Club, Society, & Fraternity Gravestone Symbols: Part 1
You’ve probably seen club, society, and fraternity symbols at the cemetery. They are on gravestones, flag holders, and statues. Some are so common that you may know what they mean at first glance. Others may leave you scratching your head in wonder.
There are clubs, societies, and fraternities for just about everything you can imagine – from the Ancient Order of the Pyramids to the Fraternal Order of Real Bearded Santas!
Your trips to the cemetery will be far more interesting when you know some of the basic symbols. And you just may figure out what your own ancestors believed or supported if they have one of these emblems on their gravestones.
This is the first post of a three-part blog series to explore the following symbols of clubs, societies, and fraternities at the cemetery.
- American Legion
- Benevolent Protective Order of Elks
- Boy Scouts/Girl Scouts
- Order of the Eastern Star
- Fraternal Order of the Eagles
- Independent Order of Odd Fellows
- Knights of Columbus
- Knights of Pythias
- Knights of the Maccabees
- Loyal Order of the Moose
- Salvation Army
- Woodmen of the World
We’ll start off with the first five . . . American Legion, Elks, Scouts, Eastern Star, and Freemasons.
Club, Society, and Fraternity Gravestone Symbol #1: American Legion
The most common club, society, or fraternity gravestone marker you are likely to see in a US cemetery is one placed by the American Legion. It is one of the most influential non-profit organizations in the country.
The American Legion was founded in Paris, France in March of 1919 by 1000 members of the American Expeditionary Forces. By September of the same year, the American Legion was sanctioned by the US government.
American Legion Objectives
- posting grave markers for every US Veteran
- service at Veterans hospitals and clinics
- influencing new laws for Veterans, such as the Servicemen’s Readjustment Act of 1944 (G.I. Bill)
- promoting support for the Veterans Health Administration
- encouraging patriotism, peace, and goodwill
American Legion Fraternity Symbols
- Rays of the Sun – dispelling violence and evil
- Wreath – in loving memory of brave comrades who gave their lives that liberty might endure
- Star – victory, honor, glory, constancy
- Outer large ring – rehabilitation of sick and disabled buddies
- Inner large ring – the welfare of children
- Outer small ring – loyalty and patriotism
- Inner small ring – service to nation, states, and communities
American Legion Branches
- American Legion Auxilary – The World’s Largest Women’s Patriotic Service Organization
- Sons of the American Legion – male descendants of US Veterans honoring their ancestor’s service and sacrifice
- Legion Riders – fundraising for children’s hospitals, schools, veterans homes, severely wounded service members, and scholarships
Club, Society, and Fraternity Gravestone Symbol #2: Benevolent Protective Order of Elks
Since 1868, millions of Americans have joined the Benevolent Protective Order of the Elks, more commonly called The Elks Club. There are currently more than 2,100 Elks lodges across the nation. Initially, a male-only fraternity, the Order of the Elks voted in 1995 to admit women.
Elks grave markers are easy to recognize at the cemetery. The fraternity symbols include an elk’s head at the center, the initials BPOE, the words “cervus alces” (Latin referring to the genus and species for the American Elk), and a clock with Roman numerals. The hands of the clock are always frozen at 11 o’clock.
The Eleventh Hour
At any Elks gathering, the following toast is always read at 11 o’clock in remembrance of Elks who have passed away.
“You have heard the tolling of eleven strokes. This is to remind us that with Elks the hour of eleven has a tender significance. Wherever Elks may roam, whatever their lot in life may be, when this hour falls upon the dial of night, the great heart of Elkdom swells and throbs. It is the golden hour of recollection, the homecoming of those who wander, the mystic roll call of those who will come no more. Living or dead, Elks are never forgotten, never forsaken. Morning and noon may pass them by, the light of day sink heedlessly in the West, but ere the shadows of midnight shall fall, the chimes of memory will be pealing forth the friendly message, “To Our Absent Members.”
Flag Day and The Elks
Flag Day, celebrated on June 14th, was first observed by the Elks starting in 1907. Flags were displayed on graves and throughout communities to commemorate a resolution made by the Second Continental Congress to adopt the US flag on June 14, 1777.
President Woodrow Wilson liked the Elk’s idea, and congress made Flag Day an official US observance in 1916.
Motto: Elks Care and Elks Share
The Elks Club objectives include
- Following the principles of charity, justice, brotherly love, and fidelity
- Promoting faith in God
- Providing service to the community and fellow Elks
- Encouraging patriotism
The Elks Club sprung up from some very unlikely beginnings. The organization was founded in 1868 in New York City by 15 actors and theater crew under the name the Jolly Corks. It was a drinking club, formed to circumvent a state law that closed saloons on Sundays.
As the fraternity expanded, members decided to change their name from the Jolly Corks to The Benevolent Protective Order of the Elks to avoid attracting the attention of police.
Why “Elks”? Well, that depends on who you ask. Some say the elk was chosen as a mascot because it lives in herds, is a distinctively American animal, and is strong in defense of its own.
