Field Guide: Decoding Old Cemeteries

Issue #10 - Tombstones

You can learn a lot about a place by visiting its graveyards. The oldest graves tell you how long the cemetery’s been there. A line of headstones with the same date of death indicates an unusual tragedy, natural or otherwise. And even if you don’t have any connection to the people buried there, certain symbols and styles of tombstone design communicate across cultures and language.


Here Lies a Woodman

Many of the carvings and statuary in older cemeteries is easy to decode. A lamb usually indicates the grave of a child. The symbol of an open book might denote the final resting place of a beloved teacher. The classic Square and Compasses design of the Freemasons can be found in many 19th- and 20th-century graveyards; this display is perhaps the most public of the order’s secretive rituals. 

And in many American cemeteries from the turn of the 19th/20th century it’s common to see a tombstone carved in the shape of a tree trunk, sometimes with the Latin phrase carved into it: Dum Tacet Clamet. (Though silent, he speaks) These tree-shaped tombstones can be as high as five feet tall and sometimes feature a smaller stack of logs at the base, symbolizing the deceased’s children. Who are these silent speakers? The Woodmen of the World.

Gravestone of W.L. Murphy (1857-1908), at Old Gray Cemetery in Knoxville, Tennessee, with carving to represent Murphy’s Woodmen of the World affiliation.  Photograph by Brian Stansberry.

The 19th century was a violent one in North America. Through wars with the native population, slavery and a Civil War, not to mention pre-anitbiotic disease and natural disasters, it was a world where death was a nearby presence. Recent European immigrants who were cut off from the social safety net of extended family networks and well-established churches back home in “the old country” found themselves alone in times of crisis. These new Americans formed benevolent societies to provide some of what they’d left behind: fellowship and moral support during life, and the dignity of a proper burial in death. They offered, in a word, insurance.

These mutual aid societies were sometimes based around national or ethnic identities, such as the Benevolent Order of Scottish Clans (est. 1878), or religion, such as the Knights of Columbus (est. 1882) which remains a Catholic-only organization to this day. The Woodmen of the World (WOW) was open to men (and women, through its auxiliary, Woodmen Circle) of any religious or national background, "the Jew and the Gentile, the Catholic and the Protestant, the agnostic and the atheist."  

The symbol of the tree did not indicate, however, the profession of the deceased; Woodmen were not necessarily (or even usually) loggers. Joseph Cullen Root, who founded WOW (and its predecessor, Modern Woodmen of America) in 1890, saw the image of a man with an axe as a symbol for what WOW would accomplish: “clearing away problems of financial security for its members.” When WOW was founded, it promised to honor every member with one of its signature tree-shaped headstones. This alone made WOW a worthwhile investment for many people. 

In 1910 a splinter group of WOW broke off to form the Supreme Camp of American Woodmen (AWSC), organized by and for Black Americans. AWSC provided all the same services and retained the same principles as WOW, but expanded into communities not previously reached. In 1994, the two groups rejoined and AWSC was enfolded back into what was by then known simply as Woodmen (now WoodmenLife), a flourishing insurance company distinguished by its not-for-profit status and its commitment to giving back to local communities. 

Although WoodmenLife still exists, its members no longer receive a tree-shaped headstone when they die, but WoodmenLife remains committed to leaving a memorial for all its members, even if these days it’s merely an embedded plaque. 

The next time you see one of the distinctive WOW headstones, take a moment to appreciate all its symbolic features. Designs such as axes and mauls reference WOW’s mission to “clear away” financial troubles, in the same way a woodsman with an axe clears a forest. A dove symbolizes peace. The monuments offer valuable genealogical information, too. Often the names of the WOW member’s family are also engraved on the headstone, typically the names of the spouse and children of the deceased. “Here Rests a Woodman of the World,” the tombstone reads, a reminder not only of the individual buried there but of the efforts of everyday Americans to support each other in troubled times.


