The Grave Secrets of Symbols and Iconography of the Cemetery

by M-Gillies

Angel of Grief is the last sculpture created by William Wetmore Story which serves as the grave stone of the artist and his wife at the Protestant Cemetery, Rome.

Cemeteries have long been known for their tranquility and architectural beauty. With headstones, crypts, mausoleums, coliseums, ornate statues and natural growth creating a landscape of ethereal wonder, it shouldn’t come as a surprise that cemetery tourism, or taphophilia is increasing in its popularity. But as part of the intrigue of cemetery tourism, for many it can be much more, whether it be research in genealogy or the collating of epitaphs.

Once, not too long ago, the thought of spending ones free time touring a cemetery could have been seen as a morbid pastime. However, cemetery tourism has grown to become an increasingly popular movement, with numerous websites, blogs and organizations dedicating their resources to showcasing the beauty, awe and inspiration that cemeteries have to offer.

While it has always been a common practice for genealogists to study the history of and trace ancestry through the use of tombstones and cemeteries, the art of cemetery tourism has only expanded as of late to people outside of academic circles. As cemetery tourism is concerned, its a movement that compasses a larger appreciation beyond the historical ancestry, placement of graves and cultural impacts of the past on society to incorporate broad aspects such as tombstone rubbing, photographing, epitaph collating, cemetery postcard collecting and even burial topsoil gathering.

However, perhaps the most daunting, yet fascinating pleasure of cemetery tourism is that of the interpretation and cataloguing of tombstone art – an act that can oft times speak more about the history of the deceased then whether or not their tombstone was made of granite or a simply staked cross.

For myriad years, symbols have long been used by many cultures as a means of identifying cultural phenomenon affecting the plethora of human existence. While many of these symbols are used commonly in one area to identify with something specific, its interpretive appearance can often be completely different in another part of the world or country. For instance, long before the Nazi Party of Germany adopted the Swastika as their symbol in 1920, the Swastika (otherwise known as the Sanskrit svastika) was a symbol widely used in Indian religions as a tantric symbol to evoke Shakti. However, the post-WWII world stigmatized the symbol.

As with all symbols, the platitude of their meanings can be ample, and with cemetery art, much of it can be conveyed through the use of symbols, characters, design, devices, figures, motifs and patterns. While many of these can reflect religious affiliation, they can often be associated in describing how a person lived while they were alive – from determining their affiliation within society, status, personality, religious identification, and association membership. Tombstone art requires a degree of careful research to uncover the mysteries of the person who once lived.

Below are just some of the many types of symbols and their meanings, which can be found on tombstones:


Birds in Flight - Seen symbolically as the winged soul, birds are often symbolized as the messenger of God and represent peace, the soul and purity. In Christian theology, they are symbolic to the Holy Ghost. With an olive branch in their beaks, it is a reference to Noah, who sent birds to find land. While representations of the soul by a bird can be traced back to ancient Egypt, some older burial art only features wings, which has been represented as the symbol of divine mission. However, the usage of different species of birds also has their own symbolic meaning:

Dove - Doves have been held as an important animal in Christianity, with the descending dove being a common motif on grave memorials. When depicted in a group of seven doves, the symbol represents the seven spirits of God or the Holy Spirit in its sevenfold gifts of grace.

Eagle - Often recognized as a symbol for a military career, the eagle is symbolic to courage and valor.

Owl - Associated in Western folklore as studious scholars and wise elders, the depiction of an owl suggests a person of wisdom and intelligence.

Rooster - Signifies the awakening; the Resurrection.

Butterfly - As far back as Ancient Greek, the word butterfly is commonly known as psyche, which translates to soul. Meanwhile, there is an Irish saying which goes, “Butterflies are souls of the dead waiting to pass through purgatory.” Because a butterfly begins its life as a caterpillar before entering a metamorphosis into a butterfly, the butterfly has long been symbolized as resurrection and further represents the soul leaving the body.

Dog -  Dating as far back as 9,000 to 10,000 years ago, there has been evidence of dog burials documented from every major land mass in the world, with one recorded case dating 14,000 years ago in Germany which, not only indicated the dog burial, but that the dog had been buried in a human double grave. With evidence such as this pointing toward the human/canine interaction throughout the course of human evolution, it isn’t any surprise that dogs have long been known as man’s best friend. To that degree, dogs have long been a symbol of loyalty, fidelity, watchfulness and vigilance.

Dolphin – Portrays the idea of resurrection.

Lamb - This is the most common animal symbol found on children’s graves.

Serpent - An ancient symbol, the serpent has long represented everlasting life, often creating the shape of a circle with its own tail in its mouth (this is known as oroboros). As old folklore goes, the snake is thought to have been able to cheat death and gain vigor by shedding its own skin.


