The Willow on Your Tombstone

So bury me underneath the willow
Under the weeping willow tree
So that he may know where I am sleeping
And perhaps he’ll weep for me

“Bury Me Under The Weeping Willow”

Willow on an old headstone. Copyright Jen Baker/Liberty Images; all rights reserved.

(Yes, that is the most cheery blog post title I’ve written in over a decade of blogging! You’re welcome, so welcome! I can see the light and joy beaming from your face now!)

Though it seems odd or even macabre to some, I enjoy visiting and even photographing what I find in old cemeteries. They’re serene and, if old enough, quite lovely; mature trees, sometimes a half-wild rosebush or two, and of course the beautiful old monuments to those who’ve gone before us. There was a real craftsmanship that went into grave markers in years past; in a single cemetery, it’s easy to see styles of individual artisans.

One motif I see very often in cemeteries and graveyards is this—that of a willow. I found the willow above in a western Pennsylvania churchyard; having seen many, I have to tell you this is probably the prettiest one I’ve seen. Though its connection to grief and weeping is pretty obvious, I couldn’t help but wonder about the history of this particular headstone motif, and did a little research.

This particular headstone carving was quite popular from the time of the American Revolution onward, and especially from the 1830s to the 1870s; this may have been due in part to the 1762 publication of The Antiquities of Athens (bound to be popular!) as well as the Founders’ drawing upon ancient Greece’s democracy when creating America’s constitutionally-limited republic. The things of ancient Greece became quite fashionable, so it makes sense that we see this trend reflected in headstones as well— Tree of Life especially since the real thing, that is to say the tree itself, was introduced to the United States in 1730 (legend has it through a cutting taken from the willow beneath which Napoleon was buried).

Moreover, since Greek mythology tells us Circe planted a cemetery with willow trees and Orpheus carried willow branches into the Underworld, the plant already had rather old connections with cemeteries and death. It must have seemed natural to plant it in graveyards and have it carved into headstones; the motif is seen in England, too. The Chinese carry willow branches on during the Qingming Festival (Tomb Sweeping) to ward off the spirits of the dead, some of whom may be evil; Japanese tradition connects willows with ghosts, which are said to appear where willows spring up.

I also learned that willow trees spring up with ease in recently-disturbed soil, and is a hardy plant—so much so that some consider it a very large weed. Weeping willow trees can and will grow just about everywhere, regardless of the soil and environment, rooting quite easily from cuttings, which families of course often lay upon the graves of recently lost loved ones. Interestingly (and somewhat disturbingly) some used to think that the spirit of the dead would escape the earth through a willow tree growing or planted upon the grave—though whether this was an escape to eternal reward or being stuck wandering the earth, I can’t say.

The trees were, as you can imagine, especially popular in Victorian-era cemeteries. In addition to their symbolizing sorrow and mourning, the trees had practical benefits; they enhanced the graveyard’s natural beauty while also providing shade and cover for the grave and those visiting it.

In addition to the general understanding that willow trees represented sorrow and tears, there are other ideas as to the meaning behind this particular iconography. Some speculate that the willow tree signified Christianity due to the tree’s already-mentioned hardiness and ability to thrive in even unhospitable environments. This one was brand new to me—I’d never heard it before, though I suppose it does make sense. On the other hand, since willows can require a fair amount of water, they sometimes represent perpetual mourning (think tears).

Thus ended my journey of discovery into the use of willow trees on tombstones. I didn’t learn anything too amazing, though the spirits rising up through the tree bit was definitely a new one (so much for being ‘at rest’, I guess). How about you? Are there graveyard motifs you’d like to learn more about?

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