Headstone Symbols: Understanding Cemetery
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.
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.
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 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.
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.
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.
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
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.
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
Innocence of child, Jesus the Infant, youth, the Son of righteousness,
gentleness, purity of thought.
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.
Christianity, divine sacrifice, triumph of eternal life, 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.
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.
Stylized hearts stand for the affection of the living for the
dead. Two joined hearts on a stone mark a marriage.
People used to believe that holly bushes protected tombs and other
monuments from lightning strikes.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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.
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 worshiped
the oak. The oak, oak leaves and acorn can stand for power, authority
or victory. Often seen on military tombs.
Spiritual victory, success, eternal peace, a symbol of Christ's
victory of death as associated with Easter.
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.
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 Christ 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.
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.
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
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, 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.