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.
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?
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".
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
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.
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.
Grief & mourning
Victory in death
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.
Loss of head of family
Family circle severed
Resurrection and the military
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.
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.
Father time, picks/shovels
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.
Glory of life after death
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.
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.
Praise to the maker
Swiftness of time
with Wings of Time:
Time flying; short life
Spiritual knowledge or, if
held in the hands of an angel or saint, the means to enter heaven.
The passage of Life
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
Passageway to eternal journey
Comfort for the bereaved
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.
Death; the divine harvest
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.
- 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.
Pilgrimage of life
Stars stand for the spirit,
piercing the darkness as an expression of their triumph against
the overwhelming odds of oblivion. (See Pentagram).
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
& Stripes Around Eagle:
Eternal vigilance, liberty
Stars stand for the spirit,
piercing the darkness as an expression of their triumph against
the overwhelming odds of oblivion.
High ranking military person
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.
Extinguished, it stands for
death. It can also stand for living memory and eternal life (e.g.
an eternal flame).
Heralds of the resurrection
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.
Donnotes death, often of an older person.
with Wreath or Crepe:
Flight of the soul
Effigy of the deceased soul
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
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
Suggests courage and possibly
a military career; symbol for St. John.
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
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.
The incorruptibility of flesh,
resurrection, beauty of soul, immortality.
(Tail In Mouth):
with a nut:
Religious meditation or spiritual striving
Child; or motherhood
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
Morning of life or renewal of life
Ripe old age
Innocence of child, youth,
the Son of righteousness, gentleness, purity of thought.
Divine sacrifice, triumph of eternal life, resurrection.
Shortened life, fragility of life
Victory in death
People used to believe that
holly bushes protected tombs and other monuments from lightning
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.
Fame or victory
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.
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.
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
Beginning of life
Tree or Leaves and Acorn:
Maturity, ripe old age
Signifies victory and rejoicing
Spiritual victory, success,
eternal peace, a symbol of Christ's victory over death, as associated
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.
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
Life interrupted; Brevity of life
Stump with Ivy:
Head of family; immortality
Short interrupted life
Mourning; grief; nature's lament, earthly sorrow
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.
The plea for mercy
Nourishment of the soul; the church
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.
of God Chopping:
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.
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.
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
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
Flight of the soul from mortal man
Victory of death over life
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...