Headstone Symbols -
Understanding Cemetary Symbolism

The research involved in genealogy eventually leads to cemetery visits and tombstone reading. What was once considered a morbid pastime has become a normal part of the investigative process for the family history researcher. Cemeteries tell us so much about our ancestors. Much information can be gleaned from the words carved on the headstones. We can learn a great deal from the placement of a grave within the cemetery itself concerning family relationships.

As more and more researchers venture into cemeteries to seek out ancestral graves, more and more questions arise about the meanings of the artwork and symbols found on the tombstones. The researcher wants to know what a symbol might mean and if the meaning of the symbol might provide more clues about this ancestor and his life, his ideals, his associations, and so on. Can reading and understanding these symbols help us gauge and unravel some quintessential element of this ancestor's life?

The task of interpreting the symbols on a tombstone is a daunting one. Though most symbols that you will see engraved on a stone DO have a textbook meaning, it is quite possible that the particular item you find engraved on the tombstone was put there simply because someone liked the look of it. Therefore, it will have no meaning beyond the taste of the deceased (if the request of what was to be on his stone was made by him), or the taste of the mourners left behind to choose the stone's appearance. The point is, many people who choose grave motifs have no idea that the ornamentation they select has meaning.. What they know is that they like the design and feel it is just somehow "right".

While reviewing the symbols below, be aware that the meanings can change over time and their meanings often depends upon the area in which they are located. You will find a few of the more common headstone symbols below...

OBJECTS

   

Anchor/Ships: Hope or seafaring profession
Early Christians used the anchor as a disguised cross, and as a marker to guide the way to secret meeting places. A Christian symbol of hope, it is found as funerary symbolism in the art of the catacombs. Often set amongst rocks. It can also be an occupational symbol in sea-faring areas or the attribute of Saint Nicholas, patron saint of seamen, symbolized hope and steadfastness. An anchor with a broken chain stands for the cessation of life.

Angel: Flying Rebirth; resurrection
The agent of God, often pointing towards heaven; guardians of the dead, symbolizing spirituality. Angels are shown in all types of poses with different symbolism. Two angels can be named, and are identified by the objects they carry: Michael, who bears a sword and Gabriel, who is depicted with a horn.

Angel, Trumpeting: Resurrection

Angel, Weeping: Grief & mourning

Arches: Victory in death

Arrow: Mortality

Book: Representation of a holy book; or a scholar
Books remind us that tombstones are documents, bearing vital statistics and epitaphs concerning the deceased. Books may be open, possibly to signify that the stone is a kind of biography, or closed in recognition of the fact that the story of the dead is over. The book on a tombstone may be a Bible or other Spriritual tome. This identification can be clinched by the presence of a citation (e.g. John 19:14) or an actual line of scripture. Arabic characters identify the book as the Koran. Faith, learning to read and write, a scholar. A prayer, or knowledge or even memory (where it has a dog-eared page). It may represent the Book of Life. A popular form is the book as a double page spread.

Broken Column: Loss of head of family

Broken Ring: Family circle severed

Bugles: Resurrection and the military

Candle: Soul; light of the world
Candles stand for the spirit or the soul. Mourners often leave candles on the grave to show that prayers have been said for the deceased.

Chains: Binding the soul to the body
Medieval thinkers sometimes held that a golden chain bound the soul to the body. Broken links on a headstone can mean the severance and subsequent release of the spirit from the body. Chains are also the insignia of the International Order of Odd Fellows, so called because of their dedication to giving the poor decent burials. This association can be clinched by the observation of the letters IOOF or FLT (Friendship, Love, Truth) either inside or near the chain.

Cherub: Angelic

Coffin: Father time, picks/shovels

Columns and Doors: Heavenly entrance

Cross: Emblem of faith
Christianity. Usually mounted on three steps, signifying 'faith, hope and charity'. The most potent symbol of the Christian faith, the cross has been used for religious and ornamental purposes since time immemorial. To the Aztecs it symbolized the god of rain, the Scandinavians set them up as boundary markers, and two buns marked with a cross were found at the ancient Egyptian site of Herculaneum.

Crown: Glory of life after death

Cup or Chalice: The sacraments
The chalice often appears in association with a white circle representing the consecrated Eucharist. The two items combine to signify the Catholic rite of Holy Communion. The headstones of priests often bear these objects.

Darts: Mortality

Drapes/Curtains: Mourning; mortality
In the days when the body lay in state in the parlor, it was the custom to cover everything in black. Draperies, with their fancy frills and tassels, are more elaborate than a simple shroud. They allow the expression of mourning to linger long after the body has been taken out the front door and the accoutrements have been stowed for the next death in the family. Curtains can also set the stage. Parted, they reveal a telling excerpt. What is important in such displays is the main actor or central object of the stone.

