We would like to thank “A Million Graves” for this wonderful information about Gravestone Symbols.
Learning to Read a Cemetery
Do you remember when you learned to read? As a child, it was fun to look at pictures in books as someone older read the words. But, oh, that magical moment when you realized you could read the words yourself! It opened a whole new world!
Would you like to learn to “read” a cemetery? It’s genealogical adventure!
On many older gravestones, there are pictures and symbols that tell stories about your loved ones and ancestors. If you can’t “read” gravestone-language” you are missing part of the story.
The first time I walked through a cemetery after learning about cemetery symbols was incredible. It was like someone was walking along beside me, introducing me to each person. “Samuel Hanover died at sea.” “Mary Smith passed away suddenly as an infant.” “John and Hannah hope to be together eternally.”
In the End, Symbols are Still Just Symbols
The Webster Dictionary definition of symbols is “something that stands for or suggests something else by reason of relationship, association, convention, or accidental resemblance.” The key word in that definition is “suggests.” In the end, a symbol is still a symbol. It represents whatever the person who designed it meant it to be, even though someone else may interpret it differently.
Since we cannot speak to the people who commissioned the symbol on the stone or those who carved it, interpretations should always be considered possibilities, not certainties. That said, there are particular symbols that have come to have commonly accepted meanings through their repeated use.
Sometimes an anchor was carved on the gravestones of the seamen since it was their last resort in a storm. But more often, the anchor on a gravestone was a symbol of hope. The Bible references an anchor in connection with hope in Hebrews 6: 18-19, “…Those without hope may be like a ship tossed on the sea, their emotions being carried in every direction.” The anchor would remind family member visiting the grave to hold on to the hope of seeing their loved one again.
To members of the Freemasonry, the anchor represented well-grounded hope, a life well-spent, and eternal tranquility.
The Biblical prophet Ezekiel, escorted by a heavenly messenger, was shown a vision of a city that contained a temple with magnificent architecture. The temple included many arches. In fact, there are 15 references to the arches in this temple in the book of Ezekiel, chapter 40. Arches on a headstone can signify a triumph over death and entry into heaven.
A book on a gravestone can symbolize the good deeds of the departed, as recorded in the book of life. It can also represent the scriptures, as a sign of faith.
Books may also indicate that a scholar or teacher is buried at the grave site. An open book can signify an early death for someone whose life story was not yet fully written.
Butterflies are the symbol of resurrection. Just as caterpillars change into winged creatures that launch into flight, the deceased will rise from the grave, changing into a new being.
The cross or crucifix is a significant symbol to Christians. In early times the Latin cross was referred to as God’s mark. It is a symbol of eternal life or resurrection. The three ends may represent the Father, Son and Holy Ghost of the Trinity or faith, hope, and charity.
Angels are some of the most common symbols found in cemeteries. They are carved on gravestones and perch on top as statues. Angels signify that the departed has taken flight into heaven. Some angels are weeping with wings that droop in sadness, denoting sorrow and lamentation. Others are in flight with a trumpet to proclaim the gospel to all the world. Some are walking upright, ready to escort the deceased into heaven.
Sometimes specific angels can be seen in cemeteries, such as St. George from an 11th century legend, who rescued a princess from a dragon that required sacrifices. Another is St. Michael with his drawn sword, engaged in the war in heaven against Lucifer.
In older Jewish cemeteries angels were forbidden, as were depictions of human faces. This was in conformity with one of the 10 Commandments, in an effort to thwart anyone from worshiping graven images. In later years, angels were allowed on gravestones if their faces were covered by their hands or arms.
Usually a symbol of the soul waiting for resurrection.
At first, it may appear that a gravestone that is missing the upper half has deteriorated, which is entirely possible since every year more and more gravestones are lost to decay. Bu many broken obelisks were formed that way from the time they were made to signify the cutting short of someone’s life, particularly the head of a family.
The Celtic cross can be a religious or a secular symbol. The arms are of equal length and it is surrounded by a circle. Sometimes it is referred to as the “sun cross” because of the outer circle. The interlacing bands on Celtic crosses are known as Hiberno-Saxon art which originated in medieval times.
Irish legends indicate that St. Patrick designed the cross as a way to link Pagan symbolism with Christian symbols. Pagans at the time were worshipping the sun, represented by the circle on the Celtic cross. St. Patrick overlayed the circle with a cross, a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice. Others claim that the circle represented the moon goddess and the cross signified the greater power of Christianity over the pagan goddess.
Nevertheless, if you see a Celtic cross on your ancestor’s gravestone it may indicate an Irish or British Isles heritage.
The crown typically symbolizes Christ, also known as the King of Kings. A finger pointing up through the crown indicates the deceased has gone to heaven through the power of Christ’s resurrection.
A crown with a cross in the center is symbolic of the departing soul gaining victory over death through Christ the King.
Drapery of any type symbolizes grief and mourning. When the drapery is a flag it may signify that the deceased was in the military or died in battle.
Finger Pointing Up
Fingers pointing upward are a very common cemetery symbol. They indicate that the departed has gone to heaven and beckons grieving loved ones to look up.
