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Tombstone Tuesday: Cemetery Sleuths, Part 2

Posted by Renee Tuesday, September 15, 2009

Last week, in Part One of this three-part series on Cemetery Symbolism, we discussed how much information (or evidence) can be gleaned from even a simple gravestone. Today, I offer these common cemetery symbols - and their meanings - to help you decipher your cryptic cemetery gravestones.

Anchors often mark the graves of sailors, but they were also employed as a clever deception by early Christians, used by to guide one another to secret places of worship, or to disguise a cross.

Animals of all kinds are depicted on tombstones, and each has it’s own connotation:

  • A Fish indicates faith.
  • A Hart (male deer) represents faithfulness or thirsting for God.
  • Horses stand for courage or generosity.
  • Lion recalls the power of God and guards the tomb.
  • Lambs are used to identify the grave of a child, and represents innocence.
  • A Squirrel with a nut implies religious meditation or spiritual striving.
Angels symbolize spirituality. Depending upon what they carry, or how they are posed, angels suggest many different ideas.

Birds often represent the flight of the soul to heaven.
  • Doves, for Christians, embody the Holy Spirit. On Jewish graves, a dove represents a symbol of peace.
  • Eagles (one-headed and two-headed) are often featured on Military and imperial graves as a nationalist symbol. On Native American graves, it can represent a spirit guide.
Bibles may indicate the deceased was a cleric, or a religious lay person.

Books frequently indicate that the deceased was a scholar. Arabic characters signify that the book is the Koran.

A Broken Column can mean an early grief; a life cut short.

Butterflys represent the soul. The three stages of a butterfly’s life - caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly – correspond to the three stage of Christ’s life – birth, death and resurrection. A butterfly can also indicate that the deceased lived only a short time.

A Candle carved onto the gravestone stands for the spirit or the soul.

Chains reflect a medieval belief that a golden chain bound the soul to the body. Severing the chain meant the release of the spirit from the body. The International Order of Odd Fellows also uses a chain as their insignia. If the letter IOOF or FLT (Friendship, Love, Truth) is found inside or near the chain, you can be sure of the association.

A Chariot Wheel with six or twelve spokes is an emblem of the Buddhist faith. The U.S. Veterans Administration uses the Wheel of the Law to mark the graves of Buddhists.

Cherubs mark the graves of children.

The Circle is universally known as the symbol of eternity and never-ending existence. Extremely common on grave sites, it is usually depicted surrounding a cross. Two circles, one above the other, represent earth and sky. Three interconnected circles represent the Holy Trinity.

A Cross symbolizes Christianity.

A Crescent indicates that the deceased was a Muslim in life.

Doors and gates are passages into the afterlife.

Drapery over anything indicates sorrow and mourning.

Flame represents eternity.

Hands, whether clasping, praying, pointing, or blessing, show that the deceased's relationships involve human beings. Clasping hands often symbolize a marriage or other close bond.

Harps may be found on the graves of musicians, and represent the joy to be found in Heaven.

Hearts stand for the affection of the living for the dead. Two joined hearts on a stone mark a marriage. (The Sacred Heart is found only on the graves of Catholics, and represents the suffering of Jesus for our sins.)

An Hour Glass is symbolic of time passing.

Keys stand for spiritual knowledge or, if held in the hands of an angel, the means to enter heaven.

A Lamp stands for knowledge and the immortality of the Spirit.

The Menorah is an emblem of Judaism that predates the Star of David.

A Pitcher is a traditional Jewish (Levite) symbol.

Plants & Trees of numerous species are depicted on headstones, and each has its own meaning. Here are a few of the most popular:
  • The Dogwood represents Christianity, divine sacrifice, triumph of eternal life, resurrection.
  • Roses can mean many things, including love, beauty, hope, unfailing love.
  • Rosebuds are normally reserved for a child under the age of 12.
  • A partial bloom normally indicates the grave of a teenager.
  • A rose in full bloom normally signifies the death of someone in their early to mid-twenties.
  • A broken rosebud represents life cut short, usually found on a young person’s grave.
  • Grapes and Leaves indicate Christian faith.
  • Lily of the Valley means a return of happiness, purity, humility.
  • An Oak tree signifies honor, strength and liberty; often seen on military tombs.
  • Shamrocks are a sign that the deceased was most likely from Ireland.
Scallops were a symbol of the Crusades, and a traditional symbol of the Puritans.

A Scroll is a symbol of life and time.

A Ship marks the grave of a seafarer.

A Wheat Sheaf indicates that the departed lived to an old age, and had a fruitful life.

A word of caution: every good detective analyzes the evidence carefully, so take these explanations with a grain of salt. While headstone carvings can provide valuable insight into the deceased’s life and death, they should not be taken as incontrovertible evidence. In other words, if your Great-great-grandfather’s tomb is adorned with a rosebud lying beside a pitcher encircled with chains, do not immediately assume that, in life, he was a young Jewish child who belonged to the International Order of Odd Fellows. That said; good luck cracking the code on your family’s cemetery ciphers!

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