Tombstone Symbols by Gayle Stuart


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

Headstone Abbreviations:

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.