The real life stories behind some of America's most amazing gravestone inscriptions
A taphophile, otherwise referred to as a grave hunter, is described someone who enjoys wandering around graveyards in their spare time and has a particular affection for reading gravestone inscriptions. I’ll be honest, when I found out that this was actually “a thing” I was kind of relieved because realistically, I probably am one. There's something oddly relaxing about walking around a cemetery just musing about what people's lives were like. But what about the stories behind some of the gravestone inscriptions themselves? As it turns out, their stories are just as interesting.
1. Leonard Matlovich
The grave of LGBTQ activist Leonard Matlovich sits in the Congressional Cemetery, not far from the US Capitol building. Having joined the US army at 19 years of age, he served in three tours of Vietnam before being seriously injured when he stepped on a landmine. For his service, he was awarded the Purple Heart. Matlovich was discharged from the military in 1975, after being at the centre of a test case to challenge the military’s ban on gay men serving in the army, having been chosen as its central figure owing to his exemplary service record. These powerful words on his gravestone, which Maltovich personally chose, were inspired by a visit to the grave of Oscar Wilde. The lack of a name on his gravestone was intentional; the grave is intended to act as a memorial to all gay Vietnam veterans.
2. Jerry Bibb Balisok
This one is really just a lesson in "don't believe everything you read." Jerry Bibb Balisok was a professional wrestler who disappeared after being arrested and charged with 13 counts of forgery. In December 1978, his mother saw a copy of Life magazine, which carried photographs of the Jonestown mass suicide and reported to the FBI that Balisok, his wife and child were among those pictured. Whilst the FBI didn't believe her, the decomposition of the bodies meant that identification could not be carried out and so Balisok's mother had the gravestone erected, taking a swipe at the state department in the process. By 1984 the FBI had accepted his death and dropped their charges, but in actual fact the cunning fugitive was alive and well, and living under the assumed name of Ricky Allen Wetta. It was only when "Wetta" was arrested on an unrelated attempted murder charge in 1990 that his double life was revealed.
3. Mel Blanc
Mel Blanc was a prolific American voice over artist, who racked up an incredible 1000 screen credits during his long career. At the time of his death, it is estimated that over 20 million Americans listened to his voice every day. Among the countless animated characters for whom he provided a voice was Porky Pig who appeared to say “That’s all folks” at the end of Looney Tunes cartoons. When he passed away at the age of 81, it seemed only fitting for the famous catchphrase to be immortalised on his epitaph. Whilst he is buried alongside many of the great and good of the entertainment industry at the Hollywood Forever Cemetery in Los Angeles, his stone is one of the most well-known thanks to its words.
4. Ed Koch
When the former New York City mayor passed away in 2013, no one expected there to be any problem erecting his gravestone. After all, he had quite openly been planning for his own death since the early 1980s. However, his memorial, which stands at an enormous five feet tall by six feet wide, was accidentally inscribed with the wrong year of birth, reading 1942 instead of 1924, which would have made Koch a full 18 years younger than he really was. Intensely proud of his Jewish faith, he chose to have the last words of the journalist Daniel Pearl, who was murdered by an Al Qaeda affiliated terrorist group in Pakistan, inscribed on his tomb: "My father is Jewish. My mother is Jewish. I am Jewish."
5. Marilyn Monroe
Arguably the most famous lady in America at the time of her untimely death, Marilyn remains a pop culture icon more than half a century later. She is buried at Westwood Village Memorial Park in Los Angeles, alongside other Hollywood icons like James Dean. For a woman who had so much written about her in life, her crypt is remarkably simple with only her name and no inscription. Today, people visit Monroe’s grave to kiss it, leaving red and pink lip marks all over it. Her ex-husband, the American baseball player Joe Di Maggio, organised her burial and was so devastated by her death and that he continued to send half a dozen roses to her crypt three times a week for the next 20 years.
Of course, these are just a handful of quirky American gravestone inscriptions, or in Marilyn's case, lack thereof. All across the globe there are some fairly famous examples, whether that be London's Highgate cemetery, the final resting place of Karl Max and George Michael, Buenos Aires' Recoleta, where flowers are laid at the tomb of Eva Peron or Paris' Pere Lachaise, which hordes of people visit every year to kiss the grave of Oscar Wilde and rub the crotch of Victor Noir, a French journalist turned fertility symbol. What is without doubt, is that taphophiles across the world will continue to discover more interesting stories in the years to come. I, for one, can't wait to see what they dig up (although not literally, hopefully).