Flowers can symbolize that the deceased was in the full bloom of life.
Flowers on Cross
Flowers on a cross indicate growth in Christ or immortality.
The origin of the handshake dates back to 4th or 5th century in Greece. It signified a token of peace, as the hand was extended without weapons. The shaking up and down may even have been a means of verifying that there was not a dagger or knife up the other’s sleeve.
In ancient Rome, handshakes were a symbol of loyalty and friendship. Clasped hands were even stamped on Roman coins.
Handshakes also denote that a person’s word is their bond, a giving of sacred trust.
In the case of gravestone symbolism, handshakes can mean a final farewell or eternal bond between the living and the dead. Clasped hands were sometimes meant to portray the link between a married couple. Other times a handshake indicated God reaching out for the deceased to bring them into his presence.
Lambs are the most common animal symbol on children’s gravestones.
Sheep are instinctive follower too. They tend to follow the sheep in front of them no matter where they are going. I once attended a sheep parade, where cowboys on horses guided thousands of sheep down the street. When one sheep took a wrong turn up a side street, hundreds of sheep followed. Cowboys and their dogs chased them on hot pursuit, trying to get the parade back on the scheduled route. Likewise, small children are naturally submissive and loyal to those who lead them.
To Christians, lambs are also a symbol of Christ, “Behold the lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world” (Holy Bible, John 1:29).
Lotus are water-plants that close at night and reopen again with the morning sunlight. They symbolize a spiritual rebirth, reawakening and resurrection.
This could mean the person buried here was a musician. A lyre is also a symbol of the connection between heaven and earth. When it has a broken string, it symbolizes the end of life.
Oak Leaves & Acorns
Oaks are very slow growing trees. It can take 40-50 years for an oak to go from acorn to full-height and nearly a century before it fills in with thick leaves and branches. Oak trees can live to be 200 years old. An oak tree at a family homestead may have provided shade for several generations.
Thus, the oak trees are gravestone symbols of strength and endurance. Oak branches or acorns on your ancestor’s headstone may mean they lived a long life or endure a long illness.
Plant buds on a gravestone symbolize a life not yet in full bloom. They are most often seen on graves of children or young adults.
Cemetery symbols can be interpreted in a variety of ways. We often don’t understand the intent of those who chose or created the symbol. The primrose flower is a symbol that can have many different meanings.
The primrose was a Victorian for a silent love or bashfulness. The flower can also symbolize eternal love, hope, sadness, or youthfulness. Primroses had medicinal uses, so it could have indicated healing or the medical occupation of the deceased. Primroses have evenly spaced petals, making them easy to carve so they may have simply been aesthetic.
A rose symbolizes love, perfection and truthfulness.
The star could represent spiritual light, divine guidance or birth/rebirth. In Judaism, the Star of David represents divine protection. In Christianity, it sometimes represents “light shining in darkness” or good overpowering evil.
This photo depicts the temple of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints in Salt Lake City, Utah. Those buried beneath this symbol believe in the eternal nature of the family and everlasting relationships.
Trumpets are the symbol of victory and resurrection. Sometimes the trumpeters are angels announcing resurrection morning.
The urn symbolizes death itself. The Greeks used the urn as a symbol of mourning since it was often used as a repository for ashes of the dead.
From 1770’s to 1820’s urns with willow branches carved around them were popular on gravestones in New England’s burial grounds. The urns symbolized death and the willows symbolized grief.
In past generations, the deceased was laid out in their own living room or parlor for days prior to burial. Family and friends were invited into the home to pay their respects and comfort the living. The entrance to the room was often draped with a black veil, signifying the passage from life to death.
Anciently, temples also had veiled passages.
A gravestone draped with a veil can also be thought of like a curtain pulled back on a stage. All eyes would be drawn to the deceased as they passed through the veil, just as all eyes fall on the main actor or actress at the start of a play. It symbolizes the importance of each individual to God and to their family.
The dove in flight is the cemetery symbol of the Holy Spirit. This comes from the New Testament references to Jesus Christ’s Baptism by John the Baptist. “And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him.” (Mark 1:10)
If a dove has an olive branch in its mouth it is a symbol of peace. This symbol comes from the story of Noah in the Old Testament who sent a dove out from the ark following the flood. The dove returned with an olive branch in its beak, from which Noah could know that the flood waters were receding. Genesis 8:8- “He sent forth a dove from him, to see if the waters were abated from off the face of the ground.”
Finger Pointing Down
A finger pointing down on a gravestone indicates that God is reaching down for the soul of the deceased.
Fleur De Lis
The Fleur-de-lis or Lily of France, is a design that appears on many family crests, coats of arms, and in King Arthur’s legends. It is a stylized version of a wild lily and was popularized by the French royalty. To the kings of France, the symbol meant perfection, life, and light and it became the royal emblem.
Joan of Arc bore a banner depicting God blessing the fleur-de-lis as she led French troops in a victorious battle against the English in support of Dauphin Charles VII.