Angel of Grief - Much like the commonly used Weeping Angel statue, the Angel of Grief statue was the last work created by American sculptor, art critic and poet, William W. Story, in memory of his beloved wife Emelyn, and which he had finished before his own death in 1894. Since then, the memorial statue has been replicated numerous times throughout the world.

Angel Blowing a Trumpet (or Two Trumpets) - Symbolic to the day of judgment and a call to the resurrection, an angel blowing a trumpet, also known as the Angel Moroni has long been used throughout the years as a memorial sculpture. First sculpted in 1846, using gilded wood by an unkown artist, however, the first official Moroni was sculpted in 1892, by American sculptor, Cyrus Edwin Dallin.

Angel Carrying the Departed Soul - Often depicted with a child in its arms or as a Guardian embracing the dead. The messengers of God are often shown as escorting the deceased to heaven.

Angel(s) Flying - This symbolizes a rebirth.

Angels Gathered Together on Clouds - This is a depiction of angels in heaven.


Hands - Hands have long been used as a common motif on many grave memorials, often symbolizing departure. However, the use of hands on grave memorials can be represented as meaning many things depending on the placement of the hands and any objects which they may be holding:

Hands clasped - Hands clasped together is perhaps the most popular form of of art that can be found a headstones, however, the hands illustrate the right hand in a grasp with fingers overlapping the other hand while the left hand is open. This can often be seen as a depiction of a man holding a woman’s hand to portray a marriage or close bond between individuals, and represents a unity and affection even after death. Even still, clasped hands have been seen as a symbolic gesture for a farewell or last goodbye, and while the hands can be depicted as both that of the male and female, whoever died first is shown as holding the other’s hand to represent guiding their spouse to heaven.

Hands holding objects - The depiction of hands holding objects is symbolic depending on the object being held. For instance, a hand holding a broken chain symbolizes the death of a family member, while a hand holding an open book signifies the embodiment of faith. However, while more commonly used during 19th century memorials, hands clasping hearts was symbolic of charity and was typically seen on memorials of members of the independent Order of Odd fellows.

Hands pointing - Whenever a hand is depicted as pointing downward, it represents mortality or sudden death, and can sometimes be a depiction of a secret Masonic handshaker. Meanwhile, hands pointing upwards are symbolic of the reward of the righteous; a confirmation of life after death and the ascension to heaven.

Hands praying – Hands shown in prayer is commonly seen as a devotion.

Two hands touching at the thumb - Commonly used on Jewish grave stones, the representation of two hands touching at the thumbs with the middle and ring finger parted to form a V, has long been known as Cohen Hands, derived from kohanim (the Hebrew name for priest).  Because of his Jewish heritage, Leonard Nimoy of Star Trek fame modelled his character, Spock’s hand gesture of ‘Live Long and Prosper’ from the Cohen Hands.

Heart - The heart is a symbol for love, mortality, love of God, courage and intelligence, and can be depicted in various ways on tombstones such as:

A Bleeding Heart - Signifies the suffering of Christ for our sins.

Encircled with Thorns - A symbolic representation of the suffering of Christ.

A Flaming Heart - Signifies extreme religious fervor.

A Heart Pierced by a Sword – This has been represented to symbolize the sacrifices of made for the better of charity, however, in reference to Christian theology, it signifies the Virgin Mary, harkening to Simeon’s prophecy to Mary at the birth of Christ, “A sword shall pierce through thine own soul.”


Ankh - The Ankh is the Egyptian symbol of eternal life and is represented as a Capital T with a circle connecting the top.

Circle – Long before it was adopted by Christianity, the circle has been universally known as the symbol for eternal Life and never-ending existence; the circle is a representation of no beginning and no end for its continuous motion.

Cross – For Christianity, the cross has long been a strong religious message to symbolize the crucifix – a symbol that can generate many symbolic meanings and messages, from love, faith and generosity to terror and fear (ex. The Ku-Klux-Klan’s usage of burning crosses). While there are many types of Christian crosses worldwide, such as the Botonee Cross, Calvary Cross, Celtic Cross, Eastern Cross, Fieuree Cross/Gothic Cross, Greek Cross, Ionic Cross, and Latin Cross, the symbol is nearly ubiquitous in every culture as representing Christianity.

Triangle/Trefoil/Triquetra – As far back as the ancient Egyptians, the triangle was long held as an emblem of Godhead, while the Pythagoreans saw it as a symbol of wisdom. As Christianity became more encompassing, it soon adopted the equilateral triangle as the symbol of the Trinity.

Pentagram – Pre-dating Christianity, the first known use of the pentagram was believed to be used by the Greek philosopher Pythagoras. However, this five-pointed, star-shaped figure made by extending the sides of a regular pentagon until they meet, was used by magicians and sorcerers during the late Middle Ages. While it was believed that the pentagram offered protection against evil, Christianity adopted the figure and the symbolism to suggest the five wounds suffered by Christ on the cross. To this day, the Pentagram is used both by Christianity and Wicca.

