Gravestone or Cemetery Symbols & Their Meanings

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Contributing writer, cemetery historian

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What can gravestones and cemetery symbols tell us? Sure, you might see the name of a person and their date of birth and death, but on the surface it seems like it’s simply an announcement of a person’s death. The grave markers we see throughout a cemetery can tell us a lot about a person, even if we didn’t know them. 

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Put on your Sherlock Holmes cap and grab your magnifying glass. We’re going to hunt down clues through gravestone symbols!

Colonial Headstone Symbols

Regarding the gravestone discussion, there’s one time period that’s often overlooked. The Colonial era in America began in 1492 and ended in 1763, which crossed over with the Puritan era. But why is it overlooked?

If you’re focusing on symbolism, it’s easy to skip the Colonial headstones. For the first 200 years, they were more utilitarian than decorative. Sandstone and slate were selected because they were softer types of stones and therefore easier to carve into. 

The East Coast, especially Northeast in and around Massachusetts, are known for their smaller cemeteries filled with slate gravestones. Slate stone, though, wouldn’t come into play for tombstones until at least 1734 after it was originally quarried. So the earliest grave markers were made of field stones, sandstone, or wooden markers. Very few wooden markers have survived from that time.

As these grave markers were simple, there were no symbols carved on them. They were merely markers for grave sites. The gravestones with symbolic carvings would come later on in the period.

Puritan and Early New England Headstone Symbols

The Puritans came to America in 1630, 10 years after the Pilgrims settled in the New World. Puritan colonists believed the Church of England needed to be “purified” because it had corrupted the word of the Bible (like they thought the Roman Catholics had). They didn’t agree with the flashy rituals and felt that God’s message was lost. This view heavily influenced the carving of their gravestones.

During the first century spent in their new land, their grave markers were as plain as the Colonial era stones. Early on, only basic information was included on their gravestones. An example of such a stone would say “Heare lyeth the body of John Bissell deceased – October the 3 1677 in the 86 years of – his age” (located in Windsor, Connecticut).                        

A big change from gravestones from the Colonial era was that the Puritans had designated stone carvers. While during those early times of the era, Puritan grave markers were simple and carved out of sandstone the inscriptions were more finely done. They also might include epitaphs.

These were the early days, but eventually, they would have even more skilled stone carvers. These men introduced “artistry and craftsmanship” to what would become a profession.

Let’s consider the first wave of gravestones carved with images. Their symbols represented the earliest settlers’ who were in “a culture steeped in dying.” The images were not religious, because the Puritans followed the Bible’s word against the representation of “graven images.”

Anatomy of an early gravestone

Early gravestones found mainly in the New England area have a very specific look to them. It makes sense since they are some of the oldest cemeteries in the country. Unlike many stones you find across the country, they have well-defined sections and the look of a bed’s headboard.

The top, rounded section is the tympanum or lunette, the two smaller sides with rounded tops are finials (sometimes referred to as “shoulders”), and the main area of worded information is called the tablet. The tympanum was the location of the death’s head or other main symbolic carvings. The finials were for the gravestone’s ornamental carvings.  

Puritan gravestone symbols

Here’s a list of the most common symbols on Puritan New England gravestones:

  • Coffin - Mortality
  • Hourglass - The passage of time
  • Hourglass with wings - Time flies
  • Scythe - Traditional tool of Death personified; the “last harvest” 
  • Shovel and pickaxe - Mortality
  • Skeleton - Anatomical personification of death
  • Skull - Death; sin
  • Skull and crossbones - Mortality
  • Winged skull - Also known as a death’s head; represented death’s flight

New England moves forward

Eventually, Puritanism lost its stronghold on the people. The population was becoming more diverse, including in their religious beliefs. The people started focusing on their lives outside the church rather than on the doom and gloom of the Puritan beliefs. The false accusations of the Salem Witch Trials attested to Puritanism’s failings, which was amplified after the deaths of 20 innocent people and the arrests of 150 more.

As Puritanism faded away, the second wave of New England gravestone carvings began. The people were focusing on the growth and prosperity of business and community.

Gravestone symbols were less grim and focused more on hope and individualism. They had also become more complex. Stone carvers became more and more skilled as time went on. They created beautiful works of art rather than merely an announcement of death and a warning to the living that they, too, would die.

  • Arrows - Mortality
  • Gourds - Birth and death of earthly matters
  • Grapes - Christ, blood of Christ
  • Ivy - Memory, immortality
  • Head of a person with wings - A soul effigy or winged cherub symbolizing the soul’s flight to heaven; a gentler, more hopeful view of death than skulls
  • Willow - Perpetual mourning

Victorian Era Headstone Symbols

During the 19th century there was a shift in attitudes toward death. 

The Victorians were very much into the symbolic, and not just with their cemeteries. Flowers had a language all their own, and there were books written just about them. A bouquet sent to someone meant more than a thoughtful gift. The flowers themselves had their own messages. They were an alternative way to express their feelings for another when polite society demanded propriety. 