In recent times, the fleur-de-lis has been used as an emblem of the Boy Scouts. The photo above has the words “Be Prepared” on a banner beneath the fleur-de-lis, which is the Boy Scout motto. When the founder of scouting, Baden-Powell, was asked, “Be prepared for what?” he replied, “Why, for any old thing.”
If your ancestor’s grave has a fleur-de-lis on it there is a good chance that either they were of French lineage or they were a member of the Boy Scouts.
Grapes on a gravestone symbolize the blood of Christ, God’s care, or Jesus’ Last Supper.
Many gravestones show the deceased’s membership in service organizations. In this case, the departed person was member of the Kiwanis Club. The organization was founded in August of 1914 in Detroit, Michigan.
The Kiwanis Club has accepted female members since 1987. So if the stone is older and has a Kiwanis emblem you may be assured that the deceased was male. Though the Kiwanis Club has undergone many changes over the years, including their mission, their current motto is “Serving the Children of the World.”
If your ancestor was a member of the Kiwanis Club or other service organization you could try contacting them to obtain further information that may help expand your family tree.
Lilies are a symbol of innocence, chastity, and purity. They are often associated with Mary, the mother of Jesus, and are used on women’s gravestones.
Lilies can also represent innocence being restored to a soul at death.
Members of the Masonic organization believe in God and in serving their communities. While Masonry is not a religion, adherents act in accordance with high moral standards. In the photo above there are three symbols, the open book, the compass, and the square. The specific positions of these objects, makes them a recognizable Masonic symbol. The book represents the word of God, while the square and compass are tools used by architects. The compass reminds Masons to circumscribe their desires and passions within specific limits. The exactness of the straight edges of the square reminds Masons to behave with exact and precise virtue.
If your ancestor has this symbol on their gravestone, you may be able to find records of Masonic meetings at the local Freemason organization. This may allow you to place your ancestor in an exact place during specific years.
Odd Fellow Chain
If you notice a chain with three links on your ancestor’s gravestone you will know that they were a member of the Independent Order of Odd fellows. The Independent Order of Odd Fellows is a fraternal organization, founded 1819 in Baltimore, Maryland. It evolved from the Order of Odd Fellows, founded in England during the 1700s.
Odd Fellows recognize the inevitability of death, so they ask themselves, “How will I spend my life?” With this self-awareness, an Odd Fellow then seeks to master their thoughts and actions. They focus on serving others.
The three links of an Odd Fellow chain may sometimes have the letters, “F”, “L”, and “T” on them. These letters stand for friendship, love, and truth. Odd Fellows seek to know and accept their own strengths in humility, without boasting. They strive to overcome their weaknesses without being critical of the weaknesses of others. They seek to be a friend to all and try to think carefully before acting or speaking.
The Independent Order of Odd Fellows may now be found in more than 30 nations.
They are typically a Christian symbol of spiritual victory or victory over death. They also could signify eternal peace or a heavenly reward.
A quill on a gravestone symbolizes a life cut short for someone whose life story was not yet fully written. Quill may also denote that the deceased was a writer or teacher.
Swords, spears, or helmets on an ancestor’s gravestone may indicate that they served in the military. This particular gravestone helmet is from Forest Hill Cemetery in Stuttgart, Germany and is in the Greek Spartan style. Spartans began to train at age 7 and were taught never to let their weapons out of arm’s reach. The term “Spartan” became synonymous with fearlessness and endurance.
Star of David
The Star of David is a symbol used by Jewish people. The star is six-sided and is made up of two intertwined equilateral triangles. In Hebrew, it is called Magen David or David’s shield, representing the protection of the ancient king. The symbol is the center of Israel’s flag. When seen on a gravestone, you may be assured that the deceased was Jewish.
At first glance, tree trunk gravestones may be mistaken for living trees. These lifelike gravestones are called tree trunk stones, tree stump stones, or tree stones.
Tree stones, popular between the 1880’s and 1920’s were used by members of the Modern Woodsmen of America and the Woodmen of the World. Both organizations are fraternal societies that focus on financial services. They offer insurance, retirement and estate planning.
Joseph Cullen Root. The founder of Modern Woodmen of America and the Woodmen of the World, selected the name woodmen after hearing a sermon about God’s children being trees in His forest.
Tree of Life
The tree of life is a cemetery symbol of immortality. The tree ages and moves closer to death, but it also bears the seeds that allow the tree to be reborn, so in a sense it becomes immortal.
It can also be a symbol of strength and growth. Branches lengthen as they reach for the light of the sun. Young tree roots are shallow but eventually deepen as they age. Like the tree, the deceased may have become stronger by facing the wind, heat, and adversities of life.
Genealogists may identify with the tree of life being a symbol of family. Our leaves and branches may go in many different directions, but we all come from the same roots.
The drooping branches of weeping willow trees symbolize the drooping spirits and hearts of those who have lost their beloved family member. The weeping willow tree was a very popular carving on gravestones at the end pf the 1700’s and early 1800’s in Massachusetts among early settlers.
Gravestones prior to 1760 often featured the winged skull or death’s head. In spite of the macabre sentiment it holds for us today, the winged skull was a symbol or immortality. The wings indicate the soul has taken flight from its mortal body or skeleton which was left behind in the earth.