Symbology Commonly Found on Tombstones

 

A person doesn’t need to spend much time wandering through old cemeteries before seeing a myriad of carved trees, lambs, pointing fingers, and more. Sometimes these images are a reflection of the personality of the deceased or the relatives left behind, but often there is a specific meaning to the creation. Here are some common examples and what they frequently mean, although local interpretation may be something entirely different. In fact, in some cases the symbol may have no meaning whatsoever - it might just be an image the deceased or a loved one liked. In the Newaygo County area, many of the following symbols can be found, often in combination with each other.

 

Gallery of Gravestone Symbols

 

 

ANIMALS

 

 

Bee

Resurrection, the risen Christ; chastity

 

Birds flying

The flight of the soul back to God

 

Descending dove

Holy Ghost

 

Single dove

Peace; innocence

 

Eagle

Fierceness; National emblem of the United States: the military professional, often associated with Civil War casualties

 

Fish

Christ

 

Lamb

Christ; Redeemer; the lamb is often used to mark the grave of a child

 

Lion

Strength; courage; guardian; fallen hero

 

Lion with wings

St. Mark the Evangelist

 

Phoenix

Immortality; baptism

 

Ram

Sacrifice

 

Rooster

Repentance

 

Serpent

Symbol of death

 

Snake with tail in mouth

Eternity; unity

 

 

 

 

FIGURES

 

 

Angel

Messenger between God & man; guide

 

Angel flying

Rebirth

 

Angel trumpeting

Call to the resurrection

 

Angel weeping

Grief

 

Child, sleeping

Victorian death motif

 

Winged skull

Mortality

 

Hand of God, down

Mortality, sudden death

 

Hand of God, up

The reward of the righteous; confirmation of life after death. See also Finger.

 

Hands

Devotion, prayer

 

Hands shaking

Farewell to earthly existence. This, or a variation, is a very common symbol found on many of the older stones in the area. It is also one of my favorites.

 

Hands clasped

In death as in life, the devotion of these two is not destroyed

 

Trumpeters

Heralds of the resurrection

 

Woman weeping

Mourning; recalls myth of Niobe, whom the gods turned to stone as she wept for her slain children

 

 

 

 

LATIN PHRASES

 

 

Fugit hora

"Hours are fleeting", "Time flies"

 

IHS

Monogram or symbol representing the Greek contraction of "Jesus"

 

INRI

Frequently seen on a banner over the cross: "Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum". Latin for Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews (John 12:19-22)

 

Memento mori

"Remember death"

 

Tempus erat

"Time is gone"; "Time has run out"

 

XP-Chi Rho

First two Greek letters of the word "Christ"

 

 

 

 

THINGS

 

 

Alpha & Omega

The beginning & end of all things, see Revelation 22:13

 

Anchor

Hope, life eternal. Anchors are relatively common in the area on older stones, owing largely, I suspect, to the Calvinist history of West Michigan.

 

Book

The bible; wisdom

 

Books, stacked

Knowledge

 

Bugles

Resurrection; the military profession

 

Celtic cross

Circle symbolizes eternity; equal length arms represent the four elements

 

Chain links

Three links of chain, often with the letters F, L, and T in the links, indicates a member of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a fraternal organization unique in that provides a death benefit to its members. The letters represent Friendship, Love, and Truth.

 

Circle

Eternity; or earth

 

Coats of arms and crests

Lineage, status

 

Column, broken

Sorrow

 

Columns, doors

Entrance to heaven

 

Cross

Christ; salvation

 

Crown

Reward of faithful, victory, triumph, glory; righteousness; resurrection

 

Crown on cross

The sovereignty of Christ

 

Crozier

Bishop

 

Cup

Eucharist

Drapery over anything

Sorrow; mourning

 

Finger

Pointing to heaven. See also Hand of God, up.

 

Flame

Eternity

 

Fleur-de-lis

The Holy Virgin; the Trinity

 

Pyramid

Symbolic of death

 

Rock

The steadfastness of Christ; stability

 

Rosary

Devotion to Mary

 

Scales

Weighing of souls; justice

 

Scroll

The law; Scriptures

 

Scythe

The passage of time, the divine harvest

 

Shell

Pilgrimage: baptism of Christ

 

Shell, scallop

Pilgrim; pilgrim's journey; resurrection

 

Ship

The Church

 

Skeletons

Mortality and death

 

Skull

Death; sin

 

Skull, winged

Flight of the soul from mortal man

 

Skulls and crossbones

Mortality

 

Star

Birth, life;

 

Star, five pointed

Star of Bethlehem; star of Jacob; divine guidance and protection

 

Star, six pointed

Star of David, Judaism; The Father, Creation, heavenly wisdom

 

Sun, setting

Death

 

Sun, rising

Resurrection; renewed life

 

Suns, moons and stars

The reward of the resurrection

 

Sword

Martyrdom; courage; warfare

 

Swords, crossed

High ranking military person

 