Here are examples of Victorian flower symbols found on gravestones:

  • Acacia - The soul’s immortality
  • Acanthus - Garden of Heaven. 
  • Acorn - Fertility, potential, immortality, and life; part of the oak’s circle of life
  • Apple - “Original sin”
  • Asphodel - To be remembered after death
  • Bouquet - Condolences or grief
  • Buttercup - A cheery person or cheerfulness
  • Calla lily - Marriage
  • Clover - Luck
  • Daffodil - Loss of youth, deep regard, grace
  • Daisy - Child, innocence, purity
  • Easter lily - Resurrection
  • Evergreen - Immortality
  • Fern - Sincerity and sorrow
  • Flower, broken stem - Mortality, a life cut short                                                                                        
  • Forget-me-not - Remembrance, do not forget
  • Ivy - Memory, friendship, faithfulness
  • Lily of the valley - Innocence, purity
  • Palm frond - Victory over death
  • Rose - Beauty; beauty of the soul; female
  • Rose bud - Infant or child
  • Willow tree - Mourning, sorrow; also known as weeping willow

You can also find many other symbols dating back to the mid-1800s on grave markers such as:

  • Anchor - Hope; sailor or captain
  • Anchor with broken chain - Life ended too soon
  • Circle - Eternity; can also be a serpent in a circle with tail in its mouth
  • Column, broken - Life cut short
  • Column or Urn, with draping - Draped cloth represented the covering for a coffin, also known as a pall
  • Dove - Child, purity, innocence; Holy Spirit
  • Hand, pointing down - Hand of God reaching down to bring the soul to Heaven
  • Hand, pointing up - Denotes the soul is going to Heaven
  • Hands, clasped with male and female sleeves - Marriage, matrimony
  • Hands, clasped with one male sleeve and one with robed sleeve - God welcoming the soul to Heaven; unity with God
  • Hands, clasped with two male sleeves - Farewell to earthly existence; also used by Masons and Independent Order of Oddfellows
  • Lamb - Child, innocence
  • Urn - The soul; earthly remains

Religious Headstone Symbols

For those who believed in a religion, they were able to have symbols of their faith proudly displayed on their grave markers. Some examples of religious symbols found in the cemetery are the following:

  • Anchor - Christian symbol of hope; once used as a cross in disguise during times of Christian persecution
  • Crescent and star - Muslim
  • Cross, Celtic - Cross with circle around the intersection
  • Cross, Greek - Thick plus sign
  • Cross, Latin - Traditional Christian cross
  • Cross, Orthodox - Cross with smaller bar above the main one and a diagonal one near the bottom
  • Hands, Kohen - Blessing gesture of a Hebrew priest (Kohen); open hands touching at the thumbs with fingers spread in twos (resembles greeting given by Spock on “Star Trek”)
  • Hands, praying - Christian prayer
  • IHS - First three letters in Jesus’ name in the Greek alphabet; In hoc signo is Latin for “by this sign we conquer”
  • Passion flower - Passion of Christ
  • Star, nine-pointed - Bahai
  • Star, six-pointed - Judaism, Star of David
  • Star, five-pointed within circle - Wicca, pentacle
  • Wheel - Buddhist, Wheel of Righteousness 
  • XP, overlapped - First two letters in Greek word for Christ

Military Headstone Symbols

Symbols on government-issued gravestones are often religious symbols. There are other gravestones, though, that depict someone who was in the military, as listed below.

  • American flag - Military career; pride in country
  • Bugles - Military career
  • Canon - Military service
  • Eagle - Courage military career
  • Oak leaves - On military tombs stand for victory or power
  • Sword - Military career
  • Swords, crossed - Military death in battle
  • Wreath of laurel - Distinction in military; can also be a garland

Masonic Headstone Symbols

Any Masonic symbol on a gravestone shows that the interred man was a Freemason, a fraternal order.

  • Compass - A tool for builders and architects; letter “G” refers to God or the Grand Architect of the Universe, as well as geometry
  • Eye - All-seeing eye of God
  • Star, five pointed with point down - Order of the Eastern Star, which is for both men and women

The Masons are only one example of fraternal orders that have existed or still exist today. Others include the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, Mystic Toilers, Woodmen of World, Grand Army of the Republic, and The Shriners.

Giving the Cemetery Meaning 

As you can see, there’s more to cemeteries that first meets the eye. If you look closely at the headstones you can learn a lot about the person buried below. You can tell if the person was married, was a child, had a specific religion, died in battle, or was a member of a fraternal order.

The next time you visit an old graveyard, make sure you pay close attention to the symbols you see. You can learn a lot.


Sources

  1. AtlasPreservation.com. “American Gravestone Evolution - Part 1.” atlaspreservation.com/pages/historical1 
  2. Diaz, David. Various articles, 2013. An Armchair Academic. anarmchairacademic.wordpress.com
  3. Daining, Crystal. “Puritanism in Colonial America: Beliefs & Definition.” Study.com. atlaspreservation.com/pages/historical1 
  4. TheCemeteryClub.com. “Gravestone Symbolism.” www.thecemeteryclub.com/gravestones.html 
  5. Forest Home Cemetery. “Forest Home Cemetery Overview.” foresthomecemeteryoverview.weebly.com/gravestone-symbols.html