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Ancient Gravestone Symbols

Updated on May 25, 2013

The History of Gravestone Symbols

Early gravestones once were actually only rocks placed over a fresh grave to keep the dead from rising. These eventually gave way to primitive markers made from rough stone or wood.

During the dark ages in Europe stone markers were carved to highlight horrifying images of pain, torment and eternal damnation, that were thought to be the end result if one's life was not virtuous. Some of the more elaborate designs highlighted skeletal figures, angels of death and winged skulls.

It was during the Victorian era, particularly in the New World, that headstones took on a more artistic and ornamental focus meant to memorialize and give tribute to the life of the deceased. These stones were decorated with symbolic carvings of angels, anchors, roses and animals.

Gravestone Winged Skull

Gravestone Winged Skull
Gravestone Winged Skull

Stories in Stone - Cemetery Symbols

Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography
Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography

Stories in Stone provides history along with images of a wide variety of common and not-so-common cemetery symbols, and offers an in-depth examination of stone relics and the personal and intimate details they display-flora and fauna, religious icons, society symbols, and final impressions of how the deceased wished to be remembered. Douglas Keister has created a practical field guide that is compact and portable, perfect for those interested in family histories and genealogical research, and is the only book of its kind that unlocks the language of symbols in a comprehensive and easy-to-understand manner.


All-Seeing Eye, Eye of God

Eye of Horus, Eye of Providence

1. Symbolizes the watchful eye of God.

A carved eye seen upon a gravestone, represents an omnipresent, all-seeing God. When the eye is enclosed within a triangle, the triangle is symbolic of the Holy Trinity; the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.


This symbol first appeared in the west during the 17th and 18th centuries, as the Eye of Providence, depicting good fortune and prosperity, but representations of an all-seeing eye can be traced back to Egyptian mythology and the Eye of Horus.

The Cross, Crucifix:

A Christian Sacred Symbol.

2.Symbolizes the mode of the death of Jesus Christ, and faith and resurrection; and it is considered the perfect symbol of Christ's sacrifice in the Christian religion.

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 (pictured) 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, together they represent the unity of heaven and earth.

In pagan times, this cross symbolized fertility and life.


Although the cross has come to be a symbol of Christianity, it was both a religious and lucky sign for centuries before the Christian era. It has been found in parts of the world where the message of Christianity never reached. In most pagan religions, the cross represents the tree of life.

In some ancient cultures, the crosspiece intersecting the upright piece, represented a ladder that helped a worshiper to reach God. In other cultures, the upright portion pointed the way to heaven and the crosspiece represented earthly influences.

The Acorn


3.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 were believed to bestow favors such as protection or natural abundance.

Oak Leaves & Acorn - Maturity, Ripe Old Age

The Dove

Messenger of Peace, Eternal Life

4.The Dove in Christianity, represents the Holy Ghost of the Trinity.

Birds in general represent Eternal life and flying Birds represent Resurrection

The Dove and Olive Branch 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.


The Dove, which is a species of pigeon, has been employed as a messenger from the earliest civilizations to the present day. It was trained in that capacity by the Greeks and Romans, and during the Christian era, and was so used in World War I.

With Sympathy

The Anchor:

Hope, or 'At Rest'

5.The Anchor is a Christian symbol of hope and steadfastness.

It is often seen, wrapped in vines, to represent a firm Christian faith.

It can also be an occupational symbol in sea-faring areas or representative of Saint Nicholas, the patron Saint of seamen, who was known for his generosity to the those in need, his love for children, and his concern for sailors and ships.

An anchor with a broken chain stands for the cessation of life.

The Wreath:

Eternal Victory

6.Originally an ancient symbol of victory, it was adopted into the Christian religion as a symbol of the victory of the redemption.


The wreath as a circle is one of mankind's oldest symbols. It stands for eternity, because it is without beginning or end. It is a sign of completeness, perfection, and wholeness.

The hand holding the wreath (Pictured) represents the Hand of God.

Signs and Symbols

Signs and Symbols in Christian Art
Signs and Symbols in Christian Art

This fascinating book was written by the Rev. George Ferguson, rector of St. Philip's Church, Tucson, Arizona (my hometown!).

It provides a clear and simple explanation of the many signs and symbols to be found in Christian art, and is profusely illustrated with sixteen full color paintings by outstanding Renaissance artists, as well as 96 pages of black and white plates.


The Alpha and The Omega

The Beginning and The End

7.Alpha and Omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet. Symbolizing the beginning and the end.