Flame or Light: Life; resurrection

Grim Reaper: Death personified

Harp: Praise to the maker

Horns: The resurrection

Hourglass: Swiftness of time

Hourglass with Wings of Time: Time flying; short life

Imps: Mortality

Keys: Spiritual knowledge
Spiritual knowledge or, if held in the hands of an angel or saint, the means to enter heaven.

Knot (Celtic): Eternity

Labyrinth: The passage of Life

Pall: Mortality

Pentagram: Pagan symbol of protection; elemental power ; Wicca/witchcraft
Also, the 4 elements plus spitit.
Upright: Spirit rises from matter; used by Wiccans and most witches.
Reversed: Spirit descends into matter; also Women's Eastern Star Masonic symbol.

Pick: Death; mortality

Portals: Passageway to eternal journey

Rod or Staff: Comfort for the bereaved

Scroll: Life; honor
A symbol of life and time. Both ends rolled up indicates a life that is unfolding like a scroll of uncertain length and the past and future hidden. Often held by a hand representing life being recorded by angels. Can also suggest honor and commemoration.

Scythe: Death; the divine harvest

Seashell: Resurrection; life everlasting; life's pilgrimage
The use of shell in burials is pre-Christian in practice and pre-dates even Egyptian burial practices. Shell is symbolic of fertility, resurrection and pilgrimage. Shells, coins and small stones are the traditional objects left at grave sites. There are several meanings given to this act. It may be a symbolic referral to the ancient custom of burying the dead under a cairn of rocks to protect the body from scavenging animals, or a reminder that the individual is not forgotten.
Scallop - symbol of the Crusades, pilgrim, pilgrim's journey, resurrection, life everlasting, connotes one's life journey. A symbol of birth and resurrection, a traditional symbol of the Puritans.

Shells: Pilgrimage of life

Spade: Mortality; death

Star: Spirit
Stars stand for the spirit, piercing the darkness as an expression of their triumph against the overwhelming odds of oblivion. (See Pentagram).

Star of David: Jewish religious symbol
Six-pointed star or Star of David, also known as Magen David (Hebrew for shield of David), it is typically used as a symbol of Judaism. The star is actually made of two triangles. It signifies divine protection as epitomized by the alchemistic signs for fire and water, which are an upward and downward apexed triangle. The star is a very ancient symbol, used by several Asia Minor cultures, as well as some Greek city-states. For Judaism, the Star of David came into widespread use at the beginning of the 20th century. Theodore Hertzel, a Jewish activist, adopted the symbol in his writings promoting Palestine as a Jewish homeland.

Stars & Stripes Around Eagle: Eternal vigilance, liberty

Sun Rising: Renewed life

Sun Setting: Death

Sun Shining: Life everlasting

Sword: Spirit; triumph
Stars stand for the spirit, piercing the darkness as an expression of their triumph against the overwhelming odds of oblivion.

Swords, Crossed: High ranking military person

Tombs: Mortality

Torch: Life; living memory
Until the church banned such things, most people were buried at night. Torches furnished the light which both allowed the gravediggers to see and the bearers to scare off evil spirits and nocturnal scavengers.
Lit, the torch signifies life -- even eternal life.

Torch Being Snuffed: Time, mortality
Extinguished, it stands for death. It can also stand for living memory and eternal life (e.g. an eternal flame).

Trumpeters: Heralds of the resurrection

Urn: Immortality
Greek symbol of mourning, the body as a vessel of the soul, originating as a repository for the ashes of the dead in ancient times - a popular symbol of mourning. Most represent an ossuary. In several examples an Angel is looking inside it as if to inspect the contents. A flame is sometimes shown coming from the Urn. They are often draped with a cloth or festooned with a wreath or garland. This fashion of Urn's persisted well into the 1850's at least.

Urn, Draped: Donnotes death, often of an older person.

Urn with Wreath or Crepe: Mourning

Urn with Blaze: Undying friendship

Winged Effigies: Flight of the soul

Winged Face: Effigy of the deceased soul

Winged Globe: Creative power
A symbol of the Egyptian sun god, Ra; on Victorian monuments it is symbolic of the power that can recreate and, with the wings, means, "God, Lord over all, creator."