Others say it was because some members of the Jolly Corks admired a mounted elk’s head they saw at P. T. Barnum’s museum. Never mind that it was really a moose head – they had been drinking, right?
Once an Elk, Always an Elk
But from those unlikely beginnings, sprang a very influential organization. The Order of the Elks spends more than 80 million dollars per year to promote educational, benevolent, and patriotic community programs. Some of their beneficiaries have included:
- cemetery plots for Elks members, always with a statue of an elk
- special needs children
- athletic teams
- a national basketball free-throw contest
- physical and occupational therapy for Veterans
- drug awareness educational programs
- patriotic presentations and parades
Elks Lodge Tumulus
The bond that Elks build with their fellow Elks is so strong that they often choose to be buried in a common burial ground, rather than in a traditional family plot. Lodge-owned cemetery plots are called Elks Rests and there are about 70 of them throughout the United States.
In 1911, a New Orleans Elks Lodge wanted to construct a special memorial for its members at Greenwood Cemetery called a tumulus. It was a burial chamber covered in earth, resembling a hill or Indian burial mound.
The cost was to be $10,000 ($273,000 in current values), so the Elks lodge needed some elaborate fund-raisers. They decided on a big-top circus to be held during Mardi Gras.
Some Elks members went abroad to learn to handle circus animals such as elephants and camels. In addition to the circus, the Elks held a parade and even had a petting zoo with baby elks.
The money was raised and the Elks Tumulus still stands – with an Elk statue on top – in New Orleans’ Greenwood Cemetery.
Club, Society, and Fraternity Gravestone Symbol #3: Scouts
The Boy Scout of America has more than 2.3 million participants and 1 million leaders, making it one of the largest youth organizations in the world.
Boy Scout History
In 1909, W.D. Boyce, a publisher from Chicago visited London, where he became lost on a fog-covered avenue. An unknown young man with a lantern guided him to his destination. Boyce offered him a tip for his service, but the boy declined, explaining that he was merely doing his “daily good turn” a Boy Scout.
Boyce was so impressed that he arranged a meeting with British Scout founder, Baden-Powell. Then upon returning to the United States, Boyce founded the Boy Scouts of America in 1910.
Traditional Scouting Principles
Scout Motto – Be prepared
Scout Oath – On my honor, I will do my best
To do my duty to God and my country and to obey the Scout Law;
To help other people at all times;
To keep myself physically strong, mentally awake and morally straight.
Scout Law – A Scout is:
- and Reverent
Scout Slogan – Do a Good Turn Daily!
Boy Scout Fleur-de-Lis Symbol
If you see a fleur-de-lis symbol inscribed on a flag holder, marker, or headstone at the cemetery the deceased was probably a Boy Scout.
The fleur-de-lis symbol was commonly used as a symbol for directional north on maps. Hence, it was adopted by the Boy Scouts to symbolize showing others the way by doing his duty and helping others.
The three plumes on the fleur-de-lis came to represent Service to Others, Duty to God, and Obedience to the Scout Law.
Famous Eagle Scouts
Scouting’s highest rank is Eagle Scout, an honor earned by demonstrating service and leadership, earning 21 merit badges, and by keeping the Scout Oath and Law – all by the age of 18. Below are some famous men who have earned the rank of Eagle Scout.
- Neil Armstrong – astronaut and first person to walk on the moon
- Steven Spielberg – film producer, director, and screenwriter
- William C. DeVries, MD – transplanted first artificial heart
- Philo Farnsworth – inventor of the television
- JW Marriott, Jr – President of Marriott Corporation and hotel chain
Eagle Scout Projects
The capstone for an Eagle Scout is an Eagle Scout project – a service project that involves leading a group to benefit society.
Documenting cemeteries with the BillionGraves app is a popular Eagle Scout project.
In June of 2019, Ethan Hansen led a group of 64 people in photographing the Nashville National Cemetery. In just 4 hours, the group photographed more than 31,000 gravestones! Once the names and dates were transcribed – often with more than one on a gravestone – there were a total of 52,460 records!
Girl Scout symbols are less common than Boy Scout symbols at the cemetery, but they do make a showing.
The trefoil shape represents the threefold Girl Scout Promise.
Girl Scout Promise: On my honor, I will try to serve God and my country, to help people at all times, and to live by the Girl Scout Law.
Girl Scout Law
I will do my best to be
honest and fair,
friendly and helpful,
considerate and caring,
courageous and strong, and
responsible for what I say and do,
respect myself and others,
use resources wisely,
make the world a better place, and
be a sister to every Girl Scout.
Within the trefoil are an eagle and a shield, signifying that Girl Scouts stand ready to serve their country.
Girl Scout Symbols
- eagle facing right – strength and victory
- shield – self-reliance
- olive branch in eagle’s right talon – peace
- shaft of arrows in eagle’s left talon – might
While the Boy Scouts were founded by Robert Baden Powell, his sister Agnes Baden-Powell started the Girl Guides, a parallel organization for girls. The Girl Guides later became known as the Girl Scouts.
The Baden-Powell family gravestone above features both the Boy Scout fleur-de-lis and the Girl Scout trefoil.
