Have you ever wandered through a cemetery and wondered about the meanings of the designs carved on old gravestones? Thousands of different religious and secular symbols and emblems have adorned tombstones through the ages, indicating attitudes towards death and the hereafter, membership in a fraternal or social organization, or an individual’s trade, occupation or even ethnic identity. While many of these tombstone symbols have fairly simple interpretations, it is not always easy to determine their meaning and significance. We were not present when these symbols were carved into the stone and can’t claim to know our ancestors’ intentions. They may have included a particular symbol for no other reason than because they thought it was pretty.
While we can only speculate what our ancestors were trying to tell us through their choice of tombstone art, these symbols and their interpretations are commonly agreed upon by gravestone scholars:
* Alpha and Omega – represents Christ
* American Flag – courage, pride, a veteran
* Anchor/Ships – hope, safety, or seafaring profession
* Angel – spirituality, guardian, messenger between God and man
* Angel that is flying – rebirth, resurrection.
* Angel with trumpet – Resurrection.
* Angel with tears or weeping – grief and mourning.
* Arch – victory in death.
* Arrow – mortality.
* Bird – eternal life.
* Bird that is in flight – resurrection.
* Book – representation of a holy book: i.e. the Bible.
* A pair of Holy Books on Mormon (LDS) headstones indicates the Bible and Book of Mormon
* Three Holy Books on Mormon headstones indicates the Bible, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine & Covenants – all of which are scripture to the LDS Church.
* Breasts (Gourds, Pomegranates) – nourishment of the soul, the church.
* Bouquets/Flowers – condolences, grief, sorrow
* Broken Column – loss of head of family, shortened life, died young
* Broken Ring – family circle severed
* Buds/Rosebud – mourning of life or renewal of life
* Bugles – resurrection and the military
* Butterfly – short-lived, early death
* Calla Lily – majestic beauty,marriage, or resurrection
* Candle being snuffed – time, mortality
* Celtic or Irish cross – eternity
* Cherub – angelic
* Coffin, Father Time – mortality
* Columns and Doors – heavenly entrance.
* Corn – ripe old age
* Cross – emblem of faith
* Crossed Swords – high-ranking military person
* Crown – glory of life after death.
* Cup or Chalice – the Sacraments.
* Dove – purity, devotion.
* Dove that is flying – resurrection.
* Drapes – mourning, mortality.
* Flame or Light – life, resurrection.
* Flower – fragility of life.
* Flower, Severed Stem – shortened life.
* Flying Birds – flight of the soul
* Fruits – eternal plenty
* Full blown Rose – prime of life
* Garland or Wreath – victory in death.
* Grim Reaper – death personified.
* Hand with finger pointed up – pathway to heaven, heavenly reward.
* Hand with finger pointed down – represents God reaching down for the soul
* Hands that are clasped – The goodbyes said at death.
* Hand (of God) chopping – sudden death
* Handshakes – farewell
* Harp – praise to the Maker
* Heart – love, love of God, abode of the soul, mortality.
* Horns – the resurrection
* Horseshoe – protection from evil, a lover of horses
* Hourglass – passing of time.
* Hourglass with wings – time flies.
* Imps – mortality
* Ivy – friendship, fidelity and immortality
* Lamb – innocence.
* Laurel – fame or victory
* Lily or Lily of Valley – emblem of innocence and purity
* Lion – protection, courage, bravery, the lion of Judah.
* Morning Glory – beginning of life
* Oak Leaves and Acorn – maturity, ripe old age
* Open Book or Bible – deceased teacher, minister, etc.
* Pall – mortality.
* Palm Branch – signifies victory and rejoicing
* Pick – death, mortality.
* Poppy – sleep
* Portals – passageway to eternal journey
* Rod or Staff – comfort for the bereaved.
* Rooster – awakening, resurrection.
* Roses – brevity of earthly existence
* Scythe – death; The divine harvest.
* Seashell – resurrection, life everlasting, life’s pilgrimage.
* Sheaf of Wheat – ripe for harvest, divine harvest, time
* Skull – mortality.
* Skull with crossed bones – death.
* Skeleton – life’s brevity.
* Snake (Tail in Mouth) – everlasting life in heaven.
* Spade – mortality, death.
* Stars and Stripes Around Eagle – eternal vigilance, liberty
* Sun Rising – renewed life.
* Sun Shining – life everlasting.
* Sun Setting – death.
* Thistle – Scottish descent.
* Thistles – remembrance.
* Tombs – mortality.
* Torch Inverted – life in the next realm or a life extinguished.
* Tree – life.
* Tree Sprouting – life everlasting.
* Severed Branch – mortality.
* Tree Stump – life interrupted.
* Tree Stump with Ivy – head of family, immortality
* Tree Trunk – brevity of life.
* Tree Trunk Leaning – short interrupted life.
* Trumpeters – heralds of the Resurrection
* Urn – immortality (ancient Egyptian belief that life would be restored in the future through the vital organs placed in the urn).
* Urn with Wreath or Crepe – mourning
* Urn with Blaze – undying friendship
* Weeping Willow Tree – mourning, grief, nature’s lament.
* Willows – earthly sorrow
* Winged Face – effigy of the deceased soul; the soul in flight.
* Winged Skull – flight of the soul from mortal man.
* Wreath – victory.
* Wreath on Skull – victory of death over life.
* Wheat Strands or Sheaves – the divine harvest.