Many grave memorials display incised or three-dimensional animals
and these have strong symbolic meanings. The following are some of the
most commonly encountered symbolic animal designs:
Birds in flight - These are symbolic of the "winged soul."
The representation of the soul by a bird goes back to ancient Egypt. Some
older burial art features only wings to convey the symbol of divine mission.
Often denote the graves of children, eternal life.
Dove - An important symbolic animal in Christianity representing
the Holy Spirit. The white dove is referred to in the story of baptism
of Christ. "And John bore record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from
heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him" (Bible, John 1:32). The descending
dove is a very common motif on grave memorials. Seven doves are representative
of the seven spirits of God or the Holy Spirit in its sevenfold gifts of
grace. Purity, devotion, Divine Spirit. When shown with an Olive Sprig
it means Hope or Promise.
Butterfly - The soul, Although quite rare, it is occasionally
seen on graves (most often of children). It is symbolic of the resurrection
of Christ. The meaning is derived from the three stages of the life of
the butterfly—the caterpillar, the chrysalis, and the butterfly. The three
stages are symbols of life, death and resurrection. Short-life.
Eagle - suggests courage and possibly a military career,
symbol for Saint John.
Owl - suggests wisdom
Rooster - Awakening, the Resurrection
Swallow - indicates a child or motherhood
Dog - Signifying the loyalty and that the master was worth
Dolphin - portrays the idea of resurrection
Dragon - being defeated by St. George depicts triumph over
Fish - indicates faith
Frog - depicts sin and worldly pleasures, or may represent
Hart (male deer) - represented either faithfulness, thirsting
for God, or Christ slaying Satan.
Horse - Courage or generosity. An attribute of St. George,
St. Martin, St. Maurice and St. Victor, all of whom are represented in
Christian art on horseback.
Lamb - This is the most common animal symbol found on a
child's grave. The lamb appears throughout the ages with great regularity
in Christian art and because it is a symbol of Christ: "Behold the Lamb
of God, which taketh away the sin of the world!" (Bible, John 1:29). The
use of the lamb in religious art pre-dates Christianity and appears to
have been used first by the Egyptians. It signifies purity and innocence.
Christ in his sacrificial role and personifies: innocence, meekness, gentleness
Lion - Symbolizes the power of God
and guards the tomb against evil spirits. Like other guardians, the lion's
watch is as eternal as the stone of which it is depicted. The lion also
recalls the courage and determination of the souls which they guard, they
manifest the spirit of the departed. Resurrection
Peacock - symbolized the incorruptibility of flesh, resurrection,
beauty of soul, immortality
Phoenix - symbolized the incorruptibility of flesh,
resurrection, beauty of soul, immortality
Serpent- shown swallowing its own tail it represents Eternity.
Squirrel with a nut - religious meditation or spiritual
Arms outstretched - the plea for mercy
Eye of God/All-Seeing Eye - The Eye of God or the All-Seeing
Eye symbolizes the all-knowing and ever-present God. During the Renaissance
period in Europe, it was common to illustrate the Eye of God surrounded
by a triangle (the Holy Trinity). The eye within the triangle, surrounded
by a circle and radiating rays of light is used to symbolize the holiness
of the true God.
Hands - The use of hands in some form is very common
on grave memorials. Symbol of leaving.
Hands, clasped - At first glance, these hands all seem to
be in the same fashion but a number of interesting characteristics stand
out. First, most of the hands illustrate the right hand in a grasp with
fingers overlapping the other hand while the left hand is open. This could
be the depiction of a man holding a woman's hand and indicate marriage
or a close bond between individuals, unity and affection even after death.
Clasped hands are also symbolic of a farewell or last good-bye. Look at
the cuff to distinguish between a man's or woman's hand (woman would have
a frilly cuff.) The person who died first holds the other's hand, guiding
the spouse to heaven.
Heart - Love, mortality, love of God, courage and intelligence.
Hand of God plucking a link of a chain represents God bringing
a soul unto himself.
A chain with a broken link symbolizes the death of a family
A heart - symbolic of charity and is common on 19th
century memorials. It is typically seen on memorials of members of the
Independent Order of Odd fellows. Charity
An open book - the embodiment of Faith
Downward - mortality or sudden death. (Possibly a depiction
of a secret Masonic handshake.)
Hands praying connote devotion
Upward - the reward of the righteous, confirmation of life
after death. Heavenly reward, ascension to heaven.
Two hands touching at thumbs - The hands are making the
"Live long and
prosper" gesture that Mr. Spock used on Star Trek (Leonard Nimoy
Jewish, and that's where he got it).
The Cohen was the priestly caste. They perform a few specific functions
in Orthodox Judaism, and have a few unique restrictions: they are not supposed
to remarry or touch a dead body, for example. People who are Cohen often
have Cohen as their last name, This is the hand gesture made by Cohen
at the end of services in Orthodox synagogues, it's a benediction,
and had come to universally represent Cohens.
Bleeding - Christ's suffering for our sins.
Encircled with thorns - the suffering of Christ.
Flaming - signifies extreme religious fervor
Pierced by a sword - the Virgin Mary, harkening to Simeon's
prophecy to Mary at the birth of Christ, "Yea, a sword shall pierce through
thine own soul." It can also be used to represent charity.
Geometric forms are commonly found on grave memorials:
Circle - The circle is pre-Christian and its original symbolic
meaning has been adopted by Christianity. It is universally known as the
symbol of eternity and never-ending existence. Extremely common on grave
sites, its usual representation is a cross surrounded by circle. Two circles,
one above the other, represent earth and sky. Three interconnected circles
represent the Holy Trinity.
