Gravestone Symbols, part 1

by Dae Powell

Here are a few of the many motifs that are found on gravestones along with some of the more commonly held interpretations of their symbolism.


We'll look at half of a large compiled list this time.   Alright, proceeding alphabetically . . .


Acorn As the seed of the oak, the acorn is a symbol of potential.  In Norse and Celtic culture, acorns symbolized life, fertility and immortality.  Druids ate acorns, believing them to have prophetic qualities, and acorns were sacred to the god Thor whose Tree of Life was the oak.  "Acorns and oak leaves form one of the circular 'hex' signs used by the Amish and Mennonite communities of southern Pennsylvania, the various signs believed to bestow favors such as protection or natural abundance."
Anchor Commonly used in the 18th and 19th centuries to represent hope or the deceased's seafaring profession.  When wrapped in vines, represents firm Christian faith.
Angel, Flying Rebirth or Resurrection.
Angel, Trumpeting Resurrection.
Angel, Weeping Grief and Mourning.
Ankh The original meaning of this ancient Egyptian symbol is not known.  One theory suggests that it combines the male and female symbols of Osiris (the cross) and Isis (the oval) and therefore signifies the union of heaven and earth.  It is usually portrayed in ancient Egyptian art in the hands of a diety.  As a hieroglyph, it likely encompassed a range of meanings depending on its associated hieroglyphs but all of these expressions centered around the concept of life or life-force.  Over time, the ankh certainly came to symbolize life and immortality, the universe, power and life-giving air and water.  "Its key like shape also encouraged the belief that it could unlock the gates of death".  The Coptic Christians used it as a symbol of life after death.  The ankh has been used in magic and today it usually symbolizes peace and truth.
Arches Victory in Death.
Arrows Mortality.
Bats Commonly used in 18th century New England to represent the underworld.
Bird Eternal life.
Bird,Flying Resurrection.
Books A pair of Scriptural Books on Mormon (LDS) headstones represents the Bible and Book of Mormon.
Books A trio of Scriptures on Mormon headstones indicates the Bible, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine & Covenants all of which are scripture in the LDS Church.
Bouquets Condolences, grief, sorrow.
Bridge Since antiquity, bridges have symbolized linking; between the earthly and heavenly realms, between the physical and the spiritual, or between life and death.  In modern psychoanalytic terms, bridges symbolize the transition from one state of being to another and the opportunity for change.  The bridge's near side represents the past, its opposite side the future, and water flowing underneath, the chaos of the unconscious mind.
Broken Column Loss of Head of Family.
Broken Ring Family Circle Severed.
Buds Morning of Life or Renewal of Life.
Bugles Resurrection or Military.
Butterfly Based on its evolution from egg to caterpillar to chrysalis to butterfly, it represents the soul, transformation and rebirth, the creation of life from apparent death.  To the Chinese, the butterfly symbolizes immortality.  The Japanese view it as a symbol of fickleness because of its flighty behavior, although a pair of butterflies represents marital happiness and a white butterfly signifies the spirit of the dead.  In Christianity, the butterfly can be a symbol of resurrection but is sometimes viewed also as symbolic of transience because of its short lifespan, or of vanity.
Candle In Christianity, candles represent the divine light of Christ and faith.  In Catholic funeral rites, candles signify the light of heaven.  When lighted by worshippers and placed before shrines, candles signify the souls of the departed or a request for illumination by prayer.  When on opposite sides of a cross on an altar, the two candles represent the dual nature of Christ, human and divine.  Many religions and cultures use the burning candle as a symbol of light, life, spirituality, truth and eternal life.
Candle, Snuffed Time, mortality.
Cherub Angelic.
Clock / Watch Represents the transitory nature of human existence.  In psychoanalysis it signifies human emotions, not that your hour is up.  It also can represent new beginnings and opportunities.
Coat of Arms High social status and family lineage.
Coffins Often carved on 17th and 18th century New England gravestones to signify mortality.
Corn Ripe Old Age.
Cross Emblem of faith, there are many different types of crosses.  The crucifix, a Christian symbol, is a Latin cross with an image of Christ nailed to it and depicts the sacrifice Jesus made for human salvation.  The shepherd's cross has a crooked apex and represents both the Christian faith and Jesus' role in guiding people through life and saving lost souls.  The Celtic cross was prevalent in Ireland and it looks like a cross with its arms surrounded by a circle:  This cross signifies the Christian faith, the circle the power of the sun and eternity, and together they represent the unity of heaven and earth.  In pagan times, this cross symbolized fertility and life.  A cross whose vertical arm ends in a point is called a crossy fitch.  Often used in heraldry, it looks like a cross and sword combined, and signifies one's unshakeable faith in Christianity and willingness to defend it.
