I am a Tombstone Tourist: someone who loves to wander cemeteries. I find it akin to visiting a museum: an opportunity to enjoy rarely seen sculpture, intricate carvings, and amazing architecture, all in a tranquil outdoor setting. This blog is about cemetery culture, art, history, issues of death, and genealogy - subjects of current relevance. I usually find something that intrigues me and makes me want to dig deeper. Care to join me? Read on...
Today is Arbor Day, a day when everyone is encouraged to appreciate and plant trees. As a very big ‘tree person,’ I couldn’t let the day go by without taking a look at some of those strange, odd, wonderful trees you find in cemeteries. You know the ones – twisted, towering, leaning, either over or away from a grave. And then there are the ‘trees of the dead!’ Those that make the usual spooky Halloween trees look pretty tame. The ‘Sleepy Hollow’ trees. The ones that look gruesome and make you feel uncomfortable just to be near them.
My husband, Brian, was the one who started taking, what we call, ‘those odd tree photos.’ We now have almost one-thousand shots of some very interesting trees. All have been taken in cemeteries throughout the Midwest and Kentucky.
Larry Caplan, is with the Purdue Extension Service of Vanderburgh County, Indiana. He is an Extension Horticulture Educator, a Certified Arborist and an Indiana Accredited Plantsman. He was also a founding member of the Indiana Forest Council. Larry is a member of the International Brotherhood of Magicians and performs over 50 magical horticultural lectures each year. I contacted him a couple of weeks ago and he agreed to look over some photos (OK - a lot of photos) and give his input into why these trees grow or look the way they do. What has caused these oddities? How could it have been avoided? And what’s up with those macabre trees anyway?
Here is the interview.
Is there a reason that cedar and evergreens are usually found in cemeteries?
Evergreens are frequently used in cemeteries because they remain green and living all year round. Visitors want to feel the concept of “rebirth” or “eternal life” that evergreens represent. In the Midwest, spruce and firs are not native, nor do they do really well, whereas pines and redcedars are much hardier and a better fit for our soils.
Why does lightening seem to strike in cemeteries a lot?
Lighting strikes the tallest object in the field, usually. Most cemeteries are flat with low structures (headstones, tombs, etc.). The trees are the tallest objects out there, and are therefore a perfect target.
Another problem with most cemeteries is the lack of a major budget for landscape maintenance. Lawns are mowed, and grass trimming around headstones is done, but there’s little budget for corrective pruning or other tree care. Storm damage is cleaned up, but often, the only trimming done is to remove hazardous limbs. Corrective pruning and other maintenance is not usually performed.
I have several photos of cemetery trees in Indiana, Illinois and Kentucky. Would you tell us what kind of tree is in each photo and something about what could have caused it’s oddity?
This is a Scotch pine. Older pines lose their typical “Christmas Tree” shape as they age. Early on, it appears the growing tip was killed, and several of the side branches took over and became new leaders. The ones on the right were removed, giving the tree the lopsided appearance. If the landscape was being groomed, only one of the side branches should have been trained to become the new central leader.
This is a Eastern Redcedar. The double trunk indicates that the central growing point was probably damaged at one point; the dark areas in between the two trunks could be decayed areas from the original central trunk. Most likely, the central trunk was lost in a storm.
This is an Eastern Redcedar. The part missing is apparently caused by a broken limb from a storm.
I believe this is a maple. I would like to get closer to examine it, but it appears that two trees were growing next to each other; perhaps the smaller one on the right could have been a watersprout or sucker. As they aged, they merged together. They are still probably two separated trees, with a strip of bark in between them. This could have been prevented by removing the watersprout when it was first seen.
This is an unknown species. The lean is caused mostly by a poor root system. If you will notice the base of the trunk, there is no flare to root system. A visible root flare indicates that the tree has a strong buttress root system, which will support the tree from high winds. A trunk that enters the ground straight, like a telephone pole, indicates that the buttress system is not present. This produces a tree that is not as stable, and is more likely to lean in a storm.
I also notice that the base of the tree, toward the center, shows some missing bark. This indicates that the root (and the wood above it) is dead.
