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 might say, a “tombstone tourist.” But after years of study, Habben ranks well beyond tourist. He’s become a self-taught photographer and expert in cemetery lore, history and grave marker symbols. He’s generous with his expertise.
Habben 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 agreed. Habben, dressed undertaker-style in a dour suit and top hat, gave his first tours at Boise’s historic Morris Hill Cemetery on Halloween in 2014. They quickly filled to capacity.
More recently, he has led tours for groups of seniors and students. Habben 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 has given presentations to genealogy groups and spoken at family history conferences in Idaho and Oregon. He’s also a volunteer tour guide at the Old Pen in Boise, leading tours at the old prison most Mondays at 2:30 p.m.
“Simply put, David’s the best,” said Amber Beierle, the site’s visitor services coordinator. “He not only devotes his time, but also his complete dedication to learning and growing beyond the basic information ... He has that rare quality of giving as much as he gets out of his volunteer time ... Amazing man, amazing volunteer.”
Habben also teaches a class in cemetery history and symbolism through Boise Community Education four times a year.
“If I could get paid for everything I do, I’d be set,” Habben said.
He relies on a couple of day jobs instead. 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. During a recent visit to Georgia, he explored Savannah’s Bonaventure Cemetery, home of the statue of a young girl, famously featured on the cover of John Berendt’s celebrated book, “Midnight in the Garden of Good and Evil.” While there, Habben took some 640 photographs for his collection.
Habben also works part time at Cloverdale Funeral Home and Cemetery, the Boise home known for the pet reindeer that graze its grounds. At Cloverdale, Habben helps with “everything that doesn’t require a funeral director’s license,” he said, including transporting bodies, setting up for services and handing out programs.
More history than ghosts
Habben, a Chicago native, said his love for cemeteries started with his hometown love for blues music. He started visiting favorite musicians’ graves and quickly realized that cemeteries were rich with history, art and intrigue.
He believes people find cemeteries fascinating for one of two reasons. Some are drawn to the paranormal. People often ask Habben if he has seen wraiths wandering among the monuments. He hasn’t.
“If I were a spirit and could go anywhere, why would I hang around a cemetery?” he quipped.
As an experienced photographer, he’s often the “bad guy,” the one who has to tell people that the “ghost” they think they’ve captured on film is really a dust mote or the reflection off a mirror. He notes one spirit photograph that no one has been able to disprove. It’s of a woman in 1800s garb. “The Lady in White” is sitting on a stone at Bachelor’s Grove, a legendarily haunted cemetery outside Chicago not far from a pond where mobster Al Capone dumped the bodies of his enemies.
Other lovers of cemeteries are like him, Habben said, “Interested in 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.
At Pioneer, one of the oldest cemeteries in the Treasure Valley, that might be a story about Orlando Robbins, “the Wyatt Earp of Idaho” during the 1800s, or about young Carrie Logan. She was a 5-year-old girl who died as her pioneer parents were nearing the Valley in 1864. They waited to bury her until they got to Boise. Her stone is the oldest legible marker at Pioneer.
Cemeteries are rife with symbolism that represents a whole visual language. In the past, even if someone were illiterate, he or she would have the cultural knowledge to know that a lamb carved on the headstone of a child represented innocence, or that a weeping willow represented grief. A rose in full bloom represented a fully lived life on earth. An anchor could mean that the deceased was “safely anchored in God’s harbor.” During times of Christian persecution, anchors could also double as hidden crosses.
“But sometimes,” said Habben, “the deceased just liked anchors.”
Despite his copious knowledge, Habben continues to study, to photograph and research. He sets challenges for himself. The Veterans Administration 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,” from the Wiccan pentagram to the Hammer of Thor. Habben wants to find one of each emblem on a gravestone somewhere and photograph it. He’s found 40 so far.
Further proof of his devotion to the funereal arts and the history of resting places: The license plates on his car read “plots.” And he recently got a tattoo to commemorate his 15 years of researching and photographing.
“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.
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.
Habben also offers his class on cemetery history and symbolism, “Carved in Stone,” to groups. To contact Habben directly, email him at firstname.lastname@example.org.