Monday, February 20, 2012

Tree shaped tombstones. A minor mystery.

I am not planning on needing one any time soon, but I do look at tombstones.  In our local cemeteries there are quite a few in the shapes of trees, and I find them visually rather appealing.

Some are small.

Others more substantial.  Notice the chopped off branch, which seems to be a recurring theme emphasizing the transience of life.

There's just a lot happening here.  We have leaves, ropes, an anchor, an unrolled scroll, a banner that reads "In Peace".  Really rather impressive when you realize that these were not cast out of cement but were actually carved from limestone.

Sometimes the tree themed grave markers occur in groups as with this poignant assemblage.  We have the huge main "family tree", again with the chopped off branches.  And a series of little stacks of logs and sticks.  They seem very sad.



This one was the saddest of the whole bunch.  A few feet away from the other children's tombstones and of a different style.  It has two lambs on the top.  On one side is "Little Frankie".  There was another name on the other side, so probably the resting place of a set of premature twins.  Infant mortality was a cruel but commonplace thing generations ago.

There are plenty of other little details on these arboreal monuments if you take the time to look closely at them.

A book, presumably the Bible.

A dying dove.

At first glance this one looks fairly standard issue.  But just to make sure you caught the symbolism of the lopped off branches...

In a casual stroll through the cemetery I got dozens of photos, with a bewildering array of flowers, vines, ropes and other motifs.  But what I did not get was a clear sense of why these interesting monuments were used.

I had read that they were used as grave markers for members of the Woodmen of the World, a fraternal organization along the lines of the Elks and so forth.  Founded in 1890, they did indeed put up distinctive tree themed gravestones for their members up until the 1920s when the costs became prohibitive.  So the dating of the tombstones I found fits, most were late 1890s up to about 1910.  But there are some features missing....

This would be a more typical "Woodmens" tree tombstone.  It has their seal and their Latin motto.  Simpler versions would just say W.O.W. or have other identifying attributes such as an axe or a maul and wedge.  The one example I have with an axe shows it with a broken handle, which I have never seen on a Woodmen tombstone.

Several of the specimens I photographed actually had Masonic emblems on them, which would also seem to make an association with a rival fraternal organization unlikely.

Hence the mystery.  If there was no link to the Woodmen's organization, why are there significant numbers of these tree tombstones?  I suppose they are nice enough stylistically to be popular, but it would seem to be an expensive purchase.
Update November 2014.  The Tree Shaped Tombstone topic has expanded into dozens of postings. If the subject interests you click on the relevant topic header on the right side of the page!


John M. said...

Here in Savannah, Ga., I have seen a number of tree stump headstones. They are not Woodmen stumps, they are much smaller than the ones you have shown here. Apparently, they mark those who were "cut off in their prime". Supposedly, however many inches tall the stump equals how many years the unfortunate lived.

According to this site:

In the case of the WoW headstones, "Broken braches on the tree symbolize a life cut short."

thanks for the post, be seeing you

Tacitus2 said...

Appreciate the link. I am still studying the tree tombstones locally and will post a few more presently.
I agree, not Woodmen issue.
No plans for the forseeable future, but I wonder if you can still order one of these....


Anonymous said...

FWIW: the use of a tree as a marker is Druidic in origin. The Druids actually adopted the cross as their symbol (I say adopted because it was used as a symbol in the British Isles since the early paleolithic era). They used the cross because, especially in Scotland (around the Temple Mound and Rosslyn Chapel area specifically), the sun's shadow casts a perfect 90 degree angle at the solstices and equinoxes. Anyway, the Druids would either cut all the branches off an oak tree and then attach one perpendicular, or alternatively, would cut all except two, if those two were perpendicular to the main trunk (as is portrayed in the markers, if you notice). Samson was *clearly* a Freemason, because aside from the square and compasses there are other Masonic symbols on the marker (the anchor, for one).
Incidentally, the square and compasses represent the aforementioned solar position at Heredom in Scotland (90 degrees: square) and Jerusalem (60 degrees, the solar position at the solstice and equicox at that location: