Friday, January 1, 2010

Cemetery Headstone Symbols

Cemeteries can tell us much about our ancestors. Information can be gleaned from the words carved on headstones. We can learn a great deal concerning family relationships from the placement of a grave within the cemetery itself.

As more and more researchers venture into cemeteries to seek out ancestral graves, 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, ideals, associations, etc. Can reading and understanding these symbols help us gauge and unravel some quintessential element of this ancestor’s life?

Understanding the Symbols
The task of interpreting the symbols on a tombstone is a daunting one. Though most symbols engraved on a stone have a textbook meaning, it is possible that the particular item you find engraved on the tombstone is there simply because someone liked the look of it. Therefore, it will have no meaning beyond the taste of the deceased (if that person requested what was on the stone) or the preferences of those who 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 do know is that they like the design and feel it is just somehow right. Also, the ideas of the person designing the monument cannot be known to us, so the true representation may never be ascertained.

At the same time, symbols can express ethnic identity, religious affiliation, association membership, or simply the predilection of the time or community. A symbol that was commonly used in one area might mean something completely different in another area. Therefore, it is important to understand the history of the area or of the time.

During your visit to the cemetery, you may or may not be able to interpret the meaning of the symbol on gravestones. Either way, you will enjoy the inherent beauty and workmanship involved in carving these intricate designs. Cemetery engravings are art in the truest sense of the word. The stonecutter was an artist, and some of the sculptures you’ll find in cemeteries are as beautiful as art found in the finest museums. I have only provided photos of a few of the hundreds of symbols you might encounter, I will attempt to add some new photos this spring when I return to the cemetery for more researching and documenting.

Alpha and Omega

The first and the last letters of the greek alphabet, and a biblical reference to Christ, in Revelation, being "the beginning and the end."


Hope, steadfastness



Bird, flying

Indicates the flight of the soul to God.


Often, represents the Bible, but, it can simply mean knowledge. An open book might signify an open heart or mind, open to the word of God. A closed book usually indicates a completed life.

Child, sleeping

A typical Victorian signifier of a child's grave.


The Columbine is the Colorado state flower, and is common on grave markers in the state, even if it is not found much outside of the state, it is said to indicate gentleness.

Column, broken

Sorrow, broken life


A symbol of the Eucharist, this example also has grapes and a vine, reinforcing the meaning.


Often associated with Christ, with early Christian imagery and part of its coded language, it also indicates bounty, or plentifulness.

Gates, Portals

The entrance to the world beyond the earth, the entrance to heaven.

Hand, pointing up

Usually indicates that the deceased has ascended into the heavenly realm.


This monogram represents the first 3 letters for "Jesus" in the Greek alphabet. In some cases, the letters are overlaid, to create the icon seen to the right. Not to be mistaken for a dollar sign.


Often a symbol of Christ, also, innocence. This is the most common Victorian marker for a child's tombstone.


A Lily is an image of purity, but can also be a symbol of Easter, or the resurrection. Lilies were often used for funerals due to their strong scent which tended to help disguise less pleasant aromas. Note in the example, there are three lilies. Three of anything is usually an allusion to the Trinity.

Lily of the Valley

Lilies of the Valley, in cemeteries, tend to represent renewal and resurrection, as they are among the first flowers to bloom in the spring. They can also be a symbol of submitting to God's will, innocence and purity.


A lyre is the instrument of Apollo. It could also be referencing the harp, which is a symbol of heavenly music, or hopes of heaven. These types of stringed instruments are often seen as the root of divine music. A harp could also indicate someone of Irish heritage.

Oak Leaves

Oaks are symbols of many things. Strength, endurance, faith and virtue are but a few of these. The oak speaks to the steadfastness of belief, even through tough times. Some believers think that Christ's cross was made of oak. The oak tree is considered sacred to many cultures.

Olive Branch

Most people understand an olive branch as a symbol of peace. It can also be meant as fruitfulness, purification, and victory.


A rooster usually indicates vigilance. Roosters were put on weather vanes to "watch" against evil.


Roses are known for their fragrance and their beauty. Often they are emblems of the brevity of life or sorrow. In Christian iconography white roses indicate purity, red roses can signify martyrdom.


A ship is sometimes a representation of the church. It can also simply indicate a life on the sea, as a fisherman or other sailor.


The thistle is a reminder of the inevitability of death, or remembrance. It is also commonly used to indicate a person of Scottish descent.


A torch, as something which illuminates the darkness, represents enlightenment. It can also indicate zeal, liberty or immortality.

Torch, inverted

If the inverted torch has a flame, it indicates that life is continuing after death. If there is no flame, it means the extinction of life and mourning.

Tree Trunk, usually broken

Premature death

Urn, draped

Anything draped indicates mourning. An urn typically represents the soul, or mortality. The drape can also be an allusion to the "veil" between this world and the next.

Weeping Willow

It may be obvious, but, this tree is an image of mourning. In some cultures, it also indicates immortality.

Wheat Sheaves

An emblem of the divine harvest. If paired with grapes, it's a symbol of the Eucharist.


Victory in death. In Christian imagery, it is an indestructible crown worn by the triumphant believer.

Fraternal Organizations

Symbol, Meaning Picture

Independent Order of Oddfellows

The Independent Order of Oddfellows are primarily associated with the three links of a chain. Each "link" in their chain represents their motto "Friendship, Love and Truth," and often the letters "F, L, T" are inscribed within a link each. The order is sometimes referred to as "the poor man's Freemasonry," as the organization shares many of the symbols, such as the all-seeing eye, with the Freemasons. In this example, note the palm fronds flanking each side of the image. Palm fronds represent victory, and, in Christian contexts and cemeteries, it carries the idea of "Victory in Death."

Knights of Pythias

A heraldic shield with a suit of armor, or any of these with the letter F C B indicate a member of the Knights of Pythias. The letters stand for "Friendship, Charity and Benevolence The Knights of Pythias were fond of symbols, and commonly used more than 20,000 different ones within their organization.

Knights Templar

It is said that the original Knights Templar founded the Freemasons. The symbol, a Maltese cross with the cross and the crown, includes the latin phrase "In Hoc Signo Vinces," which translates to "In This Sign, Conquer"


The Shriners are an organization only open to 32nd Degree Master Masons and Knights Templar. Their icons often include the scimitar and other appropriated middle eastern designs.

Woodman of the World

The latin motto of the Woodman of the World, "Dum Tacet Clamat" translates as "Though silent, he speaks," a particularly fitting statement for cemetery art. The Woodman of the World is an insurance company, that originally insured men in particularly dangerous occupations. In the 1920s, an insurance policy with the Woodman also included a grave marker. Most of these came in the form of trees. While not every tree-shaped monument a cemetery belongs to a Woodman of the World, many do. To the Woodman, the tree stump indicated equality. Note that the example also includes a dove with an olive branch, representing peace, and an axe and wedge, indicating woodcraft/craftsmanship.

Art and Meanings



Broken column–decay, loss of family head

Broken ring–severed family circle

Candle being snuffed–loss of life


Figure with dart–mortality

Grim reaper–death personified

Hourglass–time has run out

Scythe–death cuts us down

Skull, crossed bones–death

Spade, crossed spade and shovel–death


Angels–spirituality and tomb guarding

Holy books (1)–Christianity


Cherub–angelic innocence


Crown–glory of life after death

Cross–faith (There are many different types of crosses, and each may represent something different. For a good explanation of the various types of crosses, see a part of the City of the Silent web site.

Heart (sacred)–suffering of Christ


Star of David–Judaism


Fruits–eternal plenty

Full rose–death in the prime of life

Ivy–friendship and immortality

Laurel–worldly accomplishment and heroism

Lily–innocence and purity, the virgins’ flower

Morning glory–beginning of life

Oak, oak leaves, and acorn–power, authority, or victory (Often seen on military tombs.)

Palm branch–victory and rejoicing

Poppy–eternal sleep

Roses–completion, brevity of earthly existence


Thistle–remembrance, or Scottish descent



Sprouting tree–life everlasting

Tree trunk–brevity of life

Stones shaped liked tree stumps–Woodman of the World

Weeping willow–perpetual mourning, grief

Wheat strands or sheaves–divine harvest

Hand, pointing upward–pathway to heaven

Hands, clasped–farewells or the bond of marriage

Hands, praying–asking God for eternal life

Hands, blessing–blessing for those left behind

Harp–praise to God


Joined hearts–marriage

Rod or staff–comfort for the bereaved

Stars and stripes around eagle–eternal vigilance and liberty (Often seen on military tombs.)

Urn with flame–undying remembrance


Birds–eternal life, resurrection

Butterfly–short life

Dog–good master worthy of love

Dove–innocence, peace

Lamb–innocence, usually a child’s grave

Lion–courage, eternal guarding

Rooster–awakening, resurrection

Resurrection, Eternal Life, Immortality

Angel, flying or trumpeting–rebirth, resurrection

Bird (dove) or bird flying–eternal life, resurrection


Flame, light, lamp, torch–immortality of the spirit, resurrection

Garland or wreath–saintliness, glory, victory in death



Star–death could not overpower the light

Sun–light, warmth, renewed life, life everlasting

Trumpeters–harbingers of the resurrection

Urn–immortality (The storing of the vital organs was of extreme importance to the ancient Egyptians who believed that life would be restored through the vital organs placed in the urn.)

Trade and Occupation

Anchor, sextant, or cross staff–mariner

Axe, steel knife, or cleaver–butcher


Bowl and razor–barber


Coulter (hoe), flail (threshing implement)–farmer

Crossed swords–military, high rank

Crown, hammer, anvil–blacksmith

Leather cutter’s knife, nippers, or awl–shoemaker

Loom, shuttle, or stretchers–weaver

Open book–teacher

Rake and spade–gardener


Stalk of corn–farmer

Swingletree (rod for beating flax)–farmer

Wedge and level–mason


Sources :


  1. You have taken many pictures of headstones and gravestones, must of taken a lot of time, thanks

  2. Thank you for this post. As the owner of a monument company, I have always seen the Woodman of the World stones but never knew exactly what that was. Thank you for the information and the time you have spent putting it together.

  3. I have not seem some of these symbols before. Thank you so much for explaining them to me. I have even seem a few pet graves with paw prints memorial plaques around them. On the graves where some of the symbols that you have listed here. Thanks again for your help in interpreting these symbols.

  4. The headstone pictures are unique. Thanking you for posting these photos.

  5. So many pictures of headstones and gravestones,We Supply design headstone With Top Quality And Competitive Prices,Prompt Delivery As Well As The Best Service.

  6. Thank you for your articles that you have shared with us. Hopefully you can give the article a good benefit to us. Memorial Markers

  7. so usefull of Gravestone symbols knowledge,vist see more headstone design.