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Cemetery Art and Symbolism
By Pam Reid
All Text on this web page Copyright 2000
Pam Reid All rights reserved

 

 

Family research is engrossing, gripping; interesting, intriguing; and exciting. This is one hobby that has the power to provoke in us to the need to know more and more about our ancestors and their lives. For many, it becomes almost an obsession. Why? Perhaps it is because it is the only chance we ever have to truly become detectives. We can search out the secrets and passions of our ancestors and perhaps learn more about ourselves in the process. That in itself is an intriguing prospect.

The research involved in genealogy eventually leads to cemetery visits and tombstone reading. What was once considered a morbid pastime has become a normal part of the investigative process for the family history researcher. Cemeteries tell us so much about our ancestors. Much information can be gleaned from the words carved on the headstones. We can learn a great deal from the placement of a grave within the cemetery itself concerning family relationships. As more and more researchers venture into cemeteries to seek out ancestral graves, more and more questions arise about the meanings of the artwork and symbols found on the tombstones. The researcher wants to know what a symbol might mean and if the meaning of the symbol might provide more clues about this ancestor and his life, his ideals, his associations, and so on. Can reading and understanding these symbols help us gauge and unravel some quintessential element of this ancestor's life?

 

 

Understanding the Symbols

The task of interpreting the symbols on a tombstone is a daunting one. Though most symbols that you will see engraved on a stone DO have a textbook meaning, it is quite possible that the particular item you find engraved on the tombstone was put there simply because someone liked the look of it. Therefore, it will have no meaning beyond the taste of the deceased (if the request of what was to be on his stone was made by him), or the taste of the mourners left behind to choose the stone's appearance. The point is, many people who choose grave motifs have no idea that the ornamentation they select has meaning.. What they know is that they like the design and feel it is just somehow "right".

Symbols can express ethnic identity, religious affiliation, association membership, or simply the predilection of the time or of the community. A symbol that was commonly used in one area to mean something specific might mean something completely different in another part of the country or the world or in a different era of time. Therefore, it is important to understand the history of the area or of the time. Yes, it is complicated. The human being is by nature a creative creature. We can, and do, give our own meanings to objects and ideas and in doing so, create something with a meaning that conveys what we wish it to convey. The point of view of the person designing the monument cannot be known to us, and therein lies the major problem in attempting to interpret a symbol, character, design, device, figure, motif, or pattern on a tombstone. The true representation intended might never be known.

By all means, look at the engravings and the other artwork on the stone. Cemetery art is art, in the truest sense of the word. The stonecutter was an artist and some of the sculpture found in cemeteries is as beautiful to view as that found in the finest museums. You might be able to interpret the meaning of the symbol or the artwork, or you may not. Either way, you will enjoy the inherent beauty and workmanship involved in carving these intricate designs. Read up on the language of symbolism as a help. You can find a good one on the City of Silent site at http://www.alsirat.com/symbols/glossary.html.

 

The Symbols

Religious:

Angels - Angels mean spirituality and they guard the tomb.

Bible - A single Holy Bible is often found on Christian stones.

Holy Books (2) - on Mormon headstones indicates the Bible and the Book of Mormon.

Holy Books (3) - on Mormon Headstones, these indicate The Scripture of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter Day Saints - the Bible, Book of Mormon, and Doctrine & Covenants.

Chalice - Usually used to represent the Sacraments.

Crescent - the deceased was probably a Muslim.

Crown - The soul's achievement and the Glory of life after death.

Cross - the Cross is an emblem of faith. There are many different types of crosses and each may mean something different. For a good explanation of the various types of crosses, see http://www.alsirat.com/symbols/cross.html, a part of The City of the Silent.

Heart (Sacred) - Usually found in Catholic cemeteries, this heart refers to the suffering of Christ for our sins.

Menorah - An emblem of Judaism

Star of David or Mogen David - Recognized as the international symbol of Judaism.

 

Mortality:

Arrow - Mortality

Broken Column - This image represents the decay. It usually represents the loss of the Family head.

Candle being Snuffed - Loss of life.

Coffin - mortality.

