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Home > Articles & Guides > Headstone Symbols: Understanding Cemetery Symbolism

Headstone Symbols: Understanding Cemetery Symbolism

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When choosing a headstone we often pick headstone symbols and emblems with little knowledge about the symbolism behind it. This glossary of cemetery symbolism has been assembled from various sources, which are credited at the bottom of this page, to help you understand the meaning of the various symbols.

Anchor
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.

Angels
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.

Books
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 The Book or The Bible. 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.

Butterfly
The soul. It is symbolic of the resurrection of Christ. 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.

Candle
Candles stand for the spirit or the soul. In Christian contexts, candles can symbolize Jesus Christ, the Light of the World. Catholics often leave candles on the grave to show that prayers have been said for the deceased.

Chains
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.

Chalice
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.

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Cross
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.

Daisy
Innocence of child, Jesus the Infant, youth, the Son of righteousness, gentleness, purity of thought.

Dog
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.

Dogwood
Christianity, divine sacrifice, triumph of eternal life, resurrection.

Dove
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
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.

Draperies/Curtains
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.

Heart
Stylized hearts stand for the affection of the living for the dead. Two joined hearts on a stone mark a marriage.

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

Ivy
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.

Lamb
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.

Lily
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.

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Lion
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.

Marigold
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
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.

Oak tree
Hospitality, stability, strength, honor, eternity, endurance, liberty. It is believed to have been the tree from which Jesus Christ's cross was made. In smaller pioneer cemeteries, it is common to place children's graves near oak trees. The oak tree was the tree of life in pre-Christian times. The Druids worshipped the oak. The oak, oak leaves and acorn can stand for power, authority or victory. Often seen on military tombs.

Palm
Spiritual victory, success, eternal peace, a symbol of Christ's victory of death as associated with Easter.

Pine
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.

Rose
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

Sacred Heart of Jesus
An image unique to Catholics. The Sacred Heart is shown containing wounds to which Crist points and it is surrounded by a crown of thorns. The heart represents the suffering of Jesus for our sins. Prayers to the Sacred Heart are said to be efficacious for the release of souls from Purgatory.

Scroll
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.

Star of David
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.

Torch
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).

Wheat
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.

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References:


We would like to credit the following sources for the information provided herein.

http://www.alsirat.com/symbols/
http://www.vintageviews.org/vv-tl/pages/Cem_Symbolism.htm

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