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As Lovely As a Tree

TALKING TO MYSELF 27 May 2014  Nat Lee had been dead for a good long while, and laid to rest between his first two wives under a huge stone monument sculpted to look like the trunk of a tree.  I don’t know what the symbolism of the monument was intended to be.  But to me it is a reminder that when you start at the crossroads of the world, you can go anywhere. -- from You Can Go Anywhere

Nat Lee’s tree trunk of a tombstone, towering in the New Columbus/Fairview Cemetery, fascinated me as a child. I knew little about Nat Lee, an iconic figure, I later would learn, in the history of the Owen County crossroads where I grew up. Yet, I could lead anyone to his grave, and for years, I puzzled over the odd marker’s symbolic meaning. I thought it was one–of-kind. When I started paying attention, however, I began to notice similar tombstones in other rural cemeteries that date to the 19th Century. Last year, my husband photographed two especially elaborate examples in another Owen County cemetery where his paternal grandparents are buried. When we ran across the photo again last week, I asked him to do some research into the history and meaning of these mysterious tree-like sculptures, and write a report for me. Since he usually does what I tell him to do :-) he obliged. Thank you Ernie for enlightening us!

From Ernie: "Any visit to cemeteries in Kentucky and the Midwest will often present intriguing tombstones shaped like tree trunks.  The cemetery of Georgia’s childhood at New Columbus has one such monument.  Other local cemeteries (Mt. Minish at Gratz – pictured -- and at Owenton to name two) have examples of  these.  Always the subject of conversations between visitors, what is their meaning and origin?

Some, like the one at New Columbus, were made available to life insurance policy holders, first as a full benefit, and later for an additional cost.  Modern Woodmen of America, and later Woodmen of the World, sold these policies. Between 1890 and 1900 a tombstone for the insured was provided at no cost.  A good read about this can be found at http://agraveinterest.blogspot.com/2011/06/woodmen-of-world-and-tree-stone-grave.html.   The Fraternal benefit organization was by intent open to people of all faiths, or of no faith.

However, as the article points out, these tree trunk stones also could be mail ordered from both Sears Roebuck and Montgomery Ward.  More study of the  two pictured at the cemetery in Gratz is needed, but the year-old photo of two sides does not show any attribution to the Woodmen which probably means these two were purchased from Sears or Ward's.

Their use may have more or less stopped about 1920, but the interest they create continues today.  If, as some suggest, the meaning of the stone was to recognize the contribution of those who strived in life to meet the needs of their families, they succeed each time visitors to the cemetery contemplate the person who lies beneath them.

The Mt. Minish photo was taken in May of 2013."

©Georgia Green Stamper