Grave Symbolism – The Three Link Chain

Symbols are fascinating to me because they give me a glimpse into the interests of the deceased. I always wonder what made the family pick that particular symbol, and what special meaning it holds for the person buried there.

I have come across countless symbols while exploring cemeteries. They come in many designs, and can be related to the deceased’s interests, such as soccer balls, bicycles, cats, etc., or they can be related to beliefs, religions, or organizations the person belonged to.

The Three Link Chain

The headstone of William Edwards who is buried in Grand Army Of The Republic Cemetery in Snohomish, Washington.While touring cemeteries on a recent trip to Washington, I noticed one particular symbol on many headstones. The symbol looked to me like three rings joined together or a three-link chain.

I knew the links must stand for something important since so many headstones were adorned with them. At first I wasn’t sure if they were a representation of the Masons or another organization. But I did want to find out! As it turns out they may both be true.

Independent Order of Odd Fellows

I did some research and I found out that the three-link chain, sometimes with three initials, F, L, and T, signifying Friendship, Love and Truth, is the most widely encountered symbol of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. Because of this widely used symbol Odd Fellows have become known as “The Three Link Fraternity”.

The three links symbolize the chain that binds members together and the belief that communities, townships, counties and nations are strongest when joined together. In fact, the members of the Odd Fellows have been said to band together to help the poor have decent burials.

There is no doubt the members of the Odd Fellows were very proud of the work they did in their communities. It’s no wonder the three-link-chain is proudly displayed on so many headstones.

Freemasonry And The Three Links

The Masonic square and compass and Odd Fellows three link chain symbols on a headstone in Odd Fellows Cemetery in Monroe, Washington. The odd fellows are sometimes called “the poor man’s Freemasonry,” since the organization shares many of the symbols of the Freemasons.

Sometimes the chain can be seen alongside the sign of the Freemasons, the square and compass. In these instances, some believe that the three link chain is a Freemason symbol of “the eternal cable tow between brothers”.

There isn’t much evidence for this however and I think the most likely explanation for the two symbols adorning the same headstone is that the deceased was a member of both organizations.

The Chains of Slavery

While researching the meaning and history behind the three links, I ran across another interesting piece of history that I could not resist adding here.

It seems that in the southern United States many graves are marked with chains of one, two or three links. I found many explanations for the different number of links. Some suggest that the number of links represent the length of time spent in slavery, or whether the deceased died a slave. Another explanation is that the chain simply represents that the person buried there was a slave. And some have even claimed that the slaves were secret members of the Odd Fellows.

There are many varying opinions but the consensus seems to be that the chain whether it be one, two, or three links hanging from the headstone represents that the person buried there was a slave.

I find it a very interesting contrast that while the three link chain symbolizing the Odd Fellows is a symbol of pride one holds in a fraternity they joined, another type of three link chain is the kind that represents being forced into slavery.

Gravestone of an unknown person who was a slave buried in Memory Hill Cemetery in Milledgeville, Georgie.
Photo courtesy of Nancy B.
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5 Responses to Grave Symbolism – The Three Link Chain

  1. Dear Jenn

    I share your fascination on old gravestones. I am a letter cutter from over the water in the UK and I recently wrote an article for my blog on gravestone symbols, which I thought you might find interesting!
    I am passionate about our heritage and on raising awareness of the beauty and power of gravestones in our society. If you like my blog, please feel free to add it to your blog roll. (The Headstone Guide)

    I look forward to following your posts. Have you ever been to the UK? There is SO much history in our churchyards!

    With all good wishes


    • Barbara Beil says:

      I am researching an older quilt, possibly from the 1920’s. The entire quilt is covered with links of chains. I have an interest in making a quilt like it but want to know if there is some particular symbolism involed.

  2. Joy says:

    Love this site and can’t believe I am just now finding it. I am jealous that you are able to travel around visiting so many graveyards. Came across while doing a search for some symbols i saw on gravestones in a cemetery near my house. Took a walk through today on my day off becaue I LOVE OLD GRAVEYARDS! Great photos throughout. I am not done looking through all yet. :)

  3. Greg says:

    Thank you for your research
    I myself am an Oddfellow.Joined 5 years ago.What got me to join was the fact we have the only honor of changing the wreath at The Tomb of the Unknown Soldier in Washingtin DC.We do have members that are masons too.One of our validictions is we bury the dead along with visit the sick.There is also a website with both fraternities symbols on same site.Please feel free to email me with any questions


    I found your article fascinating. The headstone at my G.G. grandparents gravesites has the 3 link chain; my brother did some research and found this article. They were born in SouthCarolina in the 1800’s. this was very helpful.
    We thank you.

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