Image Restoration Center Blog Logo

Decoding Headstone Symbols And Meanings

If you have ever spent time in a cemetery or graveyard, you might have noticed that there are different symbols incorporated into headstone designs. While also decorative, there are also deeper hidden meanings to these cemetery symbols that point to the person’s life, passions, and impact on those left behind.

Keep reading for a history of headstones, the most common gravestone symbols, and what they could mean.

A History Of Headstones

Grave markers date back thousands of years to Celtic and Roman times. Rather than markers for an individual’s grave, these headstones marked the burial chambers for an entire family.

Over the next few hundred years, the convention shifted from burying the deceased in these chambers to private burial plots in homes. With the rise of the Christian faith, people started to bury their dead on the consecrated ground around the church, using headstones to mark the graves. Little by little, tombstone symbolism started to gain popularity.

Around the time of the Victorian period, there was a rise in cemetery symbolism. These additional details turned headstones from simple markers into ornamental installations that could tell you a lot about the person buried there. Some of the more common symbols include Christian crosses – which were often carved into the headstones of clergymen and the devoted – oak leaves, and a golden chain.

Modern gravestones may incorporate accents such as a vase for placing flowers or a small collection plate where visitors can leave coins to commemorate the dead.

Common Gravestone Symbols And What They Mean

Here are some common gravestone symbols to look out for:

