A short walk through any cemetery in New England provides the observant eye with a wealth of symbolism, whether it be everyday things like flowers, trees, or animals, or something somewhat . . . stranger. Regardless of the symbols used, they all held a deep meaning to the deceased, so much so that they (or their families) felt they needed to declare it for all eternity by carving it in stone.
If you have ever wondered what these symbols mean, you have come to the right place. This article is the first in a series in which I will attempt to explain many of the symbols found in New England cemeteries.
First up – fraternal orders:
Our first symbol of interest looks small and simple, with three links of chain and the letters F, L and T inside these links. However its origins will take us back almost three hundred years, and to an island nation on the other side of the Atlantic ocean: England. Sometime in 18th century England, a fraternal organization took root, and at its zenith was the largest privatized brotherhood in the world, even surpassing the infamous Freemasons. They called themselves “The Independent Order Of Odd Fellows”.
The order expanded to the United States in 1819 when Mr. Thomas Wildey placed an advertisement in a Baltimore paper, asking any other Odd Fellow members to meet him at a hotel. Shortly after that gathering, Mr. Wildey and the others who attended the meeting became the catalyst for the establishment of an Independent Order Of Odd Fellows in the United States. Within a short time, lodges were chartered in many of our country’s early cities, and today there are over 22,000 lodges world wide, an impressive number.
The fraternity is at its core an altruistic organization, helping not only other members in times of need, but also the communities around the world that lodges call home. Members of this brotherhood give not only money, but also their time to many worthy causes.
The symbol found on the gravestones of Odd Fellows stands for three of the organization’s principles: Faith, Love, and Truth, bound by chain links, to symbolize unity.
Our next symbol belongs to the “Freemasons”. The exact origins of the Free Masons has been a subject of debate for a long time. Some historians and Masons alike speculate that the order actually began in the days of King Solomon, citing that it was Freemasons who built the Great Temple in Jerusalem. Whether or not this is fact, I cannot say, but the Masons have adopted a strict code of secrecy similar to that of the Phoenician builders of Solomon’s temple.
Officially, the first record of a Masonic Grand Lodge dates back to the year 1717, in England. Shortly thereafter, lodges in Scotland and Ireland joined, and the order grew in numbers. Unfortunately, as the membership grew and rumors of secret rituals spread, critics raised speculations about the order’s real modus operandi. Rumors persist that the Masons secretly plot behind closed doors, meddling in politics and plotting to take over the world. But, in truth there, is no real evidence to substantiate any of these claims.
What is known about the Freemasons is that members are required to have a belief in a “Supreme Being”, or as the deity is referred to during Masonic ritual, “The Great Architect”. To Freemasons, this entity unveiled the secret of creation to a man, which is the key to life that has been guarded through the ages. In modern times, this secret is known only to the highest ranking members of the Freemasons, as is the meaning behind the Mason symbol itself. For those of us on the outside looking in, there is no available definitive meaning, only a general theory: the compass and square act as a symbolic projection of Masonic principles, such as restraining ones passions and desires within ethical boundaries, and staying within the square of virtue in thought, spirit and action.