Headstone Symbolism

Michele Meleen
Veteran's headstone

A headstone is the lasting marker of remembrance after a person dies. The words and symbols on the grave marker capture the spirit and life of the deceased forever. While experts can guess what most gravestone symbols mean, not all interpretations are verifiable.

Symbols for Various Religions

The U.S. government recognizes nearly 100 separate symbols for belief systems including:

Military Jewish headstone
  • Angel blowing a trumpet (Angel Moroni) - Mormonism
  • Atomic whirl - American Atheist
  • Crescent moon with a star - Muslim
  • Menorah - Messianic symbol of faith
  • Pentagram - Wicca religion
  • Pointed star - Baha'i faith
  • Ship's steering wheel - Buddhist Wheel of Righteousness
  • Star of David - Judaism
  • Teepee shape - Native American Church of North America

Judeo-Christian Symbols

angels

According to the United States Genealogy and History Network (USGHN), common Christian symbols include:

  • Angel - Flying angels can symbolize rebirth while a praying angel is thought to be watching over the deceased
  • Cherub - Innocence, virtue and purity; common on children's headstones
  • Cross - Christian symbol; there are a variety of stylized crosses depending on the denomination
  • Crown - Christian symbol of the soul's achievement of heaven
  • Gates - Gaining admittance to heaven
    hand with finger pointing up
  • Hand with finger pointing up - Showing the way to heaven
  • Bunch of grapes or grapevine - Sacrament of communion; blood of Jesus Christ
  • Book - Christian faith, the Bible
  • Flame - Eternal life of the soul
  • Harp - Tribute to God

Animal Symbols for Gravestones

dove headstone

The Association for Gravestone Studies says many headstone images date back to the 17th and 18th centuries. Popular animal and insect symbols include:

  • Beehive - Symbolic of a life of productivity for Freemasons; also a Mormon symbol
  • Bird - Immortality or everlasting life
  • Butterfly - Abbreviated life, more common on a younger person's headstone
  • Dove - Peacefulness and innocence
  • Dragonfly - Eternal life
  • Lamb - Virtue or purity, a lamb is also common on children's headstones
  • Deer - Avid hunter or sportsman
    ouroboros
  • Lion - Bravery
  • Rooster - Revival
  • Peacock - Rebirth
  • Snake with tail in mouth - Forever, eternal life
  • Dog - Allegiance
  • Pelican - Generosity, philanthropy

Plants on Headstones

cross with lily

Flowers, trees, branches and sprigs of plants are some of the natural images you see on gravestones.

  • Acorns/Oak leaves - Strong influence, authority
  • Bellflower - Being thankful, gracious
  • Lilly - Virtue, innocence
  • Morning glory - New beginning, new life
  • Pine tree/cone - Everlasting life
  • Rosebud - Abbreviated life
    wreath headstone
  • Wreath - Greatness or devoutness
  • Fruit - Everlasting plethora
  • Gourd - Life, fruitfulness
  • Poppy - Everlasting rest
  • Tree/branches - Existence
  • Ivy - Everlasting life or companionship
  • Wheat - Abundance or productiveness
  • cross with palm leaf
    Rosemary - Keeping in memory
  • Weeping Willow - Bereavement
  • Tulip - Existence, living
  • Palm - Peace forevermore
  • Buttercup - Happiness
  • Honeysuckle - Devotion, strong feelings
  • Pineapple - Generosity, accommodation

Architectural and Decorative Elements

draped urn

Headstones can be formed in the shape of an architectural marvel like a mausoleum or obelisk, or they can feature images of them. The USGHN describes a few more prevalent symbols and their meanings:

  • Draperies - Sadness, grieving and moving from life to death
  • Urn - The end of life
  • Arch - Triumph over death or two souls reuniting
  • Double arch - rejoin a life partner in death
  • Sphinx
    Broken column - Loss of the family patriarch or matriarch
  • Fleur-de-Lis - Intense love and devotion or courage
  • Anvil - Self-sacrifice
  • Bridge - From one place to another
  • Coat of Arms - Long family history, or family of high standing
  • Sphinx - Guardian of the dead
  • Steps - Path to afterlife or ascension

Specific Objects

anchor headstone

The Cemetery Club and The Association for Gravestone Studies' 19th Century guide suggest the message behind images containing familiar objects like:

  • Bones or Arrows -The end of life, extinction or a reminder that everyone dies
  • Candle with a flame - Existence
  • Anchor - Anticipation, hope or optimism
  • Ring - Matrimony
  • Greek Letters Alpha and Omega - Start and finish of life
    freemason headstone
  • Broken chain - Loss of husband or wife
  • Compass and Square (tools) - Membership in the Mason organization
  • Hourglass - The end of life, too little time
  • Clock - The passage of time, the end of life
  • Scythe - The end of life
  • Pile of books - Wisdom, scholar
  • Egg and Dart - Egg symbolizes being and dart means the end of life
  • Staff - Relief and caring

Professions

Throughout history, gravestones have paid homage to the beloved careers of the deceased through symbols shared by The Cemetery Club and USGHN, referenced above.

  • Pile of books topped with apple - Professor, teacher
  • Quill and ink - Author, writer
    hammer and anvil
  • Hammer and anvil - Blacksmith
  • Rake and spade - Landscaper
  • Scales - Salesman, purveyor of goods
  • Bowl and razor - Person who cuts or styles hair
  • Axe, knife and cleaver - Person who prepares meat
  • Corn - Farmer
  • Hammer and square - Builder
  • Mortar and pestle - Person in the medical profession

Give Meaning to Death

The passing of a relative is difficult. Give meaning to the life and death of the deceased with appropriate images on headstones. Consider the values and beliefs of the person and add one or two symbols that best capture their spirit.

Headstone Symbolism