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Meanings of Cemetery Monuments

Updated on November 28, 2014


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Cemetery monuments and head stones, so many different symbols, but what do they all mean? I have been intrigued by some of the markings that I have seen on stones in cemeteries around the country. So, I decided to do a little digging and see what I could come up with.

My cemetery knowledge comes from the United States; I have been in other countries, but never to a cemetery outside of the United States. What I have found is that being a Christian nation, almost every single one of the symbols goes back to Christianity. No real surprise there, right?

We have all been in a cemetery, helped choose a headstone, or honored the dead at sometime. Have you ever wondered about the symbols? For many years I took them for granted, never gave them much thought until recently. Why recently, I have no idea. Maybe it’s the fact that I’m getting older and more people around me are leaving this world, or maybe I’m just thinking of my own mortality. Who knows?

At any rate, this is what I have found. A great deal of the symbols come from ancient Greek as well, for example, the acanthus leaf. This symbol is a symbol of peace and the Garden of Eden. See how that goes back to Christianity? The Garden of Eden as described in the book of Genesis.

  • Alpha and Omega-this is an old symbol that includes the first and last letter in the Greek alphabet. This is a symbol for the beginning and the ending of life.

  • Anchor-the early Christians would disguise the symbol of the cross by using an anchor. This was a sign of hope.

  • Angel-this is an agent of God. They are considered the guardians of the dead and can be identified by the objects they carry. For example, Michael carries a sword, and Gabriel a horn. The horn signifies judgment day and a call to resurrection.

  • Arch-signifies victory in death.

  • Outstretched Arms-a plea for mercy.

  • Arrow-signifies mortality

  • Baby’s Chair-represents a child now gone from this earth

  • Bible-religion, cleric, lay person

  • Bird in Flight-indicates the flight of the soul

  • Book-indicates a teacher, scholar, the book of life as represented in the Bible

  • Bugles-military and the resurrection

  • Butterfly-represents the soul

  • Calla lily-marriage

  • Candle-represents the spirit or the soul

  • Candle with a flame-eternal life

  • Broken Chain-indicates the freedom of the soul from the body

  • Chalice-the holy rite of Communion

  • Cherubs-divine wisdom or justice. Can also indicate a child, often found on the headstone of a child.

  • Cinquefoil-maternal affection or beloved daughter

  • Clouds-veil that conceals God from his believers

  • Coffin, Sarcophagus-a symbol of mortality

  • Columns-noble life, a broken column indicates a life cut short

  • Cross-religious beliefs, signifies faith, hope and love

  • Cross and Crown-Christ’s victory over death

  • Cross and Anchor-symbolizes our anchor to God

  • Crown-rewards in heaven, glory, victory

  • Cypress Tree-signifies hope

  • Daffodil-youth, desire, beauty, deep regard.

  • Dog-loyalty

  • Dogwood-divine sacrifice, resurrection, and eternal life

  • Dolphin-bearer of souls to heaven, salvation, resurrection

  • Dove-represents the Holy Spirit

  • Door and Gates-entrance to heaven

  • Dragon-this one depicts sin and worldly pleasures

  • Eye in the triangle-the trinity or all seeing

  • Fern-sorrow, sincerity

  • Figs or pineapple-eternal life, prosperity

  • Fish-this symbol indicates faith

  • Flame-eternity

  • Fleur De Lis-passion, mother, ardor, flame

  • Frog-earthly pleasures, or sometimes it can represent the resurrection

  • Fruits-a bountiful afterlife

  • Wreath, or Garland-represents redemption, victory, memory and passage to eternal life

  • Grapes-symbolizes God’s blood, the Last Supper

  • Grapes with leaves-the Christian faith

  • Grim Reaper-this is death personified

  • Hands-the hand of God

  • Heart-love, mortality, love of God, intelligence, courage

  • Horse-generosity

  • Horseshoe-lucky, protection against evil

  • Hourglass-indicating the swiftness of time, running out of time, out of time

  • Ivy-this vine stays green forever and is a symbol of eternal life, immortality, and also friendship

  • Keys-spiritual knowledge

  • Knot-everlasting

  • Labyrinth-indicated the passage of life with its twists and turns

  • Lamb-most often seen at a child’s grave. Symbolizes the “Lamb” of God

  • Lily-purity

  • Lion-power of God, guards the tomb against evil

  • Morning Glory-mortality, the shortness of life, mourning, resurrection

  • Oak-strength, victory

  • Olive Branch-symbol of peace and safety

  • Palm-Christ’s victory over death, resurrection, success, associated with Easter

  • Peacock-beauty of soul, immortality

  • Pentagram-represents the five points of Christ’s crucifixion

  • Pineapple-hospitality

  • Pyramid-eternity

  • R.I.P-Rest in Peace

  • Rooster-vigilance, courage, and awakening

  • Rose-hope, beauty, love, a white rose symbolizes purity

  • Scroll-life and time

  • Scythe/sickle-death, or a harvest of souls

  • Serpent-when shown swallowing its own tail represents spiritual striving

  • Shamrock-Ireland

  • Shell-remembrance

  • Ship-seaman, or seafarer

  • Skull/skeleton-death/mortality

  • Setting Sun-death

  • Trumpets-resurrection

  • Trumpeters-resurrection

  • Urn-mourning

  • Vine-the blood of Christ

  • Weeping Willow-grief, symbol of sorrow

  • Wheat-bread and the communion

  • Woman Hanging on a Cross-faith

  • Yew Tree-eternal life and sadness

Some of these you will see quite often, others not so much. These are just a few of the symbols there are many more that are not associated with Christianity, but these are the ones that I have found familiar when visiting cemeteries in America.

Cemetery monuments and symbolism can be very interesting, but for some it can be depressing. The world of symbols can go on for as long as we have an imagination. Here are a few more symbols; these are not necessarily linked back to Christianity.

  • Bamboo-this is a symbol of Buddha and is a symbol of devotion and truthfulness

  • Buttercup-symbolizes cheerfulness

  • D.A.R/S.A.R-Sons and Daughters of the Revolution

  • G.A.R-Grand Army of the Republic symbolizing the Union Army during the War Between the States.

  • Ladder-a scale of perfection

  • Moss-Merit

  • Ship-seafarer

  • Soldier on Horseback-soldier

The next time you venture into a cemetery take a look around and see what symbols you can find.


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