burial, grave


To a writer, especially a mystery writer, an attraction to cemeteries may not sound abnormal. It certainly doesn’t to me. For as long as I can remember, I’ve been fascinated by cemeteries, the older the better.

Cemeteries are the perfect spot to dig up some inspiration

The hushed atmosphere that descends when you step through the cemetery gates never fails to set the imagination in motion. Strolling through rows of crumbling headstones, you’ll come across all kinds of unanswered questions to spark your creativity. Next time you’re feeling stuck, take a walk through your local cemetery & see what creeps up on you.

Unearth unique character names

Struggling to come up with names for your characters? Gravestones bear an incredible variety of names. Conveniently for period writers, they also carry dates to show when those names were in use.

Naming traditions also become clear in some cemeteries. In the small Appalachian cemetery where several members of my dad’s family lie, you’ll find numerous variations & combinations of a select few names. In that small rural community, parents often named children after friends & family members, leading to a mish-mash that would confound most geneaologists.

Raise unanswerable questions

One reason cemeteries appeal to writers is that so much is left to the imagination. Only so many facts can be gleaned from the stones, leaving our imagination to fill in the gaps. What better way to spark some new story ideas?

Epitaphs—both bizarre & touching—conjure
images of the people behind them.

A young mother’s grave beside a row of stones marked only “Infant”
is a powerful reminder of the stark realities our ancestors faced.

A double headstone with only one date waiting to
be filled in—is that ominous or only sad?

In that same Appalachian cemetery I mentioned before is a grave marked by a small stone with only a hand-painted name. It’s at the very edge of the cemetery, all alone.

What would cause a person to be isolated, even in death? Suicide? Prejudice? Or something even more sinister?

Commune with the spirits

Naturally, ghost stories are attached to certain cemeteries, or even specific graves.

In my hometown, there is a 19th-century grave marked by a statue of the young woman buried there. Local legend says that she was murdered & that the murderer cut off her finger to remove her ring. Her grieving father had the statue erected in her memory, but the ring finger of the statue wouldn’t stay attached.

Unfortunately, I can’t corroborate that story because all that’s left of poor Della now is her skirt.

Even if your local cemetery doesn’t have any tales of hauntings, there is something about being among the stones that makes you feel you aren’t alone.

So the next time you’re haunted by writer’s block, take a stroll through your local cemetery. Just remember to be respectful.

Always keep in mind when you visit a cemetery that each grave is the final resting place of someone very real. Someone who once lived & loved, laughed & lamented, just like you.

Be sure to tread carefully & quietly among the dead. It’s always best not to disrespect—or worse, wake—those who slumber there.

What about you? Do you enjoy exploring cemeteries?
What are your favorite places to look for inspiration?

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