  • Arches and gate: These symbols are meant to stand for the “pearly gates”, passage into heaven, or the transition to the next life from your earthly existence.
  • Acorn: Acorns stand for strength, power, independence, triumph, and prosperity.
  • Anchor: This symbol could mean “anchored in Jesus Christ”, or “hope and protection”, or the dead person was a member of the navy.
  • Angels: Angels are common gravestone symbols. Many are depicted doing something like dropping flowers or pointing to the heavens. 
  • Basket: Baskets symbolize fertility or a mother’s bond. You can often find this symbol on women’s graves.
  • Bat wings: Bat wings symbolize misfortune and death.
  • Beehive: These motifs are usually reserved for those who work in the church.
  • Bench: This motif means “mourning of contemplation”.
  • Birds: A bird on a gravestone symbolizes the flight of the soul.
  • Books: This is one of the more common gravestone symbols and usually references the Bible. 
  • Bones: Bones on a gravestone are another common symbol of death.
  • Broken chain: A broken chain symbolizes a life that has ended.
  • Candles: A candle is a popular symbol of life, especially eternal life for the departed soul.
  • Celtic cross: The Celtic cross or the circle and cross represent eternity and Irish heritage.
celtic graveyard cemetery cross
  • Church: A church carving was reserved for a minister or a pastor.
  • Circle: Circles are symbols of everlasting life.
  • Clasped hands: This carving symbolizes the welcoming of the soul into the heavenly afterlife. If the hands are male and female (usually depicted by a frilly cuff), it could also mean a bond between the couple. 
  • Clock: Clocks symbolize time and the passage of time. The clock usually shows the hour of death.
  • Clover: A four-leaf clover might hint at Irish ancestry or membership in the 4 H Club. The three-leaf clover represents the Christian trinity.
  • Column: A broken column represents a life cut short, usually symbolizing a sudden death. A complete or unbroken column could mean a full life. 
  • Corn: Corn carved on a grave marker could mean that the person laid to rest was a farmer.
  • Doves: Doves are a symbol of peace and the Holy Spirit.
  • Evergreen: An evergreen tree represents remembrance and faithfulness.
  • Fern: Ferns symbolize humility, sincerity, and solitude.
  • Forefingers: A forefinger pointing down could symbolize god reaching for a soul, and a forefinger pointing up represents a soul’s passage to heaven. 
  • Fruit: A carving of fruit represents eternal plenty in the afterlife.
  • Half-carved headstone: This kind of carving represents the transition between life and death.
  • Harp: Harps are symbols of worship.
  • Heart: A heart carved on a gravestone once meant a blissful soul, but after Victorian times, the meaning changed to “romantic love”.
  • Horse: Horses symbolize courage and generosity. 
  • Horseshoe: A horseshoe could be a symbol of protection from evil or mean that the dead loved horses in life. 
  • Hourglass: The Hourglass was a symbol of the passage of time.
cemetery child memory children
  • Ivy: Ivy carved on a gravemarker means “friendship” and “immortality”.
  • Key: The key symbolizes the entrance to heaven. It can also mean “knowledge”.
  • Knight’s helmet: A helmet is one of the most common gravestone symbols for fraternal organizations.
  • Lamb: Symbolizing innocence, these carvings are often seen on children’s graves. 
  • Lamp: Lamps symbolize knowledge and spiritual immortality.
  • Lily: A calla lily means “marriage” or “resurrection”. Lilies of the valley mean “humility” and “innocence”.
  • Lion: The lion is the guardian of the cemetery protecting it from evil spirits and malevolent deities. They represent “courage”, “power”, and “strength”.
  • Mortar and pestle: The mortar and pestle are a symbol of the medical profession and are often carved on the graves of doctors or pharmacists.
  • Oak leaf: Leaves from a mighty oak tree symbolize “stability”, “endurance”, and “strength”.
  • Olive tree or olive branch: An olive tree or branch carved on a headstone symbolizes reconciliation between God and Man, as well as peace.
  • Palm: A palm frond or palm tree means “resurrection” or “ life conquering death”.
  • Phoenix: Phoenixes are symbols of resurrection.
  • Pineapple: Pineapples mean “hospitality”, “perfection”, and “prosperity”.
  • Rose: Roses are symbols of love, motherhood, and virtue, while rosebuds symbolize youthful death.
  • Scale: These are often carved on the graves of lawyers and judges. They mean “justice” or “law”.
  • Shield: This symbol means “faith”, “defense of the spirit”, and “protection”.
  • Shoes: Shoes are usually found on children’s graves. They are often empty or overturned, symbolizing the loss of a child.
  • Skull: A powerful symbol of death, skulls also symbolize “mortal remains”.
  • human skull on leafy mossy gravestone
    • Snake: A snake, especially a snake devouring its own tail, is an ancient symbol of life everlasting.
    • Square and compass: The square and compass were two of the most common masonic symbols. If you see them carved on a grave, odds are it belongs to a mason.
    • Sphinx: Sphinxes are symbols of power, honor, and courage.
    • Star: A star is a cemetery symbol that dates back to the middle ages. It means “divine guidance”. Meanwhile, a five-pointed star symbolizes the five wounds of Jesus Christ.
    • Thistle: Thistles are the flowers of sorrow, remembrance, and Scotland.
    • Three-link chain: A chain with three links is the symbol of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. The links mean “friendship”, “love”, and “truth”.
    • Trees or tree stump: This symbolizes a life cut short or sudden untimely death. This could also represent the resting place of a member of the fraternal organization of the Woodmen of the World. Modern Woodmen still place value in tombstone symbols. 
    • Urn: An urn means “the death of the flesh”. The word “urn” may come from the Latin “urere”, which means “to burn”. Urns have been used to hold the remains of the deceased since ancient times. Draped urns are also commonly found on headstones.
    • Wheat: This is often carved on farmers’ graves. It means “harvest”, “prosperity”, and “full life”.
    • Willow: A willow means “earthly sorrow” for the dead. It was a common motif in the Victorian era.
    • Winged hourglass: This is a symbol of how fleeting our time on Earth is.

    Abbreviations On Headstones

    Some symbols on gravestones appear in the form of abbreviations. Abbreviations typically commemorate a fraternal order (if the deceased was a member) or depict religious symbolism

    Some common abbreviations are “K of C” for the Knights of Columbus and “IHS”, the first three letters of Christ’s name in Greek.

    Closing Thoughts

    If you are interested in your family history, you may want to take a trip to the family burial plot and check out old headstone symbols and their meanings. Gravestone symbols can hold a lot of hidden history and tell you more about the people buried there – just make sure to keep the headstones clean so that these symbols don’t get lost to time.

    Related Posts