Club, Society, and Fraternity Gravestone Symbol #5: Freemasons
Freemasons, with more than 6 million members worldwide, are the largest and most widely recognized fraternity. Members are commonly referred to as Masons and leaders become Master Masons.
As an occupation, a mason is one who uses bricks, concrete blocks, or natural stones to build structures. During the Dark Ages, most men were serfs to a king so their ability to travel was very limited. But men who were masons were free to move about so that they could work on construction projects in various locations. Thus they came to be known as freemasons.
These freemasons were accomplished tradesmen, taking as long as 10 years to fulfill their apprenticeship and receive a degree. So they carefully guarded the secrets of geometry that they had learned as a part of their trade. Freemasons even identified one another with secret symbols and handshakes to be sure their coworkers were qualified.
Many of the beliefs and symbols of the Freemason fraternity are said to have been preserved from ancient times by the masons who worked on Solomon’s temple.
The most widely recognized symbol of Freemasonry is the square and compass with the letter G at the center.
The letter G stands for both God and geometry. A belief in God is the main requirement for Freemasonry membership. And geometry is said to help unravel the wonders and mysteries of nature and the universe.
The square is a reminder to keep actions square and true with God and all mankind. It represents fairness, stability, balance, and having a solid foundation.
The compass then deals more with the spiritual realm and the square with the earthly realm. Together, they represent both earthly and spiritual responsibilities. To the Masons the symbol is a reminder to do well by all mankind on earth and to keep an eternal perspective in preparation for eternity with God.
Since compasses are used to draw circles it is symbolic of infinite unending boundaries and spiritual eternity.
Handshakes are among the symbolic gestures used in Freemasonry that are said to have been used anciently in Solomon’s temple. They are used as a means of recognition among fellow-Masons, as well as reminders of virtues to be practiced.
This gravestone arch above has both a handshake and the compass and square symbols on it.
Masonic Fraternity Gravestone Symbols
- Sun: knowledge and light
- G: represents God and geometry
- G on plumb line: a plumb line is a builder’s tool, a cord with a weight on the end of it, used to define a true vertical line; symbolic of staying true to God
- Star: light to guide the Mason’s path, like the star that appeared to guide the wise men of the East to the place of the Savior’s nativity
- Architect’s tools: Masons consider God to be the architect of the Universe.
- Acacia branch: Due to its evergreen nature and the durability of the wood, the acacia is a reminder of immortality and everlasting life. Acacia branches were placed on graves anciently by both Egyptians and Hebrews.
The symbols on this gravestone signify that the deceased man was a tailor, a writer, and a Mason.
God is considered to be the architect of the universe. The Masons strive to become architects as well, conscientiously using the tools God has given them to create the best foundation for a good life for themselves and others.
This gravestone is covered with the fraternity symbols of Freemasonry. The eyes near the top of the gravestone and in the center of the triangle represent the all-seeing eye of God. It is a reminder that humanity’s thoughts and deeds are always observed by God.
The letters ITNOTGAOTU stand for In The Name Of The Great Architect Of The Universe.
Next time you are at a cemetery, keep an eye out for Masonic symbols. You are very likely to see some!
Club, Society, and Fraternity Gravestone Symbol #4: Order of the Eastern Star
The Order of the Eastern Star is an appendage organization to the Freemasons. It was founded in 1850, but not approved by the Masons until 1873. The order is based on Biblical teachings and is open to people of all beliefs.
The Order of the Eastern Star has about 500,000 members in 10,000 chapters in twenty countries. Originally open to only women, the organization now allows men who are Master Masons to join as well.
The symbol for the Eastern Star is a five-pointed star. The bottom ray of the star points downward, symbolic of the star that shone over the manger of baby Jesus.
The letters FATAL on the rays of the star stand for “Fairest Among Thousands, Altogether Lovely,” a biblical quote from the Song of Solomon.
At the center of the emblem is a pentagon with a pillar or altar. On the altar is the Book of Law, which text may vary depending on the dominant religion and beliefs of the members of the lodge. The most commonly used text is the King James Version of the Bible.
The five points of the star also represent these five Biblical women and their exemplary virtues.
- Adah – obedience to duty
- Ruth – adherence to religious principles
- Esther – loyalty
- Martha – endurance in trial
- Electa – endurance of persecution
Many older gravestones have hand-carved symbols like this one.
Now that you know the meanings of some of the symbols used by clubs, societies, and fraternities, they will “speak to you” as you walk through the cemetery, letting you know more about your ancestors and the other people buried there.
To learn about other cemetery symbols go to:
- Understanding Cemetery Symbols Part I
- Understanding Cemetery Symbols Part II
- Understanding Cemetery Crosses
- Irish Gravestone Symbols
We’re glad you are part of the “BillionGraves Club”!
Cathy Wallace and The BillionGraves Team
P.S. If you would like help planning a group project send an email to Volunteer@BillionGraves.com and we’ll be happy to assist you! Especially if you are an Eagle Scout candidate, Boy Scout, or Girl Scout -or if you belong to the American Legion, Order of the Eastern Star, Freemasons, or Elks!