The dead root and lack of flare indicates a trunk-girdling root. This occurs when a root of the tree wraps itself around the trunk, usually about a foot or so underground. This is often seen with improperly planted trees. Because of the way the hole is dug (narrow, with straight sides), the roots tend to turn when they hit the side of the hole, instead of growing straight out. The knowledge of proper tree planting 50 and more years ago was not what it is today, and this is not quite as common any more.
This one is an Eastern Redcedar. Often, trees planted in windy areas will twist as they grow. In most trees, this is not readily apparent. However, the bark and stem structure of redcedars makes this more visible. You will sometimes see this phenomenon in urban areas: root damage on one side of the tree produces visible symptoms (dieback) on the opposite side of the tree, instead of directly above the damaged root.
Another Eastern Redcedar. This is commonly known as a burl. Often, these form at the site of an old trunk injury. What we are seeing is the wound response wood. For some reason still not clear, rather than just sealing off the wound, the wound response wood keeps growing. Some arborists compare this with a cancer growth; although it does not appear to spread into the healthy wood as a human cancer would. Wood workers prize these burls for their bowl-making because of the interesting patterns the wood forms.
The wet spot appears to be a condition called slime flux or wetwood. This is caused by a bacterial infection. The bacteria usually enter from a wound, often a pruning wound. The bacteria lives and multiplies in the sapwood beneath the bark. As they feed, they ferment the sap and produce carbon dioxide, which forces the sap out of the wood under pressure. This is usually more of a cosmetic problem than a true disease; most usually, it does not harm the tree at all.
In this particular situation, though, the original wound was not caused by pruning or other mechanical damage. It appears that this tree’s co-dominant trunk (double-trunk) originates at about the same location as the sap oozes out of the trunk. Co-dominant limbs like this appear, from the outside, to be solid wood, but in reality, it’s two separate limbs growing next to each other, but not fully merged. There is normally a strip of bark between the two trunks. Trees with co-dominant trunks often split in wind storms, since there is nothing to hold the two limbs together. These two trunks will sometimes move slightly and rub against each other in the wind; this could have been the source of the wound/break in the bark that allowed the bacteria to enter the tree.
Probably another Eastern Redcedar. The wood is very rot-resistant, so broken branches don’t decay and fall off like other trees do. Often, breaks remain on the tree, and the tree often tries to grow around the broken pieces, producing interesting twists and bends.
Unknown species of tree. This looks like a tree that may have snapped off at the trunk during a storm. Instead of just dying, though, the stump produced several suckers, which started to grow around the stump. Over the years, the stump rotted, leaving the openings. There is also evidence of “mower blight” on the root on the right, from careless mowing crews.
This is a Southern Magnolia (Magnolia grandiflora) A broadleaf evergreen tree, quite common in Kentucky and southern Indiana.
This is a Pine tree. Most unusual! It appears that a side branch at the bottom became a 2nd leader/trunk. Later, a side branch from the main trunk grew to the side and grafted itself to the 2nd leader.
Most likely, the curve of this tree was caused by shading from a larger tree to the right (not visible). Woodland trees or overplanted trees often compete with each other for sunlight, and will follow the faintest hint of light, creating strange and elegant curves.
The tree in the foreground appears to have a girdling root. This is the side-ways growing root running from left to right. Something disrupted the direction of its growth – possibly a gravestone? If this root is allowed to remain, it will eventually choke (girdle) the trunk on that side of the tree, leading to its death.
This was a tree that had died or blew over, and several suckers grew up from the stump. Had only one or two been allowed to grow, they could have been trained to be an attractive, strongly growing tree. However, five closely-growing suckers were allowed to grow around a rotting stump, producing an unstable clump of limbs. They will most likely fall over or tear apart in the event of an ice storm or strong wind.
A low branch, which probably should have been removed years ago to get out of the way of lawn mowers, was allowed to grow out. It appears to have been cut back, but not removed, and a sucker appeared at the end of the branch. This sucker grew upright, and became the new end of the branch.
A branch broke off at some point, and the stub was not removed cleanly. The tree tried to grow over the stub, which eventually rotted. There is most probably internal wood decay within the trunk.
