A Guide to Common Headstone Symbols
Inspiration for diving deeper during your next cemetery visit.
While hosting my Sunday Pastries With the Dead series over the last two years, I’ve visited almost 100 cemeteries throughout New Jersey and Pennsylvania. As a result, I can list the most popular local family surnames by memory, and I’ve also become pretty adept at interpreting headstone symbology.
In my graveyard travels, I’ve seen 12 designs crop up again and again, so I created a helpful primer on the meanings behind them. I hope it comes in handy during your next cemetery stroll!
This is my favorite symbol—so much so that I have it tattooed on my arm! It was popular from the 1600s into the 1700s when memento mori (“remember you must die”) imagery like crossed bones and skeletons was au courant. The design reflects the stricter, more puritanical views of organized religion at the time, when it was believed that our afterlife was predetermined at birth and that most people’s souls went nowhere once they died.
These symbols show the natural evolution from the death’s head to the church’s more softened stance on the afterlife into the mid-1700s and through the 1800s. The skull amid the wings became more human-like, often resembling a woman or a cherub—the interpretation being the soul’s ascent to heaven.
Hand Pointing Up
The Victorians sure loved their hands, and this is undoubtedly one of the most common symbols you’ll find in a graveyard—it’s pointing to where the soul went.
Hand Pointing Down
This symbol can be interpreted in one of two ways, depending on what the headstone tells you about the age of the interred. If the person died young, that’s what the hand means (God snatched them away too soon). If they lived to a ripe old age, it symbolizes God lovingly reaching down and taking them to heaven.
This imagery enjoyed a burst of popularity through the mid-1800s, so you may happen upon cemeteries from that era where a good portion of its stones are tree-topped. Its meaning is fairly universal: grief and mourning.
The pervasive presence of this symbol is a stark reminder of the grim infant and childhood mortality statistics during the 1800s. Lambs signify one who died young, and during that century about 40% of children didn’t reach the age of five. Let’s all take a moment to thank science for hygiene education, sanitary standards, and immunizations.
The circular shape of this symbol is a giveaway as to its interpretation—it stands for eternal remembrance and immortality. You can dive deeper into any wreath you find by identifying the flowers and/or plants it’s made of and looking up their meaning (any Victorian-era book is a great reference for this—especially Kate Greenaway’s Language of Flowers).
This crumbling monument—which started cropping up in the early 1800s when a renewed interest in ancient Greece, Rome, and Egypt entered the popular design aesthetic—stands for a life cut short. Conversely, an unbroken column nods to a noble life.
Invoking the Language of Flowers again, roses stand for love, beauty, virtue, and grace and are generally the most popular blooms found on monuments. A bud represents someone who died young (before full bloom) and often you’ll see roses paired with groupings of three leaves to represent the Holy Trinity.
This is another symbol that’s best understood in context with the interred—an open book can mean someone who died unexpectedly (before they reached life’s last page) but it can also stand for the bible or simply the book of life. A closed book can also refer to the holy text, along with wisdom and knowledge.
Another symbol popularized during the Greek, Roman, and Egyptian design revival, you’ll often see carved urns topping obelisks—they symbolize the earthly body and belongings being shed and the soul transcending flesh.
This is an auspicious sign, as it symbolizes a long, prosperous life.
Have a question about a headstone symbol you’ve seen that isn’t listed here? Drop it in the comments or DM me on Instagram and I’ll help you out!
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