Salem mourns a century-old oak tree and will hold a weekend memorial service

The Salem Oak, New Jersey’s tallest white oak estimated to be 565 years old, died June 6 from “stem failure.” She was surrounded by her offspring and the city that cherished her.

Upon hearing the news of his passing, a former Salem County resident left New York to pay his respects. Another came from Michigan.

Even two weeks after the tree died – the toppled oak tree in a Salem cemetery – the community continues to mourn the loss of the monument. Many need an outlet for their grief.

Saturday afternoon, the Religious Society of Friends of Salem will provide just that.

The Friends of Salem, owners of the West Broadway property where the tree stood, invited the public to the group’s meeting house for a traditional Quaker memorial service.

“We realize that many people in the community, current and past residents of Salem, had a very strong connection to the tree,” said Jessica Waddington, a member of the Salem Oak subcommittee of the Friends of Salem meeting.

The historical tree is anchored in the center of local history. Salem legend holds that the tree provided shade for John Fenwick, an English Quaker and founder of the town, as he signed a treaty with the native of Leni-Lenape in 1675.

The tree is named after the restaurant across from the Salem High School cemetery and newspaper.

Since the oak’s death, the Friends of Salem have collected small parts of the tree, including seedlings and leaves, which they have distributed to visitors.

Early plans called for the tree to be removed by Saturday. But two tornadoes that swept through South Jersey earlier this month tied down local arborists, many of whom are still working to clean up damage from the storm.

The Friends of Salem are still accepting offers from these companies to move the remains of the oak tree from the cemetery. Once the tree is moved, the wood will be assessed to assess the usefulness of the bark.

Several groups have expressed interest in the wood from the tree – for academic and sentimental purposes. Colleges and universities have asked to study the tree.

Many community members have asked Friends for pieces of oak. Some are carpenters. Others just want a keepsake.

“People want every little bit of this,” said Salem Friends member Preston Carpenter.

Waddington said the tree, as is, is in a “sensitive position”.

She worries about weather damage and possible damage from onlookers looking for a piece of the tree. She said there had been two reports of trespassing, one a few days after the tree fell and another last weekend.

Salem’s friends are now trying to maintain a 24-hour guard of the tree. Waddington said most lookouts are friends or “friends of friends”. They ensure that no one enters the burial site, where the branches of the tree support it precariously.

“People want a piece. People want to take pictures. People just want to get into it,” she said. “But, unfortunately, it’s not in a place where it should be.”

The memorial service will be held at the Salem Friends Meeting House, a few blocks from the tree.

The service will begin around 2 p.m. with the Friend’s explanation of a traditional Quaker service and a brief history of the tree. Those present will then be able to share memories of the beloved oak tree.

“It’s very informal…but it also tends to be more personal than most memorial services,” Waddington said.

The Salem Oak is survived by several descendants, including the 100-year-old oak tree – planted in another Salem cemetery – and another located along the George Washington Memorial Parkway en route to Mount Vernon.

In lieu of flowers, Friends are asking that financial donations, to help with the cost of tree removal, be payable to the Friends of Salem Meeting.