David Habben describes himself as a “taphophile.” That’s a wondrous word — based on the Greek word for burial — that means a lover of cemeteries, or, as some like to say, a “tombstone tourist.”
After years of study, Habben is well beyond the rank of tourist. He’s a self-taught expert in cemetery lore and has become a kind of one-man cottage industry when it comes to cemetery history volunteerism. As if one would need more proof of his devotion to the funereal arts and the history of resting places, the license plates on his car read “plots.”
He recently got a tattoo to commemorate his 15 years of researching and photographing historic cemeteries.
“One of my favorite symbols is the winged hourglass representing the flight of time, the end of earthly existence,” said Habben. He now has one on his left arm.
Habben, sometimes dressed undertaker-style in a dour tuxedo and top hat, regularly leads tours of local cemeteries through Boise Parks and Recreation. He pitched the idea after going on a similar tour in another city and thinking it might be popular in Boise. Parks and Rec staff liked his pitch and Habben gave his first, filled-to-capacity tours at Boise’s historic Morris Hill Cemetery on Halloween in 2014. More recently, he has given private cemetery tours to groups of seniors as well as students and other groups, also through Parks and Rec.
Habben also counts volunteer “park ambassador” among his titles. In that role, he keeps an eye on local cemeteries, looking out for vandalism or other trouble.
He also teaches a class in cemetery history and symbolism through Boise Community Education four times a year. Like his walking tours, his classes fill up fast. He has given presentations to geneaology groups and spoken at family history conferences in Idaho and Oregon. He’s presented his program on cemeteries at paranormal research conferences in his hometown of Chicago. And, he’s a volunteer tour guide at the Old Pen in Boise. He leads groups around the old prison on most Mondays at 2:30 p.m.
“If I could get paid for everything I do, I’d be set,” Habben said.
But in fact, he relies on a couple of day jobs for that. Habben has been a paramedic for 38 years and is now an on-site reviewer for paramedic accreditation, a job that takes him to communities — and their cemeteries — across the U.S., Canada, Europe and Asia. Among the curiosities he’s seen: a grand piano-shaped marker in Kuala Lumpur that plays a perpetual recording of the pianist buried beneath it.
Habben also works part time at Cloverdale Funeral Home and Cemetery, the Boise home known for the pet reindeer that graze its grounds and for a popular Dia de los Muertos celebration last fall. At Cloverdale, Habben helps with “everything that doesn’t require a funeral director’s license,” he said, including transporting bodies, setting up for services, handing out programs and more.
Habben said his Chicago-grown love for blues music spurred his interest in cemetery history. He started visiting favorite musicians’ graves and realized cemeteries and grave sites were rich with history, art and not a little mystery.
Habben believes people find cemeteries fascinating for one of two reasons. Some are interested because of connections to the paranormal. Tour attendees, hoping for a ghost sighting, frequently ask Habben if he’s seen wraiths and spirits in his cemetery travels. He hasn’t.
“If I were a spirit and could go anywhere, why would I hang around a cemetery?” he quipped.
Other people, he said, “are like me. Interested in history.” People want to see the graves of famous people and learn about local history.
“Every time I give a tour, I get people who say they’ve lived in Boise their whole lives, but didn’t know the stories they learn in the cemeteries,” said Habben.
Fame is one attraction, but it’s often just as interesting to see the markers of people who were not famous at all, but who lived good stories. Habben hasn’t yet given tours at Cloverdale, a relatively new cemetery with relatively few “big names.” But plans are in the works.
Cemeteries are rife with symbolism that represents a hidden, often archaic visual language. Symbolism on headstones was popular, said Habben, because in the past, not everyone could read. Broad cultural knowledge told them that a lamb carved on the headstone of a child represented innocence, or that a weeping willow represented grief.
Other symbols are less obvious for modern visitors. A rose in full bloom, for example, represents a fully lived life on earth. Anchors could mean that the deceased was “safely anchored in God’s harbor.” During times when Christians were persecuted, anchors were also disguises for crosses.
But Habben checks himself, being careful to not read too much into graveyard symbols. “Sometimes, a person might just like anchors.”
Habben continues to study, to photograph and research. And he sets challenges for himself. The U.S. Department of Veterans Affairs once offered only crosses and Stars of David to mark the graves of fallen service men and women. The VA now offers 62 “emblems of belief.” Habben wants to find one of each emblem on a gravestone somewhere, and photograph it. His collection has grown to 40 so far.
Tour your favorite historic cemetery
No formal tours are scheduled at this time, but Boise Parks and Recreation and volunteer guide David Habben will offer free tours to groups with a minimum size of 10 people and a maximum size of 35. Contact Jerry Pugh, volunteer coordinator with Parks and Rec at 208-608-7600.