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Secrets of the Tombstones ⚰️

The carvings on gravestones are more than just decorative embellishments, these symbols hold hidden meanings in regard to the dearly departed’s character, something they valued or even how they earned their living.  Understanding these markings found on the graves of our ancestors can provide clues which can lead to non-traditional records which are oftentimes genealogically rich.

One of the more common symbols found on gravestones is that of the Freemasons, most specifically the square and set of joined compasses with the letter “G” in the center, which dates back as far as the 1780s. Some believe the “G” stands for God and geometry, as the belief in God is the main requirement for membership to the Freemasonry and that geometry helps to unravel the wonders of nature and the relationship between objects. 

If there is indication that an ancestor may have been a member of the Freemasons, seek out registers or other membership records.  Many can be found online, including the Massachusetts Membership Cards (1733-1990) or the The Grand Lodge of Ancient, Free and Accepted Mason of North Carolina, which can include information such as residence, occupation, place and date of birth and date of death. Others can be found by contacting the Grand Lodge in the state your ancestor would have resided at the time of joining the society.

Gravestone, located in Forest Hills Cemetery in Jamaica Plain [Massachusetts], of William E. Brigham (1823-1866) with the square and compass symbol for the Freemasons etched into the stone.  Photograph by Wikimedia Commons user Jp16103

With roots in the United States as far back as 1806, the Independent Order of the Odd Fellows (I.O.O.F.), an organization which aims to promote personal and social development, is represented by three interlocking chain links, is another popular symbol found on cemetery gravestones.  The links represent friendship, love and truth, with the letters “F L T” oftentimes appearing within the chain links. Though the organization existed first in England, the first United States chapter of the fraternal order was established when three boat builders, a comedian and a vocalist, who deemed themselves the “Odd Fellows,” founded the first lodge in New York City in 1806. Early lodge membership was comprised mainly of prominent citizens and businessmen and quickly grew to a membership of over 200,000 by the early 1860s.  If you have reason to believe that your ancestor was a member of the Odd Fellow, or its female counterpart the Rebekahs, the membership records can be requested through the appropriate Jurisdiction governing the lodge they applied for membership through or as an associate member through a subsequent lodge they resided near.

Gravestone, located in San Francisco National  Cemetery in the Presidio engraved with the Independent Order of the Odd Fellows symbol.  Photograph by Wikimedia Commons user Tobias Kleinlercher.

The symbols found in cemeteries are not always engraved on the gravestone, but sometimes are found as metal markers on stakes driven into the ground beside or in front of the larger stone.  This is common with organizations, such as the National Society of the Daughters of the American Revolution (DAR), a lineage-based membership organization for women who can prove direct descendancy from an ancestor who provided support to the cause during America’s fight for freedom from British rule, serving dually as a women’s service organization.  The DAR insignia can be engraved into the headstone, but again is often displayed as a metal adornment, which consists of a thirteen-spoke spinning wheel with a distaff and stars representing the thirteen original states. The Grand Army of the Republic (GAR) is another organization that is often found as a metal adornment on graves.  The GAR was the preeminent veterans’ organization, established post-Civil War for Union veterans and was based on fraternity, charity and loyalty.  At its peak, the organization consisted of over 400,000 members. The GAR is most noted for spearheading the annual observance of May 30th as Decoration Day, now known as Memorial Day, where they established the ritual of adorning veteran gravesites with flowers in honor of their sacrifices.  The 5-point star symbol representing the GAR is cast in metal, including the Civil War years 1861-1865, and is normally positioned near the gravestone.

Image Left:  Hannah family gravestone, located in Glenwood Cemetery in Washington, D.C.,adorned with DAR insignia marker.  Photograph by Wikimedia Commons user Tim1965.  Image Right:  Grand Army of the Republic marker on [unnamed] veteran’s stone in Portland Street Cemetery, South Berwick, Maine.  Photograph by Wikimedia Commons user The27thmaine

There are a multitude of symbols that can be found engraved on the gravestones of our ancestors and identifying their sometimes not-so-obvious meanings can lead to a wealth of genealogical records. From objectives representative of the deceased character, to their involvement in fraternal organizations or the military, this handy chart provides some great examples to assist in identifying additional tombstone symbols and their meanings

You can also learn more about the history and evolution of headstones:

Give Me More Tombstones


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Sources….Duh!!

