Gravestone Symbolism

Henry Lash gravestone in Perry-Mcfarlen Cemetery in Grand Blanc, Genesee County, MI

I love old gravestones, they are so beautiful and with great meaning.  Cemeteries have always been a place of peace for me.  I loved going to all the cemeteries as a child as my grandmother “took care of the flowers.”  I loved seeing if I could find the oldest stone in the cemetery, it became a game to me.

I now take my children to cemeteries with me & they help me find some that I need to take pics of but they also play the game of finding the oldes one.  I never knew what some of the pictures on the stones meant, so I did some digging 🙂 and research into the meanings of symbols on gravestones.

Listed below are some of the symbols commonly used and what they mean. (I have gathered all over the internet), Naturally these are mostly United States meanings I’m sure things mean something entirely different in England, France or some other European country.

Mary (Conley) Garner-Hilliker gravestone, Thornville Cemetery in Dryden, Lapeer County, MI

The List….

Anchor: The Anchor represents a steadfast hope. There is life after death.
Arch: We are separated from our loved ones now, but we will spend eternity together in heaven.
Birds: Birds represent the soul.
Cherub: A cherub represents divine wisdom.
Broken Column: A life cut short.
Conch shell: The wisdom of a wise man.
The Cross, the Anchor, and the Bible: The trial, the victory, and the reward.
Crown: Eternal reward and glory.
Dove: Holy Spirit, purity and love
Evergreen: Eternal Life
Garland: Christ was victorious over death.
Ivy: Faithfulness
Lamb: Innocence.
Laurel: Victory
Lily: The resurrection
Olive Branch: Peace and Forgiveness
Palms: Victory over death.
Peacock: Eternal life.Skeleton: Life is short.
Star of David: God
Snake in a Circle: Everlasting life.
Flag: liberty and loyalty. Often seen on military markers.
Stars & Stripes around an Eagle: Eternal vigilance and liberty. Often seen on U.S. military markers.
Sword: often indicates military service. When found on the base of the stone might indicate infantry.
Horse: May indicate calvalry.
Eagle: courage, faith and generosity. May indicate military service.
Shield: Strength and courage. May indicate military service.
Rifle: often indicates military service.
Cannon: generally indicates military service. When found on the base of the stone it may indicate artillery.
Crossed Swords: Lost in battle. (Also may indicate a military person of high rank)
Torch: Eternal Life.
Triangle: The Trinity.
Weeping Willow: Grief
Heart: victory of the soul over death
Hands reached to the sky: signifying a belief in life after death.
Hands pointing down: as though to depict the hand of god confirming mortality.
Hands clasped in prayer: devotion or a couple reunited in death.
Handshake: soul saying goodbye to earthly life.

Helpful Links:

Headstone Symbols: Understanding Cemetery Symbolism
Wikipedia Headstone
The Association of Graveyard Rabbits

A variety of acronyms, such as GAR, DAR and SCV may also indicate military service or membership in a veteran’s organization. These listed here are U.S. organizations.

CSA – Confederate States of America
DAR – Daughters of the American Revolution
GAR – Grand Army of the Republic
SAR – Sons of the American Revolution
SCV – Sons of Confederate Veterans
SSAWV – Sons of Spanish American War Veterans
UDC – United Daughters of the Confederacy
USD 1812 – Daughters of the War of 1812
USWV – United Spanish War Veterans
VFW – Veterans of Foreign Wars

Speaking of graves, I always wondered why people put stones or rocks on gravestones, well… The Jewish tradition of leaving a pebble or stone on top of a tombstone signifies that someone has honored the deceased person’s memory with a visit to the grave. I have also heard that it commemorates the gathering of family and friends to mourn the deceased.  Here’s what a Rabbi had to say about it at Ask the Rabbi.

Photo found on Google Images

6 thoughts on “Gravestone Symbolism

  1. Kendra, I don’t think the different colors matter. The Jews believe that they are building on the marker, creating the marker is an honor to the dead. Thanks for the comment 🙂

  2. I followed your link from facebook, Sherry. I must say I LOVE old cemeteries and I always have, even as a kid. Your list of meanings is fascinating–I’d never thought about it before. Thanks for compiling it! 🙂

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