Friday, July 27, 2012

Those Amazing Tree Stones

If you’ve been a taphophile for a while, you have probably developed a special fondness for certain gravestones, those that just seem to draw you to them.  My current favorites are the white bronze, headstone photos, and trees stones.

I am amazed but not surprised by the number of people who love the tree stones.  I remember the first time I found one.  There, amid a mixture of short stones, flat stones, intricate sculpture and obelisks, set an unassuming limestone tree stump.  Touching, yet solid and dependable, maybe a true adaptation of the person resting below.

There is something peaceful and heartening about the natural rustic look of a tree stone. – Life has ended but as a part of nature, we go on….

Tree stones were popular from the 1880’s to 1920’s.  They are called tree stump stones, tree trunk stones and tree stones.  Joseph Cullen Root was the founder of Modern Woodmen of America (1883) and also of Woodmen of the World (1890,) both fraternal insurance benefit societies.  Both became well known for using tree gravestones for their members. Root decided on the woodmen name after hearing a minister describe his congregation as ‘trees in God’s forest.”

Modern Woodmen of America (MWA) offered its members the opportunity to purchase grave markers for deceased associates until the mid-1970’s.  Cemeteries around the country also have the tree stone monuments, engraved with the MWA initials and symbols.  The MWA did not supply these grave markers or provide any monetary assistance for their purchase to members.

However, from 1890 to 1900, Woodmen of the World’s (WOW) life insurance policies did have a proviso that provided for the grave markers, free of charge, for members.  From 1900 to the mid- 1920’s, members purchased a $100 rider to cover the cost of the monument.  By the mid-20’s, the organization had discontinued the grave marker benefit due to the increased cost of the stones.

As the tree gravestones became more popular, the Sears and Roebuck catalogue and Montgomery Wards catalogue offered them for sale to the general public.  A tree stone marker does not necessarily mean that person was a member of MWA or WOW.  Only if the organizations initials or symbols are located on the stone does it indicate that the deceased was a member of one of these organizations.

Tree stones vary in size and height from tiny children’s stones, just a few inches high, to soaring 10 to 12 feet high tree trunks.  All have intricately carved detailing at the base, and many ties around the trunk.  You could request certain elements be added to a stone to better tell the story of the deceased.  Many local stone makers could incorporate these carvings on the tree stone, making them very individualistic.

Symbols found on the tree stones include axes, mauls, wedges, any type of tool used in woodworking, flowers, vines, animals, chairs, buckets – anything that helped tell the story of the person buried there.
Tree stones also vary according to the area they were carved in and the type of cemetery.  Many local stone carvers left their personal mark on a stone.  This carver in Illinois put mushrooms on all of his tree stones.

The tree stones found in B'nai Abraham-Zion Cemetery in Chicago may feature an inscription in Hebrew, and photos – an extra bonus for the Tombstone Traveler.

Many times tree branches were broken off to show that a family member had died.  Tops were notched in certain ways and bark appeared to be peeled back or cut off to reveal the epitaph of those buried there.

Although no longer available for purchase, I can’t help but believe that if they were offered again, we would see a resurgence of tree stones in our 21st century cemeteries – a link to our past, and a nod to nature.

~ Joy