Lynne Adele, Bruce Lee Webb, As Above, So Below:  Art of the American Fraternal Society, 1850-1930 (Austin:  University of Texas Press, 2015).

Wilson Center DigiLab https://digilab.libs.uga.edu/ : accessed 3 December 2020), “Gravestones and Symbolism.”

Monument Lettering Center (https://www.monumentletteringcenter.com/ : accessed 3 December 2020), “A History of Monument Lettering and Design”

Campbell County Kentucky Gen Web (http://www.usgenwebsites.org/KYCampbell/ : accessed  3 December 2020), “Headstone Abbreviations and Symbols.”

Houston Chronicle (https://www.houstonchronicle.com/ : accessed 3 December 2020), “Why are old gravestones shaped like tree trunks?.”

Southern Graves (http://www.southerngraves.net/ : accessed 3 December 2020), “Woodmen of the World Memorials.”

Ohio Link (http://ead.ohiolink.edu/ : accessed 3 December 2020), “Finding aid for the Supreme Camp of the American Woodmen Photographs.” 

Notable Kentucky African Americans Database (https://nkaa.uky.edu/ : accessed 3 December 2020), “American Woodmen, Kentucky.” 

Woodmen LIfe (https://www.woodmenlife.org/ : accessed 3 December 2020), “History.”

Wikimedia Commons, database with images (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Murphy-woodmen-grave-old-gray-tn1.jpg : 2 December 2020), 2010 photo of “Murphy-woodmen-grave-old-gray-tn1.jpg;” photograph by Brian Stansberry.

Wikimedia Commons, database with images (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/wiki/File:Free_Mason_Stone.JPG : 2 December 2020), 2016 photo of “Free Mason Stone.JPG.jpg;” photograph by Jp16103.

Wikimedia Commons, database with images (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Gravestone_with_symbol_of_the_Freemasonry_”Independent_Order_of_Odd_Fellows”(“FLT”)_at_San_Francisco_National_Cemetery_in_the_Presidio_(TK).JPG : 2 December 2020), 2016 photo of “Gravestone with symbol of the Freemasonry "Independent Order of Odd Fellows" ("FLT") at San Francisco National Cemetery in the Presidio (TK).JPG;” [cropped from original] photograph by Tobias Kleinlercher.

Wikimedia Commons, database with images (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Hannay_Memorial_with_DAR_hanging_logo_-_Glenwood_Cemetery_-_2014-09-14.jpg : 2 December 2020), 2016 photo of “Hannay Memorial with DAR hanging logo - Glenwood Cemetery - 2014-09-14.jpg;” [cropped from original] photograph by Tim1965.

Wikimedia Commons, database with images (https://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:Grand_Army_of_the_Republic_marker,_on_veteran%27s_stone_in_Portland_Street_Cemetery,_South_Berwick,_Maine.jpg : 2 December 2020), 2016 photo of “Grand Army of the Republic marker, on veteran's stone in Portland Street Cemetery, South Berwick, Maine.jpg;” photograph by The27thmaine.

Northern Masonic Jurisdiction Scottish Rite (https://scottishritenmj.org/ : accessed 2 December 2020), “The Origins of the Square and Compasses.” 

Funeral Home Help Center (https://www.funeralhelpcenter.com/ : accessed 2 December 2020), “Cemetery Headstone Symbols: Three Chain Links.“

Lynn Young, Daughters of the American Revolution (https://dar.org :  accessed 3 December 2020), “Celebrate 125! Monday: The DAR Insignia.”

LIbrary of Congress (https://www.loc.gov/ : accessed  3 December 2020), “The Grand Army of the Republic and Kindred Societies.”


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