The shape of Alpha is related to a pair of compasses - an attribute of god the creator, while Omega's shape is similar to a torch -- the fire of apocalyptic destruction.


The Christian symbol juxtaposing the two letters is derived from the book of Revelation:

"I am Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end, the first and the last". (Revelation 22:13).

Old Country Cemetery

Old Country Cemetery
Old Country Cemetery

The Lamb

Purity and Innocence

8.The lamb is the most common animal symbol found on a child's grave.

The Lamb appears throughout the ages with great regularity in Christian art and because it is a symbol of Christ: "Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world!" (John 1:29).

Christ in his sacrificial role, personifies: innocence, meekness, gentleness and humility.


The use of the Lamb in religious art pre-dates Christianity and appears to have been used first by the Egyptians.

The Butterfly:

The Soul, Short-life, Resurrection

9.The Butterfly symbolizes the soul. Although quite rare, it is occasionally seen on graves (most often of children).

It is symbolic of the resurrection of Christ. The butterfly is depicted on ancient Christian Tombs, as Christ has been illustrated holding a butterfly in Christian art.

A pair of butterflies represents marital happiness and a white butterfly signifies the spirit of the dead.


The meaning is derived from the three stages of the life of the butterfly-the caterpillar, the chrysalis, and the butterfly. The three stages are symbols of life, death and resurrection.

Christianity considers the butterfly a soulful symbol. It's connection with the soul is rather fitting. We are all on a long journey of the soul. On this journey we encounter endless turns, shifts, and conditions that cause us to morph into ever-finer beings. At our soul-journey's end we are inevitably changed - not at all the same as when we started on the path.

The Rose

Love, eternal life and resurrection.

10.The Rose symbolizes love, beauty, hope, unfailing love, it is a common symbol of eternal life and resurrection.

The Rose can be associated with the Virgin Mary, the "Rose without thorns."

A red rose symbolizes martyrdom and a white rose symbolizes purity and virginity.

Whether the rose is a bud, flower or somewhere in between indicates how old the person was at the time of death.

Your Comments?

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    • linhah lm profile image

      Linda Hahn 5 years ago from California

      Grave stones are a fascinating subject, with fear and hope symbolized in stone remembrances.

    • profile image

      kate-d-dornbusch 5 years ago

      I knew some of these but some are new. Does anyone know the meaning of the willow tree?

    • MaryThereseBenn profile image

      MaryThereseBenn 5 years ago

      Very interesting! I really enjoyed!!

    • profile image

      mockingbird999 6 years ago

      Interesting. I didn't know most of this.

    • chezchazz profile image

      Chazz 7 years ago from New York

      Very interesting lens. Blessed by a Squid Angel.

    • Sami4u LM profile image

      Sami4u LM 7 years ago


      Now this is a grave subject, and Blessed :)

    • Charmcrazey profile image

      Wanda Fitzgerald 7 years ago from Central Florida

      Fascinating subject. I never gave it a second thought before I read this. I learn so much on Squidoo.

    • Steve Dizmon profile image

      Steve Dizmon 8 years ago from Nashville, TN

      A really interesting lens. I had no idea grave markers were initially placed to keep the dead from rising. I will remember that bit of trivia for the future. 5 Stars for that piece of info alone.

      I found your lens through the "Everything Spiritual" Group.

    • aka-rms profile image

      Robin S 9 years ago from USA

      greetings from gothic temptations

    • profile image

      ChurcHistory 9 years ago

      You have done a fantastic job of this lens,I thoroughly enjoyed your subject so I have bookmarked your site for further reading,Blessing Allison.

    • profile image

      ChurcHistory 9 years ago

      You have done a fantastic job of this lens,I thoroughly enjoyed your subject so I have bookmarked your site for further reading,Blessing Allison.

    • ZenandChic profile image

      Patricia 9 years ago

      Great lens! Welcome to the Spirituality Group!

    • profile image

      qlcoach 9 years ago

      I believe in positive symbols too. I think you could be a fellow traveler into the Light. I give this lens 5 stars. As you know, it more than about grave stones, isn't ? Hope you will see how I try to help others in via The Eby Way. Sincerely: Gary Eby, author and therapist.

    • SusannaDuffy profile image

      Susanna Duffy 9 years ago from Melbourne Australia

      It's fascinating isn't it? All the thought, all the love that goes into selecting a headstone. My personal favourite is the carved Celtic cross