Figure with Dart - Mortality

Grim Reaper - Death personified.

Hourglass - Time has run out.

Scythe - An instrument of the harvest, death cuts us down.

Skull and or Skull/ Crossed Bones - Death.

Spade or Crossed Spade and Shovel - Death

 

 

Trade and Occupation: (emblems that MIGHT indicate a person's occupation in life)

Barber Bowl (for bleeding) & Razor.

Butcher - an axe, steel knife and cleaver.

Farmer: - Coulter (type of hoe), flail (threshing implement), swingletree (rod for beating flax), stalk of corn.

Gardener - Rake & Spade.

Mason - Wedge & Level

Mariner: - Anchor, Sextant & Cross Staff.

Merchant - Scales, some type of sign.

Minister - Bible

Shoemaker - Leather cutter's Knife, Nippers, Sole cutter & Awl

Smith - Crown, Hammer & Anvil

Teacher - Open Book.

Weaver - Loom, Shuttle & Stretchers.

Wright - (a worker skilled in the manufacture especially of wooden objects --usually used in combination <shipwright> <wheelwright> - Compasses

 

Resurrection, Eternal Life, Immortality:

Angel, Flying or Trumpeting - Rebirth; Resurrection.

Bird or Bird Flying - Eternal life, Resurrection.

Cross: - The Cross means resurrection to many Christians.

Dove, Flying - Resurrection.

Flame, Light, Lamp or Torch: - Immortality of the Spirit, Resurrection.

Garland or Wreath - Symbol of saintliness and glory, Victory in death.

Horns -- The Resurrection

Ivy - Immortality

Rooster- Awakening; Resurrection.

Star - Death could not overpower the Light of the Spirit which still shines in the darkness.

Sun - A symbol of light and warmth, renewed life and life everlasting.

Trumpeters -- Harbingers of the Resurrection

Urn - Immortality (The storing of the vital organs was of extreme importance to the ancient Egyptians who believed that life would be restored through the vital organs placed in the urn).

Animals:

Birds - Eternal life or resurrection.

Butterfly - Short-life.

Dog - Implies a good master worthy of love.

Dove - Seen in both Christian and Jewish cemeteries, the dove means innocence and/ or peace.

Lamb - Usually marks the grave of a child and means Innocence.

Lion - The Lion's eternal watch guards the tomb and stands for Courage.

Rooster - Awakening; Resurrection.

 

 

Plants:

Fruits -- Eternal plenty as in the fruit of life.

Full-Blown Rose - The deceased died in the prime of life

Ivy -- Ivy stands for friendship and also immortality.

Laurel -- A symbol of worldly accomplishment and heroism.

Lily - The virgins' flower and also the symbol of innocence and purity.

Morning Glory - Signifies the beginning of Life

Oak., Oak Leaves and Acorn - Oak leaves on tombs can stand for power, authority or victory. Often seen on Military tombs.

Palm Branch - Signifies Victory and Rejoicing

Poppy - Eternal Sleep.

Roses - Roses signify completion and the brevity of earthly existence.

Rosemary - Rosemary is for remembrance. Thistles can also stand for remembrance.

Thistle - Deceased was of Scottish descent.

Tree or Trees

Weeping Willow Tree - Perpetual Mourning; Grief.

Wheat Strands or Sheaves - The divine harvest.

Miscellaneous:

Broken Ring -- The family circle has been severed.

Cherub - Cherubs are angelic and signify innocence.

Crossed Swords - Military person of high rank.

Hands:

Harp - Praise to the God.

Heart - Love. Stylized hearts stand for the affection of the living for the dead. Two joined hearts on a stone mark a marriage,

Rod or Staff - Comfort for the bereaved.

Stars and Stripes Around Eagle -- Eternal vigilance and liberty. Often seen on military markers.

Urn with Flame -- Undying remembrance

Author's bio: Pam was born in Spartanburg County, South Carolina. She has been a resident of Prince William County, Virginia for 23 years. She is a USGenWeb Board Member,and the Founder of The USGenWeb Tombstone Transcription ProjectThis article on Tombstone Symbols was in the October issue of Ancestry Magazine, 2000

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