Cross, Celtic In pagan times, this cross, with its axis enclosed by a circle, was a symbol of fertility and life, the cross representing male potency and the circle, female power.  Prevalent in Ireland, it is now primarily a Christian symbol signifying the unity of heaven and earth.
Crossed Swords High-ranking military person.
Crown Commonly used on 18th century New England headstones to represent the crown of righteousness.
Crucifix Salvation.  This Latin cross with the image of Christ nailed to it is a Christian symbol which shows the sacrifice Jesus made for the salvation of humankind.
Darts Death or mortality, and not that the interred lingered at pubs.  Sometimes seen on 17th and 18th century New England tombstones.
Dog Loyalty, Vigilance, Courage.  As a symbol of faithfulness, dogs often appear at the feet of women on medieval tomb engravings.  In Christianity, the dog guards and guides the flock, and so becomes an allegory of the priest.  The dog is also a companion of the dead on their crossing.  Ancient Egyptians and Greeks believed it followed its master into the afterlife.  Many cultures believed that dogs were mediators with the realm of the dead: the Egyptian god Anubis who oversees embalming and weighs the heart of the dead is jackal-headed, Cerburus the guardian of the entrance to the Greek underworld is a three-headed dog with a serpent's tail, the dog Garmr guards the Norse underworld. The Celts and Greeks believed dogs possessed healing powers. In some African cultures, the dog is the father of civilization and the bringer of fire. In the eleventh sign of the Chinese zodiac, the dog symbolizes idealism. In Chinese tradition, the dog can signify both catastrophe and protection. Among Jews and Moslems, the dog possesses negative attributes. It is unclean and, when black, signifies the Devil.
Door Passage from one state to another.  In Christianity, the door signifies salvation through Christ, who said, "I am the door."  In dream interpretation, a closed door represents a hidden mystery or barrier, an open door liberation or invitation to a new challenge, an inward opening door the need for self-exploration, and an outward opening door represents accessibility to others.
Dove Holy Spirit, Soul Reaching Peace, Spirituality.  In Slavic culture, at death the soul turns into a dove.  In Visigothic and Romanesque art, it represents souls.  In Hinduism, the dove represents the spirit.  The dove was sacred to Zeus, to Athena as a symbol of the renewal of life, and to Aphrodite as a symbol of love.  To the ancient Egyptians, it signified innocence, and in Islam the dove is the protector of Mohammad.  In Christianity, the Holy Ghost of the Trinity is often portrayed as a dove.  In China it represents longevity and orderliness while in Japan the dove is associated with the war god Hachiman.  In Jewish history the dove was sometimes sacrificed for a mother's purification after childbirth.  The dove is sometimes an emblem of Israel.
Dove and Olive Branch Peace.  This symbol stems from Judeo-Christian culture and the biblical story of Noah and the great flood.  When the dove returned to the ark with an olive branch from the Mount of Olives in its beak, it was a sign of God's forgiveness.  It is now a common secular symbol.
Dragon Dramatically different interpretations between Eastern and Western cultures.  In the Orient, the dragon protects humans from evil spirits and represents joy, health and fertility.  But in Western cultures, the dragon possesses the negative traits of the snake, destruction, danger, depravity, and loss of innocence.  In Jewish tradition, mythical beasts like the dragon are messianic creatures.
Drapes Mourning or Mortality.
Eagle Height, The Spiritual, Courage, Victory, Power.  With its speedy and high flight, the eagle is an extensively used symbol throughout many time periods and cultures.  With the details varying, a common thread in most eagle symbolism is dominating and destroying baser forces, or the victory of higher powers.  In Oriental art, it is often shown fighting.  In Christian tradition, it carries a serpent in its beak to represent Christ's victory over Satan.  In pre-Columbian America it represented the struggle between the spiritual / celestial and the lower world.  On the banner of the Roman legion, it represented the victorious Roman Empire.  As the king of the birds, it came to symbolize royalty.  In many nations, such as the U.S., the eagle is the symbol of sovereignty and nationhood.  The eagle also is commonly a messenger.  In Christianity and some Native American traditions, the eagle is a messenger between god and man.  Also a messenger in Vedic tradition.  Often associated with the sun and the day, luminous, positive and active as opposed to the owl, the bird of darkness, death, and night.  In ancient Syria, where the eagle symbolized sun worship, it assisted souls to immortality.  In Native American cultures, the eagle's feathers symbolized the sun's rays, therefore the Great Spirit.  This bird is often associated with thunder and fire.
