Headstone Symbols: Treestones, Tree Stumps or Tree Trunks

The meaning of the symbols commonly found on cemetery gravestones and markers

Cemetery treestone
Photo © Chris Raymond

Depending on your perspective, a cemetery, church graveyard or memorial park can prove a location to avoid as long as humanly possible or a place of fascination and even enjoyment. For many in the latter camp, visiting the silent stone sentinels and mute metal markers found in a cemetery offers an opportunity to pay homage to the dead, trace their family history and genealogy, capture interesting photographs, or find moments of solitude and contemplation.

If you've visited a cemetery for any reason at some point, you might have wondered about a design you saw carved on an old tombstone and what it means. This article examines the meaning behind the headstone symbols commonly found in cemeteries, church graveyards and memorial parks and, specifically, what a tree stump or tree trunk represents, which are generally referred to as "treestones."

The Symbol

Typically found in older cemeteries, this cemetery symbol resembles the trunk of a tree in three dimensions, but the height, circumference, tree species and overall appearance can vary dramatically. Collectively known as treestones, these headstones might resemble the short, stubby tree stump left after a tree is chopped down a few inches from the ground to a soaring, column-like tree trunk (without branches) that stands anywhere from 1 to 4 meters (roughly 3 to 13 feet) tall. The treestone shown in the photograph above (from a cemetery in Maine) stands about 1 meter high but features a split-trunk design, which emphasizes the versatility of this particular headstone design.

Often, a treestone of any height will feature more-than-usual design elements, symbols, and information, reflecting the unique life of the deceased, because of its versatile style and available surface area. For example, the split-trunk treestone example shown above not only displays the names of two people, but it also features ferns (symbolic of sincerity), a crawling ivy (suggesting attachment and the Holy trinity), and (on the lower left) a heraldic shield with the acronym "F C B," which indicates that one of the deceased belonged to the Knights of Pythias, a fraternal society popular in the late 1800s and early 1900s.

A treestone cemetery headstone might also indicate that the deceased was a member of another fraternal club, either Woodmen of the World, or Modern Woodmen of America, but in those cases, the acronym "WOW" or "MWA" usually appears somewhere on the marker.

The Meaning

Though not commonly used in modern earth burials, treestones probably rank as one of the most versatile cemetery headstone designs ever conceived, as noted above. Regardless of its ultimate height (i.e., a tree stump or a tree trunk), inherent in the stone representation of a tree versus any other standard gravestone "slab" is the symbolic concept of growth over time and life itself, since it takes a while for a tree of this size to grow from a seed. In addition, trees generally symbolize strength, longevity and/or immortality (see "Oak Leaves and Acorns" and "Weeping Willow Tree" below).

Moreover, because three-dimensional treestones offered greater design freedom for masons in terms of tree species, height, style, etc., versus the typical single-side used in conventional gravestones, you might discover a cemetery tree stump or tree trunk rife with additional death-related symbols and information around/along its entire surface versus a typical gravemarker.

Popular from the late 1880s to the early 1900s, the prevalence of treestones in cemeteries reflected the interest in "rusticity" -- a desire for simplicity and getting back to nature that occurred late in the straight-laced reign of Queen Victoria, who influenced mourning clothes and funeral customs after the death of her husband in 1861 by wearing "widow's weeds" for the rest of her life. This trend proved so popular that retailer Sears, Roebuck & Co. even offered to sell treestone headstones in its catalogs!

Other Cemetery Headstone Symbols:
Broken Column
Christian Cross with Crown
Compass, Carpenter's Square and "G"
Death's Head
Finger Pointing Up
Handshake or Clasped Hands
"IHS" or IHC"
Laurel Wreath
Oak Leaves and Acorns
Open Book
Three Chain Links
Weeping Willow Tree

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