The Rustic Movement and the Tree Stump Gravestone


BORN OCT. 8, 1814 – DIED SEPT. 14, 1891


BORN APR. 17, 1817 – DIED AUG. 24, 1903


BORN MAR. 1, 1844 – DIED NOV. 10, 1900


BORN 8. 1847 – DIED APR. 16, 1891


NOV. 14, 1841 – SEPT. 11. 1933

Tree stump tombstones were a part of the rustic movement of the mid-nineteenth century which was characterized by designs that were made to look like they were from the country. The rustic movement complemented the rural cemetery movement which began in the United States in 1831 with the opening of Mt. Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, Massachusetts. The rural cemeteries were often located on the outskirts of town and laid out as a park would be—with broad avenues and winding pathways, featuring picturesque landscaping such as ponds, abundant trees, and shrubs. The tree-stump tombstones were a funerary art contrivance mimicking the natural surroundings of the cemetery. The tree-stump tombstones were most popular for a twenty year-period from about 1885 until about 1905.

In funerary art, tombstones took on the look of tree stumps. The gravestones were purposefully designed to look like trees that had been cut and left in the cemetery to mark a grave. Most of these tree-stump tombstones were carved from limestone, which is easier to carve, though some are made from marble and even a few from granite. Often, the gravestones were carved to look like rustic furniture. Benches and chairs can be found in many cemeteries. The creativity of the carvers was boundless. Thousands of tree-stump tombstones exist in nearly as many designs.

This tree stump tombstone in the Oak Hill Cemetery in Crawfordsville, Indiana, created for the Hall Family is a great example of the unique designs that the stone carvers used to display the individual tastes and interests of the persons they memorialized with their craft.  This example has many different motifs carved into it:

The Empty Chair

In funerary symbolism, the vacant chair usually symbolizes the loss of a loved one. This motif gives the feeling that the vacant chair is just waiting for the lost member of the family, who just stepped out for a moment, to return, but it stands empty, never to be sat in again. This example is different in that the chair has the words “REST HERE” carved on the front as an invitation for those strolling by to take a seat. The chair, in this tree stump monument is a rustic design, made to look like it was from the country. Elegant and slim curved lines in furniture from the fluid Art Nouveau period gave way to bulkier to heavier forms made from pieces that came directly from the trees often with the bark still intact. Homes, cabins, and garden houses were designed in the rustic style eschewing classic designs. In decorative furniture this often took the form of chairs made from rough tree limbs curved to form arms and chair backs, chair legs made from tree roots growing upwards. In cabins, railings and the siding were made from un-hewn logs with the bark still in place.

The Shock of Wheat

Carved on the side of the monument is a great shock of wheat. Wheat’s origins are unknown but is the basis of basic food and a staple in many cultures. Because of wheat’s exalted position as a mainstay foodstuff, it is viewed as a gift from Heaven. Wheat also symbolizes immortality and resurrection.  But, like many symbols found on gravestones, they can have more than one meaning.  For instance, because wheat is the main ingredient of bread, the sheaf of wheat can represent the Body of Christ.  Wheat can also represent a long life, usually more than three score and ten, or seventy years.

The Calla Lily

The calla lily is a stunner with its long slender stem, brilliant white flowers, and broad leaves seen on this gravestone growing from a pot.  Though it is called a lily it is not in the flower family liliacea.  The South African native is a cousin to the jack-in-the pulpit and is in the family of araceae. In Africaans the calla lily is called the Varkoor, or pig’s ear, because that is what they believed it resembled. The calla lily was imported out of South Africa in the later part of the nineteenth and early twentieth century.  It almost immediately became associated with Easter and is sometimes referred to as an Easter lily. The calla lily represents majestic beauty and purity and is often used on gravestones to symbolize marriage.  In some cases, the calla lily can also represent the resurrection.

The Lyre

Here, carved on the back of the tree stump monument is an example of a lyre, traditionally seen as a symbol of Apollo, the Greek god of music. In Christian symbolism it can represent harmony and Heavenly accord and song in praise of the Lord.  In funerary art, however, the lyre can also represent the end of life. It is also found on the graves of musicians.

The Tree Stump

The tree-stump gravestones themselves were imbued with symbolism. The short tree stump usually marks the grave of a person who died young—a life that had been “cut” short.  This tree-stump, however, is very tall—hardly a stump. The Halls, James and Emma, lived to be 76 and 86 respectively, both having lived long lives.

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