Eye of God Judeo-Christian symbol that includes an eye above a tent and a three-link chain underneath.  Often shown in a triangle, the eye signifies God, the all-seeing, at the center of the Trinity.  The tent is the house of God, its flaps open to show inner truth.  The chain represents both the Trinity and the link that binds the faithful to God.
Father Time Mortality.
Flowers Condolences, grief, sorrow.
Flower, Severed Stem Shortened life.
Flying Birds Flight of the Soul.
Fruit Various fruits possess their own symbolic meaning but fruit in general signifies abundance.  Also, since it contains seeds, it represents life, potential, and immortality.
Garlands Victory in death.
Gateway Carries much of the same symbolism as the door but the destination is less personal.  It represents entrance to greater areas, the mystical, heaven or hell, spiritual palace.  A series of gateways can represent the stages of enlightenment.  In dream interpretation, the gateway invites self-exploration.  It is a symbol of initiation, passing through the gateway into a new state of being.
Gourds In 17th and 18th century New England, the birth and death of earthly matters.
Grape Cluster In Egyptian art it symbolizes the heart, because of the similarity of shape, color and blood-like juice of the grape.  Since the heart is vital to life, it therefore symbolizes life itself.
Grapes and Grapevines Grapes signify sacrifice, since they are used in the making of wine, which, in Christianity represents Christ's blood and his sacrifice.  They can also connote life and immortality.  From the Old Testament, among the Jews, the grapevine signifies peace and abundance.
Hammer This tool, used in building and shaping, represents the power of creation.
Hand This is a very expressive symbol that takes on different meanings depending on its positioning in relation to the body and arrangement of the fingers.  The raised hand symbolizes voice and song, placed on the chest it represents the wisdom of the sage, on the neck it depicts sacrifice, covering the eyes it signifies clairvoyance at the moment of death.  Two hands joined typically signify union.  A common hand placement on Jewish tombstones is the two open hands, thumbs touching, with index and middle finger spread away from the ring and pinkie fingers.  This gesture, raised above the head, is used by priests to bring God's glory through the hands' openings and to the congregation.  In Egyptian hieroglyphics, pre-Columbian America and as an amulet in Islamic cultures, the open hand represents a human task and magnetic force.  The hand, with its five fingers, takes on the meaning of the number five, i.e., love, health and humanity.
Hand of God Chopping Sudden Death.
Hand with Finger Pointing Gone Home, Look to God, Direction.  The pointing finger represents direction, whether physical, spiritual or psychological.
Handshakes Signify a variety of meanings including, greeting, goodbye, friendship, solidarity, unity and agreement, and the doubling of power achieved through partnership.  The right hand is the life-force or hand of power.  An eye associated with a hand symbolizes clairvoyant action.
Harp Harmony with the universe and ascent to higher things, a bridge between heaven and earth.  In Judaism, the harp is a symbol of David, conqueror of Goliath and king of Israel.  David's harp playing relieved King Saul's depression and when he became king, the midnight wind playing on a harp that overhung his bed called him to study the Torah.
Hearts Soul in Bliss or Love of Christ.
Hooped Snake In 18th and 19th century New England, this symbol meant eternity.
Horns The Resurrection.
Hourglass Mortality.  The swiftness of time.  Because it must be turned upside down for the sand to run out, it also represents the cycle of life and death, and heaven and earth.  In Christianity, it personifies temperance.
Hourglass with Wings of Time Time Flying; Short Life.
Imps Mortality.
Iris Light and Hope.  With its pointed leaves, it's often called the sword Lilly and is associated with the sorrow of the Virgin Mary.  To the Chinese, this flower represents affection, grace and beauty.
Ivy Immortality, Friendship, Faithfulness.  Because it is an evergreen that clings while climbing, it signifies the need for protection.  Since it grows quickly, it also symbolizes regeneration, sensuality and revelry.  The Greco-Roman god Dionysus, or Bacchus, had an ivy cup and wore a crown of ivy leaves.
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