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. This 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).
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. The 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:
Sometimes the inscription is on a slab leaning against the trunk, as you can just about see on the grave of “Our Little Zoe”:
Sometimes the scroll is mysteriously blank —
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.
You also get two tree trunks together:
Or as here:
Some were not tree trunks but truly stumps:
Others combined the tree-stump theme with the cross:
Others took the theme in different directions:
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:
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!
They also offered the rustic tree-stump crosses:
These monuments are all fascinating, but no question that some of them are just heartbreaking:
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:
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.
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.