Sandy Stumped by Stump Tombstones

In a talk delivered at the Page Farm and Home Museum on the campus of the University of Maine in Orono, October 2, 2002, Sandy Ives confessed that he could not explain the specific meaning of five stump tombstones found in a cemetery in North Vienna, Maine. Stump tombstones are burial monuments carved to resemble stumps. They are often very detailed replicas, including roots, bark texturing, and annular rings on the sawn-off top. In many cases the number of rings corresponds to the age of the deceased.

Sandy first became interested in the stones in 1981, when a friend mentioned their existence. He stopped by the cemetery and photographed them at that time, but the project was put on hold until his retirement in 1999. In his recent lecture, Sandy described his search for answers. As a folklorist, his first question was whether there was a local story to explain the stones, but he was not able to discover any general local legend connected with the stones. His research into the backgrounds of the people buried under the stones, local farmers named Brown and Cook, and an African-American named George W. Jackson, yielded no indication as to why they might have chosen such burial stones. Sandy nonetheless gave impressive coverage of the range of motifs found on the stones, as well as their relation to motifs customarily found on “typical” stones of the period.

The markers found in North Vienna are examples of a nation-wide late-nineteenth-century tradition which included stump tombstones and such variant forms as tree-bark covered rustic crosses. This tradition seems to be far more common in other parts of the country than it is in Maine. In his search for similar tombstones, Sandy investigated every cemetery within a fifteen-mile radius of North Vienna, with no luck. Then he spent two summers searching the rest of Maine. Altogether he visited over 350 cemetaries state-wide, but he found only 39 examples of the stump stones he was looking for, none of them as elaborate as the North Vienna stones he was interested in. What Sandy can say about the other stones he found is that they are mostly from the late 1880s and 1890s, and that they are generally small, sometimes only fifteen inches high. Most included sawn-off stump branches, and some had a dead bird or a lamb on the top of the stump, particularly on children’s tombstones. The symbolism associated with stump tombstones seems obvious, but only the stones in Vienna spell it out-those who rest beneath these tombstones were “cut down” in the midst of life.

As far as Sandy can tell, there is no link between the lumbering traditions of the state and stump tombstones; nor did the Browns and Cooks of North Vienna bring the tradition with them from their places of origin in New Hampshire. Sandy remained confident that there is an answer. If you know of similar tombstones to be found in Maine, or have a possible explanation for these tombstones, the Maine Folklife Center would love to hear from you.

– Betsy Hedler