Graveyard

Graveyard
Cedar Hill Cemetery, Philadelphia, PA

Friday, July 22, 2011

“Treestones”---Symbols of Life Interrupted and Woodmen of the World

My father’s favorite cemetery gravestones are those in the shape of tree stumps.  The Victorian rusticity movement celebrated nature, and many 19th century gravestones featured logs, leaves, twigs and tree stumps.  Tree stumps symbolize a life interrupted, and when they have a broken branch, it means a young life ended too soon.  But many of the “tree stones” in cemeteries are monuments erected to deceased members of Woodmen of the World (WOW).  WOW is an American fraternal benefit society, still in existence, and was founded in Omaha, Neb., by Joseph Cullen Root on June 6, 1890.  

Root, who was a member of several fraternal organizations including the Freemasons, had founded Modern Woodmen of America in Lyons, Iowa in 1883, after hearing a sermon about "pioneer woodsmen clearing away the forest to provide for their families."  Some years later, Root fell out with the Modern Woodmen of America over accusations of false beneficiary claims. He moved to Omaha, where he founded WOW to provide life insurance protection to its members, and also cemetery monuments when they died.  

Currently, WOW is a large financial services organization, providing insurance, annuities and securities for its membership of more than 2,000 lodges.  Root also believed Woodmen should volunteer in their communities, and his belief was realized dramatically in 1900 when a tidal wave devastated Galveston, Texas.  Root happened to be visiting the city and led the relief efforts.  WOW’s disaster relief efforts continue today through their partnership with the American Red Cross.
Root believed that no Woodmen should rest in an unmarked grave, and from 1890 to about 1930, deceased members could have a monument in the shape of a tree stump.  After 1930, these “tree stones” became too expensive for the fraternity and so usually only the WOW symbol was engraved on tombstones.  Root also maintained that “a Woodman never lies,” and so WOW gravestones never say “Here lies a Woodmen,” but rather, “Here RESTS a Woodman.”  

Other symbols of WOW often adorn these tree stumps, including the maul, the wedge, and the axe---all tools of the lumber trade---and ferns (for sincerity), ivy (for fidelity and faithfulness) and lilies (for purity and resurrection).  On later gravestones, the circular emblem on WOW features the Latin phrase, “Dum Tacet Clamat,” which means “Though silent, he speaks.”  This could be a reference to the idea that “the very best charity is anonymous.” It is a shame that the tree stump monuments became too expensive for WOW to continue to erect, as they are beautiful examples of art imitating nature.

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