 

ANIMALS

Bird: Eternal life

Birds, Flying: Resurrection; flight of the soul
These are symbolic of the "winged soul." The representation of the soul by a bird goes back to ancient Egypt. Some older burial art features only wings to convey the symbol of divine mission. Often denote the graves of children, eternal life.

Butterfly: Short-lived; early death
The soul. The meaning is derived from the three stages of the life of the butterfly-the caterpillar, the chrysalis, and the butterfly. The three stages are symbols of life, death and resurrection. Short-life.

Dog: Loyalty
Dogs often appear at the feet of medieval women, signifying the loyalty and inferior place of each in the chivalric order. Modern dogs only imply that the master was worth loving.

Dolphin: Resurrection

   

Dove: Innocence, gentleness, affection, purity, resurrection
The little bird appears in both Christian (usually Catholic) and Jewish cemeteries, representing some of the same things and some different things in each. Catholics usually see the dove (which makes its first Biblical appearance in Genesis carrying an olive branch for Noah) as the Holy Spirit. Jews interpret the dove as a peace symbol. The biblical allusion to the dove also suggests a connectedness with the earth and its color, white, represents for Europeans, purity and spirituality.

Dragon: Universe; power
For the Chinese, the dragon is an emblem of Imperial Power, which has brought the universe into its thrall. It also stands for the Universe itself, a chaotic force which none of us can truly master.

Eagle: Courage
Suggests courage and possibly a military career; symbol for St. John.

Fish: Faith

Hart (Male deer): Wildness, freedom

Horse: Courage; generosity

Lamb: Innocence
Usually marks the grave of a child. The lamb always stands for innocence. Christians go a little further and associate it with the Lamb of God, meaning Jesus.

Lion: Courage; protection
Symbolizes the power of God and guards the tomb against evil spirits. Like other guardians, the lion's watch is as eternal as the stone of which it is depicted. The lion also recalls the courage and determination of the souls, which they guard; they manifest the spirit of the departed.

Owl: Wisdom

Peacock: Resurrection; immortality
The incorruptibility of flesh, resurrection, beauty of soul, immortality.

Rooster: Awakening; resurrection

Snake: Transformation

Snake (Tail In Mouth): Eternity; immortality

Squirrel with a nut: Religious meditation or spiritual striving

Swallow: Child; or motherhood

 

PLANTS AND TREES

Bouquets/Flowers: Condolences, grief, sorrow
Flowers convey love, grief, happiness and other emotions. These symbolic connections of flowers with emotion are cross-cultural and their origins are unknown. During the 1800s, the use of floral symbolism became so popular that almost every flower known had a symbolic gesture attached to it.

Buds/Rosebud: Morning of life or renewal of life

Corn: Ripe old age

Daisy: Innocence; purity
Innocence of child, youth, the Son of righteousness, gentleness, purity of thought.

Dogwood: Divine sacrifice, triumph of eternal life, resurrection.

Flower, Severed Stem: Shortened life, fragility of life

Fruits: Eternal plenty

Garland or Wreath: Victory in death

Holly: Protection
People used to believe that holly bushes protected tombs and other monuments from lightning strikes.

Ivy: Friendship and immortality
Ivy springs up naturally to cover English tombs, but Americans who transplanted it to their graveyards decided that it meant friendship and, like most cemetery plants, also immortality.

Laurel: Fame or victory

   

Lily or Lily of the Valley: Emblem of innocence and purity
Chastity, innocence and purity. A favored funeral flower of the Victorians. Joseph is often depicted holding a lily branch to indicate that his wife Mary was a virgin. In tradition, the first lily sprang forth from the repentant tears of Eve as she went forth from Paradise. The use of lilies at funerals symbolizes the restored innocence of the soul at death.

Marigold: Guidance back home
A large variety, called cempasuchitl, enjoys a special association with Mexico's Day of the Dead; mostly because of its availability in that season. Marigolds not only decorate the graves in the form of crosses and arches, but also form trails to lead the souls of the dead to a home altar set with their favorite foods, photos, and other pleasantries hard to obtain in the afterlife.

Mistletoe: Golden Bough; immortality
The marvelous ability of this parasite to sustain itself far above the ground lent to the Druidic belief that it was a sacred plant and an ingredient of immortality. The "golden bough" was used in animal sacrifices. The Norse God Balder lost his immortality when he was pierced by a mistletoe-tipped spear.

Morning Glory: Beginning of life

Oak Tree or Leaves and Acorn: Maturity, ripe old age

Olive Branch: Peace

Palm Branch: Signifies victory and rejoicing
Spiritual victory, success, eternal peace, a symbol of Christ's victory over death, as associated with Easter.

