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  • Writer's pictureDesirae-Haunted Traverse

The Language of Death: Decoding Symbols and Iconography on Headstones

As we walk through the serene pathways of a cemetery found in the United States, we are often met with a silent language that speaks volumes about the departed souls - the symbols and iconography adorning their headstones. These engraved artworks hold profound meanings, reflecting beliefs, cultures, and memories of the ones who have crossed over. Let us delve into the world of symbols on headstones found in cemeteries, deciphering their hidden messages and unraveling the stories they tell.


Want to decipher the language of death? Read on!

Lamb Iconography for Headstone
Headstone Oakwood Cemetery

The Pillar

  • A Full Pillar: As one might see in ancient Rome or Greece is a symbol of those two empires' expansion into empires of strength and intellectual expansion. This symbol, when found in a gravesite may represent the fortitude of that person and the long, good life that was lived.

  • A Broken Pillar: If a pillar that looks to be cut or broken is presented the symbolism is used to denote a life cut short but still well lived. You are most likely to see this with young children and murder victims.



Flames

  • Inverted Torch: Symbolizes death but the flame still burns so that there is still life after death.

Headstone Draping of a grave
Victorian Influenced Draping of Headstone

Shrouds

The Victorian Era popularized this symbol on headstones. Some interpret this as a way to represent the mourning of that loved one like the customary practice of draping mirrors and windows in the home during the period of mourning. However, spiritualists also see this as the representation of the veil that thinly separates this world from the beyond or Heaven.


Celtic Cross Headstone
Celtic Cross

The Cross

  • Standard Cross: Symbolizing faith, hope, and eternal life, the cross is a universal emblem seen in various forms on headstones. Its presence signifies the religious affiliation of the deceased and serves as a beacon of light guiding them to the afterlife.

  • Celtic Cross: A standard cross with a circle that encompasses the top portion. This circle has no start or end and is meant to symbolize eternity. Some will have Celtic designs carved into them as well.


  • Catholic Cross: Christograms will be engraved into these more elaborate cross designs such as "IHS" or Greek Letters to signify Christ's name in Greek.



Animals

  • The Lion: A symbol of divine power through Christianity. Also, a protector from evil and unwanted visitors. It may symbolize specific virtues of courage, strength, and power for the deceased.

  • Lamb: A symbol of innocence for a child or infant's gravestone.

Birds

  • The Dove: A symbol of peace and purity, the dove often graces headstones, symbolizing the departed soul's journey to a place of tranquility and rest. Its gentle presence brings solace to those left behind.

  • Flying Bird: A symbol of rebirth

  • Eagle: Represents a citizen's pride for their country or affiliation. Commonly used for Civil War soldiers.

  • Birds: a symbol of eternal life or peace. Like angels, can be seen as messengers.

  • Swallow: A Symbol of motherhood, spirits of children, or a consoling spirit.




Flowers

  • The Rose: Embodying love, beauty, and remembrance, the rose is a common motif found on headstones. Each petal whispers a tale of affection and cherished memories, immortalizing the bond shared with the departed.

  • Unopened Bud: This is usual a symbol of a life lived short such as a child who did not get the chance to bloom in life.

  • Lily: A symbol of beauty, chastity, purity, and innocence of life lived. May represent marriage or resurrection.


Plants

Bundle of Wheat on Headstone
Bundle of Wheat
  • Wreath: A wreath is a circle. Circles in symbolism have no start and no beginning. A wreath is another symbol to represent eternity. That that soul is in the beyond for eternity.

  • Garland: Victory over death.

  • Myrtle Leaves: A symbol of undying love or peace.

  • Oak Leaves: Symbol of strong faith overcoming doubts and enduring

  • Olive Branch: A symbol of one's humanity or forgiveness or peace.

  • Bundle of Wheat: A symbol of old age and a fruitful life.

  • Ivy and Vines: Symbols of friendship, fidelity, and immortality through rebirth.



Trees

  • A full tree: A symbol of a life through the lens of human failures such as sins and frailty.

  • A Tree Stump: A life cut short like the pillar symbolism.

  • The Oak Tree: A symbol of strength, endurance, and legacy, the oak tree etched on a headstone signifies the deep-rooted impact and lasting influence the departed has left behind, with branches reaching far and wide.


