The Rustic Symbolism of Victorian-Era Treestones

Intro and photos by Michelle Sutton

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What does it all mean?

The tree collections in cemeteries and memorial parks are key contributors to the beauty, diversity, and ecological services of the urban forest. Since I was a teenager, I’ve loved wandering cemeteries and memorial parks to appreciate the mature trees, beautiful open-grown specimens, and unusual species. In New York cemeteries I’ve seen glorious open-grown cucumber magnolia (Magnolia acuminata), Kentucky coffeetree (Gymnocladus dioicus), and Katsura tree (Cercidiphyllum japonicum), to name a few.

Thanks to an article by Davey Resource Group Senior Consulting Urban Forester Jenny Gulick, I have another level of appreciation when I explore cemeteries and memorial parks—now I look for treestones and am thrilled when I find them. It’s like a reverential treasure hunt, as the “treasures” can tell such profound stories. In New York, I often will find one treestone in a cemetery—two or three if I am lucky.  Here are some highlights from Gulick’s fascinating piece on the history of treestones and how their symbolism can be interpreted. 

  • Treestones are grave markers carved in the shape of trees, or more precisely in the shapes of tree trunks, stumps, and logs. They are significant examples of folk art, and tree stones provided a ready canvas for personal messaging because so much symbolism is closely tied to nature.
  • The use of the tree motif as a grave marker arose in the 1800s during the Victorian Age and the associated Rural Cemetery Movement, which championed the idea of the cemetery as a retreat for the living.
  • The stump itself represents a life cut short or the brevity of life. A jagged and rough break marks the sudden, unexpected termination of a life. A leaning trunk or the height of the stump can indicate a child and even give hints about their age. Double tree stump tombstones often have intertwined branches or joined roots to indicate two lives that have become one.
  • Branches can be twisted and broken as well, with the number of branches associated with the number of children an individual or couple had or how many family members are buried in the plot. When a branch is cut close to the trunk, it can mean the child died before their parents. Branches set at right angles to the trunk form a cross and represent the Christian beliefs of the deceased.
  • Plants are frequently carved into treestones. Ivy on the tree trunk indicates the deceased was the head of the family. The Christmas fern and English ivy, both evergreen plants, symbolize the promise of life after death. The lily and morning glory are used to represent resurrection. The oak leaf and acorn stand for power and authority and are often seen on military graves. Mushrooms represent life emerging from decay or death. A fern carved at the base of a treestone symbolizes humility and sincerity.
  • Animals are also common motifs on treestones. A dove with a broken wing is often nestled in a branch or is shown in flight, representing the spirit descending from heaven, or carries an olive branch, depicting peace. A squirrel symbolizes planning for the future. A butterfly’s meaning is derived from the three stages of a butterfly’s life: caterpillar, chrysalis, and the butterfly—symbolizing life, death, and resurrection, respectively. A dog symbolizes loyalty.
  • Tools, chairs, buckets, swords, and a variety of other earthly items were carved into treestones to tell the story of the deceased’s vocation and interests. A less mystic or cryptic way of identifying the deceased was carving a treestone so it appeared that a scroll had been hung or nailed to the trunk, or that the bark had been peeled away to place the epitaph of those buried there.

For more, see the full article here.

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