A Fine and Private Place

When you buy fake tombstones at a Hallowe’en store, they always look the same, don’t they?   Old-timey slabs standing crooked, with R.I.P. written on them.   Halloween stonesThis was the form of many eighteenth-century gravestones, and in England the convention continued into later centuries.  In the U.S., though, the nineteenth century saw a profusion of gravestone inventiveness, in almost psychedelic abundance.

Of all these, I think tree-stump gravestones were maybe the most startling.

In saying this, they have a lot to compete with. A nineteenth-century gravestone might consist of a life-size statue of a departed one, like the one of Mary Ellis McGinnis in Edinburgh, Indiana (from the eerily fascinating blog Gravely Speaking).

Mary Ellis McGinnis, Rest Haven Cemetery, Edinburgh, Indiana

Mary Ella McGinnis (1869-1875), Rest Haven Cemetery, Edinburgh, Indiana

There were also square monuments, towering monuments, pillared monuments, bronze monuments, flat monuments, and of course the notorious weeping angels.

Tree-stump gravestones were poignantly fashionable for perhaps fifty years.  They were used for people who had died young — the symbolism was that of a tree cut down in its prime.  They originated in the second half of the nineteenth century, most concentrated in the American Midwest.  They were carved of stone or, in later years, made of concrete.  Sears and Wards offered catalogues of gravestones, and so tree-stump gravestones became so popular that you can could buy them by mail order.

       From 1890 to 1900, insurance policies from the Woodmen of the World (a fraternal benefit society) provided a free tree-stump gravestone, and from 1900 to 1920, a $100 rider assured one. (This latter information is from the addictive blog A Grave Interest.)

This first impressive example (over at the right) that got me looking out for tree-stump gravestones was one I came across at the cemetery in Newbern, Indiana — the grave of Olive L. Newsom, who died in 1891 at the age of 34 years, 10 months, and one day.  Olive L. Newsom, Newbern Cemetery, Newbern, IndianaThe trunk is tall and a basket of posies hangs over one limb.  The inscription is carved directly onto a bare space on the trunk. It rhymes but the carver was clearly worried about space, so he didn’t align the lines with the rhymes:
SLOWLY FADING LINGERING
DYING, LIKE A LEAF SHE
PASSED AWAY, HEEDING NOT
OUR TEARS OF ANGUISH,
HEAVEN HAS CLAIMED ITS
OWN TO DAY.
Olive’s gravestone is a particularly beautiful example, with ferns, winding vines and even toadstools over at the side.

In other examples the inscription is on a scroll hung from a branch:

East Hesperia Cemetery, East Hesperia, Michigan

East Hesperia Cemetery, East Hesperia, Michigan

Old Star City Cemetery, Star City, Indiana. The signal lantern suggests that the deceased was a railway signalman.

Old Star City Cemetery, Star City, Indiana. The signal lantern on the left branch suggests that E. L. Welsh was a railway signalman.

Sometimes the inscription is on a slab leaning against the trunk, as you can just about see on the grave of “Our Little Zoe”:

Zoe Guliher, Linwood Park Cemetery, Boone, Iowa

“Our Little Zoe.”  Zoe Guliher, Linwood Park Cemetery, Boone, Iowa

Sometimes the scroll is mysteriously blank —

Beulah Land Cemetery, Reynoldsville, Pennsylvania

Beulah Land Cemetery, Reynoldsville, Pennsylvania

Some, like the signalman’s tombstone above, denote particulars about the life of the person.  The tree-stump gravestone of Nathan Fahler (1845-1887), below, has so many symbols that it’s almost like a totem pole.  At the top is the Union cap that signified that Fahler had served in the Civil War.  The three chainlinks below the hat signal that the deceased was a member of the Order of Odd Fellows.  The next sign down is a symbol of the Masons.

Old Star City Cemetery, Star City, Indiana

Nathan Fahler, Old Star City Cemetery, Star City, Indiana.

