- Associated Press - Saturday, July 16, 2016

SUFFOLK, Va. (AP) - The tree stump stands about 10 feet tall. Ivy climbs up its sides and fern leaves fan out at its roots.

“Dum Tacet Clamat” is inscribed on a thick limb: “Though Silent, He Speaks.” The Latin words aren’t carved into wood. This tree, in downtown Suffolk’s Cedar Hill Cemetery, is stone.

Sunlight glints off a cobweb between a stone dove’s outstretched wings. The last name is spelled out in carved twigs near the base: Peter P. Spivey, who was 46 when he died in 1899.

Several tree-shaped headstones grace the older cemeteries of South Hampton Roads - relics of a time when men joined fraternal organizations and the chopped tree symbolized a life cut short by death. Once the symbolism resonated, historians say, but while the stones still impress cemetery visitors, their meaning has largely been forgotten.

“Aren’t they wonderful?” asked Sue Woodward, past director of the Suffolk-Nansemond Historical Society, standing before Spivey’s grave one recent afternoon. People often ask about the tree-shaped stones, said Kevin Sary, who provides tours of the cemetery with Suffolk Tourism. But rarely do they show much interest in the organization some of the stones represent.

Spivey was a member of the Woodmen of the World, a fraternal organization, created to provide financial security for its members, that’s responsible for many of the tree-shaped headstones out there.

Joseph Cullen Root founded Woodmen of the World in 1890 in Omaha, Neb. Initially, members were provided headstones for free as part of their insurance policies.

Root believed no Woodmen’s death should go unmarked, according to member newsletters provided by the organization. It exists today as WoodmenLife.

Headstone designs were intended to be uniform, generally 4- to 5-foot-tall tree trunks for adults and stacked logs or smaller trees for children. But local stonecutters sometimes put their own spins on the motif.

Next to Peter Spivey in Suffolk’s Cedar Hill is George A. Spivey, who was 25 when he died in 1915. His stone seems modest in comparison - a set of logs stacked five high with a large, medallion-shaped “Woodmen of the World” logo etched above his name.

Norfolk’s historic Elmwood Cemetery hosts shorterstumps set atop horizontally cut log bases, with the Woodmen logo and lilies carved into the aged stone. Some names like Edward A. King (1882-1913) are still legible, while others have been worn nearly smooth with the passage of time.

Into the 20th century, Woodmen members could purchase a $100 rider on their insurance policy that would go toward a headstone. But that, too, was eventually discontinued as prices for headstones rose and cemeteries began to steer away from above-ground markers.

“We continue to offer a ‘template’ that the family can obtain and have the Woodmen insignia engraved at the monument company,” WoodmenLife’s Virginia regional director, Terry Carroll, wrote in an email. “We also have an inlay to place in the casket of our members should they desire to have one.”

Robert Hitchings, a local historian and Norfolk native, said his grandfather was a member of Woodmen of the World - though you wouldn’t know it from his headstone.

“If we had put everything he belonged to, there’d have been no room for his name,” Hitchings said of his grandfather’s tombstone. The man, Louis Eugene Hitchings, was a Mason and a Shrinerand is buried in Norfolk’s Cedar Grove Cemetery.

Once upon a time, it was common for men to belong to fraternal organizations, Hitchings said. And when his grandfather died at age 90 in 1967, Hitchings inherited a trinket box with Woodmen of the World and other fraternal order coins inside.

Tim Bonney said his grandfather, Robert Morris Baker, a carpenter, was also a member. Bonney grew up in Portsmouth and recalls walking downtown as a child to pay his grandfather’s monthly 65-cent membership dues.

Bonney, a hobby genealogist and former board member of the now-defunct Friends of Norfolk Historic Cemeteries, said Spivey’s Cedar Hill tree stone is “the most impressive and most elaborate Woodmen of the World monument I have ever seen.”

The tree shape is not unique to the fraternal organization, hobbyists and historians say. Rather, it’s reflective of 19th- and early 20th-century burial customs.

Victorian-era symbolism leaned toward indirect references to death, said Joshua Weinstein of the Norfolk Society for Cemetery Conservation during a tour of Elmwood. Woodward said the tree is a symbol of a life cut short. Lopped-off limbs and broken branches reinforce that imagery, Bonney said.

A tall tree memorial in Elmwood features the nameof a different family member on each cut limb. The trunk’s bark is torn away at its center, which Bonney and Weinstein said represents life being pulled asunder through death.

“Tree stump headstones are the coolest thing ever,” said Casey Winningham, who has been carving headstones by hand in his home state of Indiana for about five years. But they’re not the kind of thing that people are making anymore, he said, as there are very few people in the U.S. who still carve headstones by hand.

Winningham said the tree-shaped headstones would’ve been challenging to create. Pneumatic tools used in headstone carving started appearing in the early 20th century; before that, artists would have used a hammer and chisel.

It would have been expensive and time consuming, he said, possibly taking 10 times longer than a standard tablet headstone. Winningham said it takes him about a week to carve a standard headstone by hand.

Winningham said he appreciates the level of detail in some tree stones. The most impressive ones he’s seen reside in Cincinnati and feature woodland creatures, elaborately etched bark and the names of family members carved onto climbing ivy leaves.

“The artwork is phenomenal,” he said. “It’s astonishing, considering what they had to work with.”

Winningham recently designed a variation of a tree-trunk headstone for a deceased woodsman that will be hand-carved from a 2,000-pound block of Indiana limestone.

“It’s a long process,” he said. But “it’s going to be cool.”


Information from: The Virginian-Pilot, https://pilotonline.com

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