Gravestones - stumps & cut trees

Cemeteries around the world represent the final resting place for the deceased; most utilize gravestones as a way to memorialize the departed. Some of these stones are interesting works of sculpture, as well as detailed records of the life of those buried beneath them. At their best they are not solely a record of the date when the individual passed away, but creative carvings that can be viewed with appreciation by the living.

Grave markers have occasionally been created in the form of a stump or cut tree. When the deceased individual was a young person, the stump or cut tree symbolizes a life cut short. The book New Jersey Cemeteries and Tombstones includes an unusual gravestone carved in the form of a stump with a young girl sitting on it. The deceased girl died from a fever and is seen in the carving wearing her shoes.(1) Stones cut in the form of a stump sometimes include a branch attached at a right angle, so that the two branches form a cross. In this case the gravestone symbolizes both the tree of life cut off and the Christian beliefs of the deceased.(2)

Gravemarker for Priscilla Blinn, Burlington

Gravemarker for Priscilla Blinn, 1881, Burlington. Photograph by K.N. Ogden.
Gravemarkers for Mother, Father, and Jessie, Hoboken

Gravemarkers for Mother, Father, and Jessie, Hoboken. Photograph courtesy The Laurus / Flickr.
Gravemarker of John Moran and Catherina Steinruck, Burlington

Gravemarker of John Moran (d.1886) and Catherina Steinruck (c.1904), Burlington. Photo by K.N. Ogden.

The tree itself should always be considered a symbol of life.(3) If there is ivy on the tree trunk, the deceased was the head of the family. The branches that appear on these carvings have other meanings. The number of broken branches may symbolize the number of family members buried at that particular plot. Sometimes the number of branches that protrude from the stump represent young children who lived longer than the deceased. When a branch is cut close to the stump we assume that the child died before his or her parents. A leaning trunk also suggests that the deceased died in childhood. In some cases the height of the stump may give us a hint as to the age of the deceased.(4)

In some cases, the depiction of a tree stump or log has nothing to do with the meanings described above. This particular kind of gravestone was made for members of the Woodmen Of the World," a fraternal organization. These carvings can easily be identified from the others; they are newer and contain the Woodmen of the World logo incorporated into the stone.(5)

Gravestones have been made from a variety of materials. During the early 1800s, most were made from sandstone. In the mid-19th century sculptors began working with marble more and as the century progressed they began using granite. The poor have often used wood; no matter how elegant the carving, most such grave markers have rotted away. Wooden markers can still be seen in many New Jersey cemeteries today. Some may exist as place holders until the family can afford a more permanent marker.

(Vincent Acampora, Spring 2009)

(1) Richard F. Veit and Mark Nonestied, New Jersey Cemeteries and Tombstones: History in the Landscape (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 2008).

(2,4) Olive Tree Genealogy website (see link below).

(3) "Clues to past are chiseled in gravestones' intricacies," Lincoln, Nebraska Journal Star (May 29, 1999), p.4C (see USgenmap link below).

(5) "Woodmen of the World" entry, Wikipedia (see link below):

For more on the history of cemeteries and burial practices, see:

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