June 11th, 2012

A Picture (or Symbol) Could be Worth a Thousand Words

After recently attending the funeral of a friend, I spent some time reflecting and walking amongst the graves looking at tombstone inscriptions. One can’t help but wonder when viewing tombstones what kind of a person the deceased was, what they did for a living, what their family life was like and that sort of thing. At least I can’t anyway, and if you’re even a bit like me, you might also wonder what some of those illegible inscriptions once said. A tombstone inscription can tell you much about a person’s ideals or character, and they can also contain important genealogical information. Many of the tombstones I was seeing also contained various symbols, and of course they got me to thinking about their meaning.

Yes, much information can be deduced from the inscriptions carved on headstones, even the placement of a person’s grave within the cemetery can tell us something about them. But symbols and artwork on our ancestors’ tombstones can tell us even more. Perhaps a symbol’s meaning can shed light on a deeper level of our ancestors beliefs or personality, even reveal if he or she was the member of a particular, or more interestingly, a secret society! Perhaps they may reveal nothing at all, merely that our ancestor liked a particular design or animal. Yes, the interpretation of symbols can be a daunting task, and though many have specific meanings, many do not, and were placed on the headstone simply because the deceased fancied it.

Those that do have a specific meaning however, can reveal a person’s religious affiliation, ethnic identity, membership of an association, or reflect the culture of the era or location. Symbols used in one place might even mean something completely different in another, and so knowing and understanding the history of the area is important. Certain designs and symbols may also be the trademark artwork of the person who fashioned the headstone, so the true meaning may never be known. This is no reason to discount them however, as even if the symbols are merely of an artistic nature; many are a pleasure to admire. Some can reveal information about our ancestors though, and every bit of genealogical information we can glean from them helps to complete the profiles of our relatives.

Some of the Meanings of Gravestone Symbols

I am quite intrigued what specific symbols might mean, as several of my own ancestors have quite elaborate designs on them, and so I started searching for those meanings. I did indeed discover that they could be quite revealing. The tombstone of one of my ancestors was decorated with a type of long staff with some contraption attached to it. The item turned out to be a Cross Staff – a seamen’s navigational instrument from the 16th century. It turned out my ancestor was a seaman. This revelation inspired me to look for the meanings of additional symbols, and the ones I was able to determine I’ve listed below.

Angels – Denote spirituality and watch over the tomb of the deceased.
Bible – The person was a Christian
Crescent – The person was of the Islamic faith
Heart – Represents Christ’s suffering for our sins
Menorah, Star of David – The person was most likely Jewish
Arrow – Mortality
Candle Being Extinguished – Loss of life
Broken Column – Loss of the Family Patriarch or Head
Bowl and Razor – The person was a Barber
Rake and Spade – The person was a farmer
Skull and Crossbones – Represents Death, or the possibility that the person was a pirate
Hourglass – Time has run out
Bird, especially Flying Bird – Eternal Life
Wreath or Garland – Symbols of glory
Flame, Lamp, or Torch – The eternal spirit
Horns – The person believed in the Resurrection
Rooster – Awakening, Resurrection
Ivy – Immortality
Awl – Shoemaker
Hammer and Anvil – Person was a Blacksmith
Butterfly – The person died young
Dog – The person was a good Master and worthy of love
Palm Branch – Stands for Victory and Rejoicing
Rose – Deceased died in the prime of their life
Urn with Flame – Unending Remembrance
Two Joined Hearts – Represents Marriage
Cherub – Signifies Innocence, often found on the graves of children
Laurel – Symbolizes worldly accomplishment and heroism
Lion – The person had great courage
Broken Ring – Represents severing of the family circle

These are just a sampling of the many symbols I have come across in graveyards or in Photographs of tombstones. They more often than not have something to say about the person who is buried there, and methinks, are well worth considering. If you are ever visiting your ancestor’s cemetery, take the time to photograph their tombstone, especially if it contains some symbols in the artwork. That way you can do some investigation when you get back home, and perhaps get to know your ancestor on a deeper level.