Pine: Immortality; renewal
Intimations of immortality ooze from the very sap of the pine tree. The cone, for example, ensures the perpetuity of life's renewal. Pine boxes were used as coffins in the Wild West, however, simply because the wood was so plentiful.

Poppy: Sleep

Rose: Brevity of earthly existence
Love, beauty, hope, unfailing love, associated with the Virgin Mary, the "rose without thorns." A red rose symbolizes martyrdom and a white rose symbolizes purity and virginity. Whether the rose is a bud, flower or somewhere in between indicates how old the person was at the time of death:
Just a bud - normally a child 12 or under
Partial bloom - normally a teenager
Full bloom - normally in early/mid twenties. The deceased died in the prime of life
Rosebud, broken - life cut short, usually found with a young person's grave

Severed Branch: Mortality

Thistle: Scottish descent

Thistles: Remembrance

Tree: Life

Tree Sprouting: Life everlasting

Tree Stump/Trunk: Life interrupted; Brevity of life

Tree Stump with Ivy: Head of family; immortality

Tree Trunk Leaning: Short interrupted life

Weeping Willow Tree: Mourning; grief; nature's lament, earthly sorrow

Wheat Strands or Sheaves: The divine harvest
Wheat, like barley, was associated with the Egyptian cult of Osiris. The death of a grain crop is followed, after a period of stillness, by the re-sowing and germination of the seeds. Though no corpses have produced new people, tombstone carvers still employ the ear of wheat as a symbol of rebirth. Convent bakers use wheat flour to make communion wafers, making it a holy plant, of sorts, fit to grace the tombstone of a priest.

 

Wreath: Victory

 

BODY PARTS

Arms outstretched: The plea for mercy

Breasts (Gourds, Pomegranates): Nourishment of the soul; the church

Eye of God/All-Seeing Eye: Eye of Horus, used in Masonic and alchemical workings
Symbolizes the all-knowing and ever-present God. In Egypt, it was the Eye of Horus - a symbol used in magick and metaphysics and alchemy. During the Renaissance period in Europe, it was common to illustrate the Eye of God surrounded by a triangle (the Holy Trinity). The eye within the triangle, surrounded by a circle and radiating rays of light is used to symbolize the holiness of God.

Hand of God Chopping: Sudden death

Hand, Pointing: Depends on direction
Downward - mortality or sudden death. (Possibly a depiction of a secret Masonic handshake.)
Upward - the reward of the righteous, confirmation of life after death. Heavenly reward, ascension to heaven.

Hands, Clasped: The good-byes said at death
At first glance, these hands all seem to be in the same fashion but a number of interesting characteristics stand out. First, most of the hands illustrate the right hand in a grasp with fingers overlapping the other hand while the left hand is open. This could be the depiction of a man holding a woman's hand and indicate marriage or a close bond between individuals, unity and affection even after death. Clasped hands are also symbolic of a farewell or last good-bye. Look at the cuff to distinguish between a man's or woman's hand (woman would have a frilly cuff.) The person who died first holds the other's hand, guiding the spouse to the afterlife.

Hands, Holding: Connectedness
A chain with a broken link symbolizes the death of a family member.
A heart - symbolic of charity and is common on 19th century memorials. It is typically seen on memorials of members of the Independent Order of Odd fellows. Charity
An open book - the embodiment of Faith

Handshakes: Farewell

Hands, Praying: Devotion

Heart: Love; mortality
Stylized hearts stand for the affection of the living for the dead. Two joined hearts on a stone mark a marriage.
Bleeding - Christ's suffering for our sins.
Encircled with thorns - the suffering of Christ.
Flaming - signifies extreme religious fervor
Pierced by a sword - the Virgin Mary, harkening to Simeon's prophecy to Mary at the birth of Christ, "Yea, a sword shall pierce through thine own soul." It can also be used to represent charity.

Skeleton: Life's brevity

Skull: Mortality

  

Skull/Crossed Bones: Death

  

Winged Skull: Flight of the soul from mortal man

Wreath on Skull: Victory of death over life

This is by no means a complete list, but we have covered a lot of the most common tombstone symbols. It's a fascinating study, and there are more being added all the time. The Pentagram is a very recent addition on military graves- and I would also like to see the Awen symbol for our brother and sister Druids who have gone on to the Otherworld...

References:
http://www.everlifememorials.com/v/headstones/cemetery-symbolism.htm
http://www.vintageviews.org/vv-tl/pages/Cem_Symbolism.htm
http://www.monuments-of-distinction.com/headstone-symbols.html
http://tinyurl.com/57um56