Pyramid – It has been widely proposed that the pyramid-shaped tombstone was a means of preventing the devil from reclining on a grave. However, in ancient Egypt, pyramids have long been thought to represent the primordial mound from which the Egyptians believed the Earth was created, with the shape of the pyramid representing the descending rays of the sun. Because of their beliefs, Egyptians saw the dark area of the night sky, around which stars appear to revolve, as a physical gateway into the heavens, and thus built one narrow shaft that extended from the main burial chamber through the entire body of the Great Pyramid to point directly toward the center of this part of the sky.

Menorah - This is the Jewish symbol for divine presence of God. Represented as seven branches of a candlestick, each branch is symbolic to the seven days for the creation of the world by God.


An Anchor - An anchor on a gravestone is often found on the graves of sailors, and symbolizes steadfast hope or eternal life. They are also Masonic symbols for well-grounded hope, and therefore can be found on Masons’ graves.

An AnvilSymbolizing the creation or forging of the universe, anvils can most often be found on the graves of blacksmiths.

An Arch – Often arches are found in cemeteries and the purpose of them is to showcase the passage and rejoining to heaven.

Arrow - Whether it be an engraving of an arrow or a hand holding an arrow, the arrow symbolizes mortality and martyrdom.

Beehive - Beehives are symbolic for human industry, faith, education and domestic virtues, and are frequently found on the gravestones of Freemasons and Independent Order of Odd Fellows.

Book - Books have long had a meaning of knowledge, and sometimes symbolize the story of a life, so a memorial tombstone of a book when closed can be seen as a final act written; when open, as perfect knowledge; with a cross laying over it – faith personified. Gravestones in the shape of books can also be representative of a person’s good deeds and accomplishments, and symbolize the record keeping in the book of life. Sometimes if a person died at a young age, the book will appear shorter on one side, to show that a person had died young. Sometimes, books or bible-shaped gravestones are used on the gravestones of ministers or clergymen to show their dedication to their faith.

Broken Chain Link - This is a symbol for a loss in the family.

Broken Wheel - The wheel has long been a symbol of life, with the belief that life revolves in a circular motion, where one life ends the other begins – however, a break in the circle or wheel of life symbolizes the end of life.

Candle - Candles represent the spirit of the soul, which in Christian context are seen to symbolize Jesus Christ, the Light of the World. Meanwhile Catholics often leave candles on the grave to show that prayers have been said for the deceased.

Cherubs - These angelic entities were originally depicted as the bearers of God’s throne, as the charioteers and as powerful beings with four wings and four faces, whose name derived from the Assyrian word Karibu, meaning one who intercedes. While often found in cemeteries for the monuments of children, cherubs symbolize angels sent to guard the way of the tree of life.

Hourglass – The hourglass is symbolic to time’s inevitable passing, often attributed to the personification of Death and Father Time, indicating the shortness of life and the passing of time. When an hourglass is shown on its side, it is represents that time has stopped for the deceased, and when it is shown with wings, it’s indicative of time’s swift flight.

Scythe or Sickle - Symbolic of cutting down a plant in its prime for harvest, the scythe has long been represented as the tool of the grim reaper; the master of death and harvester of souls, and acts as a symbol to remind others to expect death and prepare for it as it will come when least expected.

Skull - Acting as a symbol of the transitory nature of life and death, the skull (often when shown with wings) can indicate the fleeting nature of life and impending death. Meanwhile, a skull with crossed bones beneath it, is the representation of death and the crucifixion.

Star - In legend, myth and even scripture, stars have acted as guides, omens and portents for men and served to mark special events and people, often representing heavenly guidance and divine leadership.

Sun - Depending on how it is portrayed, the sun can represent many things. When shown as a rising, it can symbolize new life or the resurrection in the afterlife, while a setting sun can represent death. When shown shining brightly, the sun serves as a metaphor for an everlasting life.

Urn - Recognized as an ancient symbol for death (do in part to the cremation rituals practiced in the past), the urn represents the return of the body back to ashes and dust, leading to the soul’s rebirth into the next realm. When shown draped with a cloth, the cloth is representative of death, the final partition separating the living world from that of the dead.


Daisy - Innocence, youth, hope

Forget-me-not - Remembrance

Ivy - Abiding memory, friendship, fidelity

Lily - Purity, innocence, heavenly bliss

Morning Glory - Bonds of love and affection

Oak - Supernatural power and strength; eternity

Palm - Spiritual victory over death, martyrdom, peace

Rose - Love, wisdom, beauty

Sunflower - Adoration

Tree - The Tree of Life; faith

Violet - Faithfulness, modesty

Weeping Willow Tree - Mortality, mourning

Wheat - The divine harvest

Wreath - Victory in death; indestructible crown worn by triumphant Christian

Wreath worn by skulls - Victory of death over life

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