Using Symbolism on Grave Markers in your Genealogical Research


Not content to remain at home after we had settled back into routine after our East Asian cruise, we acted upon a desire to revisit New Orleans. We had visited New Orleans in April of 2005 just months before Hurricane Katrina struck in August of that same year. April of this year seemed like a good time to recreate our road trip of 2005. We went with friends who had not visited New Orleans before so we did all the requisite to-do items like, eating beignets [donuts] at Café Du Monde, walking the French Quarter, visiting the French Market and riding the street cars on Canal and St. Charles Street.

Being accompanied by two women who wanted to see the mansions in the Garden District gave me the perfect opportunity to sign the whole group up for a free walking tour [free will donation only] to see some of the unique mansions and to see Lafayette Cemetery No. 1. Because the city of New Orleans sits near sea level most of the bodies rest in above ground tombs where they are naturally cremated over the course of a year due to the intense heat. These unique structures and the stories behind them make for an interesting tour.

I quickly spotted the tomb of a Mason due to the use of the fraternity’s unique logo. Upon turning a corner in the cemetery I came upon a Woodmen of the World grave stone. I recognized it because it was one of the earlier stones cut in the shape of a tree stump with two trunks. Seeing it brought back memories of research in Lakeview Cemetery in Sarnia when I tracked a Sarnia, Ontario member of the group who put forward a request to incorporate The Canadian Order of the Woodmen of the World. This organization’s objects were:
To unite its members in social and fraternal bonds;
To collect and distribute charitable donations;
To make with its own members contracts for insurance in sums not exceeding three thousand dollars, payable on the death of the assured;
To erect a monument over the grave of each deceased member.1

The above image of Arthur B. Telfer’s cemetery stone at Lakeview Cemetery, Sarnia, Ontario, although not as noticeable as the tree stump stones does have an engraved tree trunk image in keeping with the tradition.

So what does this have to do with your genealogical research? Adding details to your family history about the fraternal organizations to which your ancestor belonged or about the special images carved into his/her stone can add colour to your family tree or narrative. With luck you might find an application form for an ancestor who joined a fraternal organization. Perhaps he/she rose through the ranks of the organization thus giving you more to add to the story.

I have found some obituaries which listed the fraternities and organizations to which the deceased belonged. A little research on the Internet can provide some background about these organizations.

A good source of information about fraternal organizations is the article by Fraser Dunford, The Amateur Genealogist: Fraternal and Benevolent Societies, in Families, Vol. 57, No. 1, February 2018, pp. 12-16. Members of Ontario Ancestors [The Ontario Genealogical Society] have access to this issue via the Members Corner of our website. Non-members may be able to find this issue on the shelf of a library which has an Ontario Ancestors membership or which holds the library of one of our Branches.

Heritage Manitoba published A Guide to Funerary Art in Manitoba which can be downloaded as a pdf at this link.

Three other websites that could be of help in deciphering images on headstone can be found at:
Forest Home Cemetery Overview


Headstone Symbolism- Symbols on Headstones Demystified

Happy cemetery “hopping”.
Alan Campbell
Ontario Ancestors [The Ontario Genealogical Society] © 2019

1. By-laws of the Canadian Order of the Woodmen of the World (Strathroy, Ontario: Evans Brothers, Publishers, 1907), p. i., downloaded from 23 April 2019.


Leave a Reply