As mentioned before, redcedars are highly resistant to wood rot. This tree had been hit by lightning, and probably suffered wind damage as well. Even with all the exposed heart wood, this tree is still alive and growing.
Trees growing in compacted soils tend to have a shallow root system, especially in restricted sites (like this corner). As the roots add rings and enlarge, they come to the surface, where they get hit with lawn mowers. The dense shade of the tree prevents any grass from growing underneath it, which allows soil erosion.
Eastern Redcedar. This is most likely a single tree that lost its top at some point in the past. Lateral buds from right below the break sprouted, forming the multiple leaders.
This is a honeylocust. While there are thornless varieties of honeylocust that are commonly used for landscape plantings, the common form of this tree has three-branched thorns. If I was being chased by a bear and my only chance of survival was to climb a honeylocust, I’d let the bear have me…it would be over quicker.
This tree has numerous burls, as discussed above. The hollow at the base of the tree was probably initiated by torn and/or poorly pruned branches, which allowed decay to start at the wound site and work its way into the trunk.
( Joy - This is my favorite cemetery tree - what I refer to as the "Sleepy Hollow Tree." I've had some strange occurrences happen here, but that's for another blog!)
My sincere thanks to Larry Caplan for going above and beyond the call of duty in taking the time to review the photos and answer these questions. You, sir, are a true “Tree Person!”
Sunday, May 1st, is the start of National Pet Week. Next Tuesday we’ll encounter some pets that have become a part of cemetery lore because of their devotion to man - even after death.
Angels are considered spiritual beings that guide and protect mankind, while interceding for him in heaven and acting as the messengers of God.There are nine levels of angels with 3 types in each group.The Christian hierarchy is, from lowest to highest:Angels, Archangels and Principalities; Powers, Virtues and Dominations; Thrones, Cherubims and Seraphims. Statues of angels, archangels and cherubims (actually Putto) flourish in cemeteries around the world, watching over the graves of children and adults, alike.
Song of the Angels
The belief in angels has existed since ancient times.Folklore and legends from around the world have numerous stories involving angel and human interaction.Most world religions that believe in one god share a belief in angels such as Judaism, Christianity, Islam and Zoroastrianism.Most eastern religions do not.The acceptance of angels’ existence peaked during the Middle Ages and continued until the mid-19th century.Renewed interest has developed in the past 30 years.It is interesting that both religious and non-religious people believe in angels.According to several surveys conducted in 2009, 55% of Americans reported believing in angels.In Canada, over 67% of those polled said they believed in angels.
Cemetery angels can indicate many feelings and beliefs depending on what they are doing and how they are doing it. Here are some examples -
An angel pointing upward is leading the soul toward heaven and it’s reward.
An angel with a trumpet represents the Archangel Gabriel who stands ready to issue the call to resurrection.
This angel holds flowers that indicate the death of a child.The daisies specify the innocence and purity of a child; the roses are an appeal to the Virgin Mary.
Here the angel holds an extinguished torch, to indicate death.
This angel stands in prayer. The star on her crown indicates the spirit rising to heaven.The crown represents victory over death.
Here an angel sits on the grave, grieving an untimely death.
This angel holds a rolled up scroll in her hand to show that the deceased’s life has been recorded.
Here a guardian angel is taking the child to heaven.The baby is holding high a lit torch to signify life everlasting.The roses in the angel’s hands indicate unfailing love.
Cherubs are used to designate the grave of a child.Cherubs have actually been humanized and blurred with Putto, which are depicted as pudgy babies or toddlers with wings in Baroque artwork.They are found on the gravestones of children and indicate the omnipresence of God.
Here a cherub is sitting, grieving a child’s life cut short.
This cherub is erasing the name of the child who has passed on.
A cherub with an inverted torch indicating the death of a child.
This small, flying angel proclaims rebirth.
And this angel has fascinated me the most. The laurel leaves on her head indicate triumph over death.But what is she dropping from her hand?Flowers?Also, here are two shots of the same statue, taken the same day.The angle is not that different, but it appears she has raised her head.
This Friday is Arbor Day.I’ll have an interview with an international Arborist who will discuss those odd, interesting, sometimes spooky trees found in the cemetery.