Three of any thing

The Holy Trinity

 

Tombs

Mortality

 

Torch, upright-

Immortality, liberty, the scholastic world

 

Trumpet

Day of judgment; resurrection

 

Urn

The soul; mortality

 

Urn, draped

Death, sorrow

 

Winged wheel

Holy Spirit, may be based on a passage from Ezekiel in the Old Testament

 

Yoke

Burden-bearing; service; patience

 

 

 

 

TREES AND PLANTS

 

 

Almond

Favor from God; Virgin birth

 

Bellflower

Gratitude

 

Bouquets

Condolences, grief

 

Buds

Renewal of life

 

Cedar

Strong faith; length of days; success

 

Cypress

Sorrow; death; eternal life; the cypress is the Roman symbol for mourning

 

Easter lily

Modern flower symbolic of resurrection

 

Evergreens

Immortality

 

Flower

Brevity of earthly existence, sorrow; certain flowers may symbolize emotions, in particular aspirations and attitudes, both religious and secular

 

Flower, broken

Premature death

 

Fruit

Eternal plenty

 

Fruit and vine

Jesus Christ; the Christian church

 

Gourds

The coming to be and passing away of all earthly matters

 

Ivy

Abiding memory, friendship, fidelity

 

Laurel

Victory, triumph, glory

 

Oak

Supernatural power and strength; eternity

 

Olive

Peace; healing faith

 

Palm

Spiritual victory over death; martyrdom; reward of the righteous; peace; a plant whose leaves resemble a hand

 

Pineapple

Hospitality

 

Pomegranate

Immortality; resurrection; unity; nourishment of the soul

 

Poppy

Symbolic of sleep, therefore, death

 

Roses

Condolence, sorrow; the brevity of earthly existence; of English descent, as with the Tudor rose

 

Sheaves of wheat

Time, the divine harvest

 

Strawberry

Righteousness; humility

 

Thistle

Of Scottish descent; the inevitability of death, remembrance

 

Tree

Faith; life; the Tree of Life; may also signify a member of the Woodsmen of the World

 

Tree, felled

Mortality

 

Tree trunk, broken

Premature death

 

Vine

Christian church; Christ; wine, the symbolic blood of Jesus; the sacraments

 

Wheat sheaves

The divine harvest

 

Willow, weeping

Grief; death (carried at Masonic funerals); earthly sorrow, the symbolic tree of human sadness

 

Wreath

Victory in death; eternity

 

Wreath worn by skull

Victory of death over life

 

Yew

Immortality

 

Most of the above information is based on information collected from a variety of sources, most notably the SYMBOLS ON GRAVESTONES AND THEIR INTERPRETATIONS Collection from Barbara Rotundo, Laurel Gabel, Francis Duval, and work by the Association for Gravestone Studies. Please patronize their web site at http://www.gravestonestudies.org/

 

A useful bibliography, as provided by the Association for Gravestone Studies

 

Benes, Peter, The Masks of Orthodoxy: Folk Gravestone Carving in Plymouth County, Massachusetts, 1689-1805. The University of Massachusetts Press, Amherst, Massachusetts, 1977.

 

Duval, Francis Y., and Ivan B. Rigby, Early American Gravestone Art in Photographs. Dover  Publications, Inc., New York, 1979.

 

Forbes, Harriette Merrifield, Gravestones of Early New England and the Men Who Made Them 1653-1800. The Pyne Press, Princeton, New Jersey, 1927 reprint, soft-cover. This book, currently out of print, is available in libraries.

 

George, Diana Hume and Malcolm A. Nelson, Epitaph and Icon: A Field Guide to the Old Grounds of Cape Cod, Martha's Vineyard, and Nantucket. Parnassus Imprints, Orleans, Massachusetts, 1983.

 

Gillon, Jr., Edmund Vincent, Early New England Gravestone Rubbings. Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1966.

 

Jacobs, G.Walker, Stranger Stop and Cast an Eye. A Guide to Gravestones and Gravestone Rubbing. The Stephen Greene Press, Brattleboro, Vermont, 1972.

 

Ludwig, Allan I., Graven Images: New England Stonecarving and its Symbols, 1650-1815. Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Connecticut, 1966.

 

Tashjian, Dickran and Ann, Memorials for Children of Change: The Art of New England Stonecarving. Wesleyan University Press, Middletown, Connecticut, 1973.

 

Wasserman, Emily, Gravestone Designs: Rubbings and Photographs from Early New York and New Jersey. Dover Publications, Inc., New York, 1972.

 

Willsher, Betty and Doreen Hunter, Stones: 18th Century Scottish Gravestones. Taplinger Publishing Company, New York, 1979.

 

Williams, Melvin G.. The Last Word: The Lure and Lore of Early New England Graveyards. Oldstone Enterprises, 186 Lincoln Street, Suite 705, Boston, Massachusetts 02111, 1973. (This booklet includes an excellent 8 page discussion of symbolism which divides gravestone symbols into categories.)