Anchor on Headstone
Anchor on Headstone

The Anchor

Representing hope, steadfastness, and salvation, the anchor is a poignant symbol denoting the deceased's firm belief in a safe harbor awaiting them beyond life's stormy seas.


The symbolism can be obvious in the presentation indicating that a loved one was in one way or another connected with the sea such as an avid marine enthusiast or in the naval service.


The less obvious symbolism is that this is a Christian cross. Not all cemeteries allow for religious symbols to be represented on headstones. The Anchor is used to circumnavigate this rule.


The Hourglass

Symbolizing the fleeting nature of time and the transient essence of life, the hourglass serves as a poignant reminder to cherish each passing moment and embrace the inevitability of change.


Incorporating these symbols and iconography on headstones not only pays homage to the departed but also encapsulates the essence of their being, preserving memories for generations to come.





Theological Iconography:


  • The Angel: The word angel comes from the Greek word, "angelos," meaning the messenger. Angels are theological and can be found represented in religions such as Judaism, Christianity, and Islam. Angels are seen in this context as the messengers between god and humanity. In the representation of angels as found on gravestones, most likely the representation is to reflect that person's religious beliefs. However, since angels are considered messengers, a different interpretation is that these angels serve as that bridge to guide that soul into the next realm.

  • Sleeping Cherubs: A symbol of innocence for infant or young children's headstones.

  • Open Gates: A symbol that the soul has entered Heaven.

  • Beehive: A symbol of abundance in the Promised Land or virtue of faith.

  • Finger Pointing Upward: Calling those on Earth to Witness

  • Finger Pointing Downward: Symbolizes the pathway to Heaven


The Book

A book is a symbol in our world of the holder of knowledge. Books found on gravesites expand on this symbol. The symbol may represent knowledge, but he may also represent education, the expansion of one's soul into a more known universe after their passing, and the spiritual student that person presented during their lives.


Organizations

  • Masonic Compass & Square: When a compass and square are etched onto a headstone, this symbol is easy to interpret. The person was part of the Freemasons fraternal organization, so think men, that traces back to the Middle Ages. This organization represented self-improvement, moral values, charity, and brotherly love. The "G" represents God and Geometry.

  • D & R: Daughters of the Rebekah: The symbol will usually have a crescent moon, dove, or chain links. A branch of the Independent Order of the Odd Fellows designed for the female auxiliary.

  • American Legion: These markers are installed for every US Veteran.

  • Benevolent Protective Order of the Elks: Established in 1868, this order is known as the Elks Club. Men and women (as of 1995) can be part of this order.



Unraveling the Stories Behind Symbols


“In every symbol lies a story untold, a memory preserved, a life celebrated.”


As we decode the intricate symbols on headstones, we uncover narratives of love, faith, and enduring legacies. Each stroke of the chisel, each curve of the design, weaves together a tapestry of emotions and experiences, immortalizing the essence of those who have embarked on their final journey.


Conclusion

In conclusion, the symbols and iconography on headstones serve as timeless tributes to lives lived and legacies left behind. They invite us to pause, reflect, and honor the memories of those who have paved the way for the generations to come. As we wander through the hallowed grounds of a cemetery, let us not just see symbols but read stories, not just view icons but feel emotions—connecting across time and space through the universal language of art etched in stone.



FAQ


What are the iconography and symbols used on headstones found in cemeteries?


The symbols found on headstones are not mere glyphs but profound expressions of beliefs, values, and sentiments cherished by the departed and their loved ones. Understanding the significance behind these symbols adds depth and reverence to the act of remembrance.


Explore the rich symbolism etched in stone and unravel the captivating stories hidden in plain sight. Let each symbol be a guide on your journey through history and heritage. Discover more symbols here.


What is a Taphophile?

n. plural: Taphophiles A cemetery enthusiast or grave hunter. A person passionate and who enjoys cemeteries, the iconography of death from an anthropological standpoint, gravestones, and funerals.


What is a Headstone?

An upright stoned to mark the head of a grave. Also used interchangeably with a grave marker or tombstone.


What is symbolism?

An icon, object, or image that represents ideas, emotions, and representations of entities with a deeper meaning.


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