Photo by Jim Champion
Now, all of these angels have put me in the mood to watch the movie ‘Michael” again…..(Remember, he’s an angel- not a saint ; )
With this being Good Friday for the Christian religion, I thought a brief look at crosses in the cemetery might be of interest.
A cross is defined as a structure with two intersecting pieces. To the Christian faith, a cross is the symbol of Christ and Christianity. In the cemetery, a cross may be used as a monument or memorial for someone of the Christian religion.
Types of Crosses -
Calvary Cross - There are 3 steps that make up the base on which the cross sets. Some bases are shaped to resemble the hill where Christ died. In the Protestant faith the three steps represent the Holy Trinity. In the Catholic religion the three steps stand for faith, hope and love. There are many types of cemetery markers that use this 3-step foundation.
Celtic Cross - Similar to the Latin cross but with a circle intersecting the upright and the crossbar. There are many names for what we know as the Celtic cross – the high cross, ring cross, sun cross, solar cross, wheel cross, halo cross, disc cross, Irish Cross, Woden’s Cross, Ionic Cross, Odin’s Cross and St Brigid’s Cross, although each cross has some variation. Most are ornate. Celtic crosses became popular in U.S. cemeteries in the late 19th- century.
Cement Cross - There have been many who could not afford granite or marble tombstones, so they made due with what they had. A homemade cross, fashioned out of cement, was used as grave marker here.
Cross and Angel – Angels are believed to be the guardians of mankind and can intercede for assistance from Heaven. Notice the wreath that indicates victory over death being hung on the cross to the left.
The angel on the right stands on the 3-step formation.
Cross and Chalice – The chalice represents the sacraments and forgiveness. It usually marks the grave of clergy or priests.
Cross and Crown - This symbolizes Christ suffering on the cross and victory over death.
Cross and Lilies - Be it one lily or several, located on a cross they represent resurrection and hope.
Cross and Scythe – The scythe is an instrument used to reap grain. It represents someone cut down in the prime of life. But when attached to the cross, hints of the divine gathering up of souls.
Cross and Wreath – This symbolizes Christ’s victory over death and eternal life.
Crucifix – Used by the Catholic, Lutheran, Anglican and Eastern Orthodox religions. The crucifix depicts the corpus or the body of Christ, indicating that Christ is more important that the cross itself. The Virgin Mary and Saint John may be shown at the base of the Crucifix.
Draped Cross – The draping indicates the last veil between earth and heaven. A cross that is draped may indicate the death of an older person.
Epitaph Cross – A cross with an epitaph engraved on it. This marker shows the epitaph written in the style of a cross.
Fleur-de-lis Cross – The arms of this cross are stylized with 3 points or petals at the ends to represent the Holy Trinity.
Greek Cross – The arms are all the same length on this cross. This is one of the most common types of crosses in the world.
Heart Cross – This is usually a Latin cross that is embellished with a heart symbolizing love.
I H S cross – The three letters usually appear on the crossbar and are derived from the first three letters of Jesus’ name in Greek – Iota, Eta and Sigma. This has also been said to stand for the Latin words “Iesus Hominum Salvator – “Jesus, mankind’s savior.”
$ Cross - In the Latin alphabet, I H S O Y S, again, Jesus’ name, is combined and interwoven on the intersecting section of the cross.
Latin Cross – This cross has the cross bar about 1/3 of the way down from the top and does not include the corpus or body of Christ on it. The Protestant religions use this cross as their symbol feeling that it represents their belief in resurrection. This is the most common type of cross in cemeteries, but is very susceptible to being broken.
Metal Cross – Wrought iron metal crosses were cast from iron. They are usually found in Catholic German and French cemeteries. The crosses are painted silver, white or black with decorative symbols added to the rectangular or heart shaped plate attached to the front.
Woman at Cross – The statue of a woman mourning the loss of someone abounds in cemeteries around the world for women have always had the distinct responsibility of attending to the dead.
These women are leaning on the cross to gain comfort and strength.
This woman is hanging on the cross indicating unwavering faith. This marker is commonly used on Masonic graves.
Also, there is usually a wreath on the gravestone indicating victory over death.
Tuesday, we will explore the angels that flourish in the cemetery. Enjoy your weekend!