You also get two tree trunks together:

Newaygo Cemetery, Newaygo, Michigan.

Newaygo Cemetery, Newaygo, Michigan.

Or as here:

Adjoining tree trunks, in a location I stupidly forgot to write down.

Adjoining tree trunks, in a location I stupidly forgot to write down.

One more:

Belvidere Cemetery, Belvidere, Illinois

Belvidere Cemetery, Belvidere, Illinois.

Some were not tree trunks but truly stumps:

Highland Cemetery, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Highland Cemetery, Ann Arbor, Michigan.

Others combined the tree-stump theme with the cross:

St. Andrew Catholic Cemetery, Tipton, Missouri.

St. Andrew Catholic Cemetery, Tipton, Missouri.

Byrne family gravestone — sure wish I remembered where it is.

Byrne family gravestone — sure wish I remembered where it is.

Others took the theme in different directions:

Greenbush Cemetery, Lafayette, Indiana.

Greenbush Cemetery, Lafayette, Indiana, as described in Gravely Speaking

The most spectacular is unquestionably the elaborate monument to Henry Smith and his wife Ella Ann Smith Brackett, in the Crown Hill Cemetery in Indianapolis:

Henry died first, and on the stone a male hand holds the chain that pulls the female hand up toward heaven.

Henry died first, and on the stone a male hand holds the chain that pulls the female hand up toward heaven.

You could buy several kinds in the Sears Catalogue of Sepulchral Monuments, which you can browse through at Archive.org. It even includes suggested poems and epitaphs!

"Come see the softer side of Sears"?

“Come see the softer side of Sears”?

They also offered the rustic tree-stump crosses:

I can't help but note that Sears' current advertising slogan is "Life. Well Spent."  Really, it is.

I can’t help but note that Sears’ current advertising slogan is “Life. Well Spent.” Really, it is.

These monuments are all fascinating, but no question that some of them are just heartbreaking:

Beech Grove Cemetery, Bedford, Indiana.

Beech Grove Cemetery, Bedford, Indiana.  From this blog.  Hard to look at this, it’s so sad.

The trend had largely disappeared by the 1930s, but a few later ones appear.  The most recent one I’ve found is from a Jewish cemetery in New England:

United Jewish Center Cemetery, Brookfield Center, Connecticut

“So lovely, so very loving, so very much loved.”  United Jewish Center Cemetery, Brookfield Center, Connecticut.

No question it is melancholy looking at  many of these.  To quote Somerset Maugham: “Dying is a very dull, dreary affair. And my advice to you is to have nothing whatever to do with it.”  Gravestones, though, are a different matter.
_________________________________________________________________________

For more:

Susanne S. Ridlen, Tree Stump Tombstones: A Field Guide to Rustic Funerary Art in Indiana (Kokomo, Indiana, 1999)

Warren Roberts, “Investigating the Tree-stump Tombstone in Indiana,” in American Material Culture and Folklife: A Prologue and Dialogue, ed. Simon J.Bronner. (Logan, UT: Utah State University Press, 1992)

“Cemetery Fascination” on Pinterest — Scrabble boards, armchairs, Snoopy doghouses, cradles, faithful dogs…

And the Association of Gravestone Studies does fascinating work.

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5 thoughts on “A Fine and Private Place

  1. Martha, I woke up in a terrible mood. Your wonderful report made me willing to stay above ground another day.

    This should be your next presentation.

    Thanks, Susan

  2. (I like the asparagus (??) on the stump in the Ann Arbor cemetery)
    I’m glad I didn;t hit the computer until I’d gotten my 3 day-long chores started…. I am a cemetery wanderer and really enjoyed this morning’s tour.

  3. What a great post. I was walking thru a cemetery last night (I am a genealogy obsessed person) and found a tree monument with stumps laying sideways for each family member. I need to go back and look at it more closely now that I have read what you wrote. So very interesting. Thank you! I hope you don’t mind I put a link in my post to your post.

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