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Meet Britain's grave-obsessed cemetery hunters

They search for stories, not treasures.

Image: Joe Giddens

SOME PREFER TO spend their leisure time immersed in music or on the sports field, but for a small group of tombstone tourists, Britain’s graveyards are their playground.

The Cemetery Club shares its appreciation of “these often overlooked and misunderstood places” every Monday on a blog, which is followed by a band of “taphophiles” – the name given to cemetery enthusiasts.

“Stories can be found here: stories of heroes and villains, inventors and actors, people who once lived, laughed, loved and cried,” boasts the blog, which began in 2013.

The group of mostly young people hunts around London for forgotten graves, mausoleums and other monuments to the dead.

Victorian Arnos Vale cemetery re-opening The Victorian Arnos Vale cemetery in Bristol Source: PA Archive/Press Association Images

“The blog is almost a representation of these libraries of the dead,” founding member Sheldon Goodman, 28, told AFP.

The blog is looking back to those people and kind of bring them back to life almost for a little bit.

“And obviously also at the same time showing the places to be marvellous open spaces” in the urban jungle, he added.

Goodman recognises his hobby, and its association with death, can be perceived as odd.

Strangers are usually “confused or intrigued, or a bit of both” when he tells them that he runs a cemetery blog, he said.

“The standard reaction is ‘What?’, the tilting of the head, the wide eyes,” he added.

I’m just a regular guy who goes over his daily business… I don’t dress in black and sit in a corner holding a skull, or holding a picture of a coffin.

 - ‘iGrave’ -

Goodman’s fascination with the cities of the dead began in childhood.

“As a kid I used to walk through the cemeteries and I used to see all these marvellous headstones and graves but I never got the chance to look at them because I was smaller,” he said.

Two decades later, Goodman is making up for lost time by visiting dozens of cemeteries, mainly in the UK, but also around the world.

Detailed accounts if the trips appear on the site and also on the group’s Twitter page.

McDONALD, DONALD IAN A grave at Mortlake Source: Fr@ns van C@ppellen

For example, visitors to the website can read the story of swashbuckling British adventurer and historian Richard Francis Burton, who rests in a grand mausoleum in Mortlake cemetery, southwest London.

“The tomb takes the form of a Bedouin tent, its stone skilfully carved to resemble fabric,” writes Caroline, a member.

It is decorated with gold stars and crescents, symbols that are more readily associated with the Islamic world and therefore rather an unusual sight in a little Catholic churchyard.

It also highlights the unusual, such as the computer-shaped tomb nicknamed “iGrave” by the club, or the story of inventor Hiram Maxim, buried in West Norwood cemetery in south London.

“He is known as machine-gun man because he invented a type of machine gun which was very popular especially in the outbreak of the First World War,” said Goodman.

What is not so known about him is that he was a bit of an eccentric character because he also invented a form of mouse trap.

“They also found him sitting in an armchair with a pea shooter, blowing beans at the Salvation Army people down below.”

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- Virtual cemeteries -

These “tombstone tourists” are often driven off the beaten track in their thirst to learn more.

At the foot of London’s Hungerford Bridge, Stephen Roberts has photographed a “skateboard cemetery”, known only to the initiated.

“It’s another form of remembrance, when skateboarders break their deck, they almost give it a ritual funeral and throw over the edge of the bridge onto this pier,” said Goodman.

Skateboard graveyard Source: Matt From London

Christina, another founding member of the club, sings the virtues of the virtual cemetery in Rockstar Games’ blockbusting Grand Theft Auto V, set in the fictional city of Los Santos, based on Los Angeles.

“I found it interesting that I could actually walk round the cemetery in the game, and interact with it,” she told AFP.

“The digital cemetery was almost as real and just as peaceful as real life,” she added. “I felt calm walking around it.”

This type of cemetery perhaps foreshadows the resting places of the future, said Goodman.

“What is the true memorial to people nowadays? Is it cemetery where the person is buried or is it online kind of profile?” he asked.

There might be virtual cemeteries in the future where you can walk through a street-map view, find a headstone, click on it and it comes with a biography of the person.

© AFP 2015

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