I assure you that I’m not trying to haul out a painfully usual pun, but cemeteries can be cryptic places. As previously explored on the
pages of BLUMHOUSE, there are many, many odd symbols and strange icons inscribed in people’s tombstones. If you belong to a secret society, charity organization, oblique religion or the Illuminati, then you too can have a string of weird symbols etched into your own grave marker. This, I think, is a motivation enough to start joining as many organizations and religions as you can. I want my own tombstone to be the source of endless speculation.
You know about the Rotary and the Elks and if you read the
first installment of this article, then you also know about The Order of Owls and the Knights of Pythias. But there is so much more, dear friends. So many secretive cadres of hushed people doing goodness knows what in the shadows. Here are ten more symbols, all taken from gravestones explained to the layman.
The Order of the Eastern Star (OES)
The OES is briefly the female counterpart to the Freemasons and their origins and details are just as hushed up and oblique. We know that it was founded in 1876 and that there are at least three branches of the OES, including the Prince Hall Order (for black women) and the Prince Hall Grand Chapter. Their symbol is a point-down star, giving it a vaguely Satanic look. The star may be inscribed with a pentagon and several mysterious shapes. The shapes represent various Biblical and literary heroines including Adah, Ruth, Esther, Martha and Electra. The star may also be surrounded by the OES letters. Creepy detail, the OES motto is Fairest Amongst Ten-thousand, All Lovely. Or FATAL.
Knights of the Maccabees (KOTM)
The Knights of the Maccabees’ symbol is a globe with three tents inscribed inside housing the letters OTW. The Knights of the Maccabees was another secret financial fraternity that arose in the wake of the Civil War (which may be called the Golden Age of secret societies. The KOTM has today turned into something of an official insurance business, although the few remaining members say there are still rituals in place. The name refers to the Jewish tribe of the second century BC who famously led a revolt against the king. The letters OTW stand for Old Testament Wisdom.
Knights of Columbus (K of C)
There was once a decree from the Roman Catholic Church than its members were not allowed to become Freemasons due to the organizations secretive mysticism and competing religious symbolism. As such, some Catholics invented a version of Freemasonry that was allowable by the Catholic Church. This was the Knights of Columbus founded in 1882. The symbol of the K of C is a quartet of triangles overlaid with a shield baring a sword and an anchor. We even know the name of the guy who designed the symbol: James T. Mullen. They have remained quiet for years, but oddly in the modern age, they are becoming more popular…
The Society of Mary
Only monks, priests and other ordained Catholic clergy are allowed to join The Society of Mary. Founded in 1836 in France by a small cadre of priests, the Society elected to use Mary, Jesus’ mother as their primary religious figure. They are often called Marists and there are a few Marist churches around the country. Their symbol is a shield inscribed with the letters “AM” and is surrounded by twelve stars representing the church’s founders. Their motto is simple enough: Sub Mariae Nomine (“Under Mary’s name).
The Odd Fellows
The title “odd” doesn’t necessarily refer to its members’ peculiarity but alludes to a more archaic definition of the word that denotes uniqueness. The Odd Fellows was formed in England in the 1700s and has since split off into several sub-groups. The largest of the American groups is called the Independent Order of Odd Fellows and you can see their symbol – three chain links with the letters FLT inside – on many American tombstones. Their symbol is often topped with the Masonic all-seeing eye of God. The organization is also cryptic about their meaning and function, but they once boasted millions of members before the Civil War.
Daughters of Rebekah
The Daughters of Rebekah’s symbol is a circle encasing a crescent moon, a dove and the florid letters DR. The organization was founded as a female counterpart of the Order of Odd Fellows in 1851, although they weren’t so much a sub-group as a group of female servants to the OOF. As you might imagine, such a group has withered in popularity in recent years and their membership may actually be at zero.
The Improved Order of Red Men (IORM)
No one really knows the exact origin of the IORM, but some trace it as far back as the American Revolution. We know that there was an official decree of foundation in 1813, but the organization was quickly disbanded for drink and debauchery (these secret societies were a party!). Their symbol is a hatchet inscribed with the letters TOTE, which stands for Totem of the Eagle. The organization was devoted to maintaining the noble traditions of the American Indian tribes. Ironically, Indians were not allowed to join.
The B'nai B'rith
This organization is not so secret anymore as their anti-defamation work to combat Antisemitism has been well-reported. The organization was founded as the Independent Order of the B’nai B’rith in 1843 as a Jew-friendly counterpart to most other secret societies, which often excluded Jews from membership. Today, Jews can join the Freemasons and Odd Fellows and the like, but sadly exclusion was part of their history at one point. Their symbol is merely four decorated letters, I.O.B.B. usually seen in pyramids.
The Inverted Torch
You may have seen an inverted torch on certain gravestones. This is not the symbol of a secret society, but an ancient funerary icon whose origins are unknown. The flame represents, some think, the fire of the soul, which burns even though life has been inverted (into death). Other have said the fire burning down denotes a passage into the afterlife. This is a symbol you will not see outside of cemeteries.
I saw this on a few tombstones in Jewish cemeteries and I never knew what it meant until recently. The Cohanim hands are a pair of palms with their index fingers and thumbs touching. This is, I have learned, the symbol of the Cohanim, i.e. a group of Jewish tribes that, today, go by the last name of Cohn or Cohen or other variations thereof. The triangle of fingers is meant to focus the light of God onto a congregation during temple.