SYMBOLS ON TOMBSTONES
by Gayle Stuart
Family research is an interesting, time consuming and exciting hobby that many people have been doing in recent years. It can become an obsession with some of us. (I hope that if this is one of your things to do, you do not bore people who are not really interested. I know this is hard to understand.) When we start research, we can become very excited with things that we find.
With genealogy research, it will sooner or later lead us to a cemetery to see if we can find the family plot with tombstones where we hope to find tidbits of information. At one time, going to a cemetery was considered a morbid pastime, but it is now a very common part of our investigation. In older cemeteries, you may find a number of family members buried in the same area. The type of stone that you find may tell you about the economy of the times. Some of the stones may have symbols of some kind on them. Did these mean anything to that person or was it just something that they liked?
Symbols can mean ethnic identity, religious affiliation, association membership or something to do with the community in which they were living. Also, a symbol in one area could mean one thing and in another mean something else. This makes it important to know the history of the area where your family lived.
We need to look at the stones to see what kind of engraving or other artwork may be on them. Cemetery art is an art of its own. The stonecutter is an artist and sometimes we will find sculptures that are works of art.
Some of the symbols that you may see and what they mean:
Angel flying or trumpeting – Rebirth; resurrection
Angels – Spirituality and guards of the tomb
Arrow – Mortality
Bible (a single Bible) – The deceased was a Christian.
Bird or bird flying – Eternal life, resurrection
Broken Column – This image represents the decay. It usually represents the loss of the family head.
Broken Ring – The family circle has been severed.
Butterfly – Short-life
Candle being snuffed – Loss of life
Chalice – Usually used to represent the Sacraments
Cherub – Cherubs are angelic and signify innocence
Crescent – The deceased was probably a Muslim.
Cross – The Cross is an emblem of faith and means resurrection to many Christians. There are many different types of crosses and each may mean something
Crossed Swords – Military person of high rank
Crown – The soul’s achievement and the glory of life after death
Dog – Implies a good master worthy of love
Fruits – Eternal plenty as in the fruit of life
Full-blown Rose – The deceased died in the prime of life
Hands in cemeteries are usually in one of the following four positions;
Blessing – Blessing those left behind
Clasping – Farewells or the bond of marriage
Pointing – Pathway to heaven
Praying – Asking God for Eternal life
Harp – Praise to God
Heart – Love. Stylized heats stand for the affection of the living for the dead. Two joined hearts on a stone mark a marriage.
Heart (Sacred) – Usually found in Catholic cemeteries, this heart refers to the suffering of Christ for our sins.
Holy Books (2) – On a Morman’s headstone indicates the Bible and the Book of Morman
Hourglass – Time has run out
Ivy – Ivy stands for friendship and also immortality
Lamb – Usually marks the grave of a child and means Innocence
Laurel – A symbol of worldly accomplishment and heroism
Lion – The lion’s eternal watch guards the tomb and stands for courage
Menorah – An emblem of Judaism
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
Poppy – Eternal sleep
Rod or Staff – Comfort for the bereaved
Rooster – Awakening; resurrection
Scythe – An instrument of the harvest, death cuts us down
Skull and or Skull/Crossed bones – Death
Spade or Crossed spade and shovel – Death
Star – Death could not overpower the Light of the Spirit which still shines in the darkness
Star of David or Mogen David – Recognized as the international symbol of Judaism
Stars and Stripes around Eagle – Eternal vigilance and liberty, often seen on military markers
Sun – A symbol of light and warmth, renewed life and life everlasting
Thistle- Deceased was of Scottish descent
Trees stand for life; a sprouting tree for life everlasting; a tree trunk for the brevity of life. Stones shaped like tree stumps usually signify that the deceased was a member of The Woodmen of the World.
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.)
Urn with flame – Undying remembrance
Weeping Willow – Perpetual mourning; grief
Wheat Strands or Sheaves – The divine harvest
Occupations and their symbols:
Barber – Bowl (for bleeding) and razor
Butcher – An ax, steel knife and cleaver
Farmer – Coulter (type of hoe), flail (threshing implement), stalk of corn
Mason – Wedge and Level
Mariner – Anchor, sextant & cross-staff
Minister – Bible
Teacher – Open book
Weaver – Loom, shuttle & stretchers
AOH – Ancient Order of Hibernians
DAR – Daughters of the American Revolution
FOE – Fraternal Order of Eagles
FOP – Fraternal Order of Police
GAR – Grand Army of the Republic
IOOF – Independent Order of Odd Fellows
K of C – Knights of Columbus
U.S.A. – United States Army
U.S.A.F. – United States Air Force
U.S.M.C. – United States Marine Corp
U.S.N. – United States Navy
W.O.W. – Woodmen of the World
I’m sure that you can think of many more symbols that you have seen and maybe wondered about. This is only a few that you can find on the Internet. At the library we are putting together a book on tombstones; different ones that we have seen. Several pictures have been taken from both cemeteries in Walnut. It was surprising how many different symbols we have here in our community. When someone is traveling and finds one that is interesting, we take a picture and add it to our book. Anyone can contribute to this just by writing down the information on where you found it and sending it to us.