Latin Cross surrounded by circle or oval - representing
eternity or never-ending existence.
Cross - The ties between all religious beliefs and symbolism
have always been strong. To the Christians the greatest symbolic message
is in the crucifix. The crucifix or cross can generate many symbolic messages
ranging from love, faith and goodness to terror and fear (e.g. the Ku-Klux-Klan’s
use of the burning cross). There are many different types of Christian
crosses worldwide, but only a handful are common in North America.
Botonee Cross - So named because of its modified trefoil
(three-lobed) ends, represents the trinity.
Triangle/Trefoil/Triquetra - In Christianity, the equilateral
triangle is the symbol of the Trinity. Other geometric shapes representing
the Holy Trinity are the trefoil, the triquetra, the circle within the
triangle, the triangle in circle and the triquetra and circle. To the ancient
Egyptians, the triangle was an emblem of Godhead; to the Pythagoreans,
it symbolized wisdom. Another use of the triangle is in the symbol of the
eye (eye of God) surrounded by a triangle.
Calvary Cross - A latin cross standing on three steps or
blocks, it signifies faith, hope and love. Love is sometimes replaced by
Celtic Cross - The circle around the crosspiece symbolizes
eternity. It's origin can be traced to the Celtic cultures of the British
Isles. There is a legend of how St. Patrick when preaching to some soon
to be converted heathens was shown a sacred standing stone that was marked
with a circle that was symbolic of the moon goddess. Patrick made the mark
of a Latin cross through the circle and blessed the stone making the first
Eastern Cross - Used in Orthodox (Russian/Greek) Christian
Religions, this cross upper horizontal shoulder representing the inscription
over the head of Jesus. The lower slanting shoulder represents the footrest
of the crucified Jesus.
Fleuree Cross/Gothic Cross - This flowered cross symbolizes
the adult Christian by its more opened flaired out ends
Greek Cross - It has four arms equal in length and is the
traditional symbol of Christian faith. The equal length drawings of the
cross is pre-Christian, and in paganism, represented the four elements—earth,
air, fire and water.
Ionic Cross - Similar to the Celtic Cross, it's ends flair
outward. The ionic cross signifies everlasting salvation, love and glory.
The circle around the crosspiece symbolizes eternity.
Latin Cross - One of the oldest symbols of Christianity
and the most commonly used form, it is also the simplest in design. In
early times, it was called god's mark
Square - It represents the earth and earthly existence.
Some monuments have a cube or square inverted to point the corners downward
and upward. This illustrates earthly existence and the directions of earth
The Eye of God surrounded by a triangle and a circle - symbolic
of the eternity of the Holy Trinity.
Pentagram - This is a five-pointed, star-shaped figure made
by extending the sides of a regular pentagon until they meet. This figure
pre-dates Christianity and was first known to be used by Pythagoras, the
Greek philosopher. Later in the Middle Ages, the pentagram was used by
magicians and sorcerers. 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. It is interesting to note
that the pentagram is used by both Christianity and Wicca (witchcraft).
Pyramid - Eternity. It was supposed that a pyramid-shaped
tombstone prevented the devil from reclining on a grave.
A five-pointed star is symbolic of the life of Christ and
may also represent the five wounds of Christ.
Menorah or seven-branched candlestick - Jewish symbol for divine
presence of God. The seven branches of the candlestick represents the seven
days for the creation of the world by God.
Five-pointed pentagram star - This star is drawn
with one stroke of the pen. Its exact origin is unknown, and its meaning
has changed throughout the ages. The pre-Christian Celtic priests called
it the witch's foot. It is also called Solomon's Seal and was known in
the Middle Ages as the goblin's cross. Today the symbol is a favorite among
graffiti artists and so-called demonology practitioners. Like the pentagon,
it is believed to have protective powers against evil. In Wicca beliefs,
it represents protection against demons and a symbol of safety. The ancient
Babylonians used the symbol as a magic charm. The five-pointed pentagram
star represents the five senses. To the Jews, it represents the five mosaic
books. This symbol has also been adopted by Masonic organizations (e.g.,
the Eastern Star).
The Star of David - Six-pointed star or Star of David, also
known as Magen David (Hebrew for shield of David), it is typically used
symbol of Judaism. The star is actually made of two triangles.
It signifies divine protection as epitomized by the alchemistic signs for
fire and water which are an upward and downward apexed triangle. The star
is a very ancient symbol, used by several Asia Minor cultures, as well
as some Greek city states. For Judaism, the Star of David came into widespread
use at the beginning of the 20th century. Theodore Hertzel, a Jewish activist,
adopted the symbol in his writings promoting Palestine as a Jewish homeland.
Swastika - Exact origin is unknown but it is considered
one of the oldest and widespread symbols used. Commonly found on Buddhist
memorials, it represents the seal of the Buddha’s heart; the doctrine of
Buddha; the round of existence. To the Chinese, the swastika had two forms
symbolizing the male and female; clockwise and anti-clockwise. Also used
by the Romans and later by the Nazi party in Germany during the Second
Anchor - Early Christians used the anchor as a disguised
cross, and as a marker to guide the way to secret meeting places. A Christian
symbol of hope, it is found as funerary symbolism in the art of the catacombs.
Often set amongst rocks. It can also be an occupational symbol in sea-faring
areas or the attribute of Saint Nicholas, patron saint of seamen, symbolized
hope and steadfastness. An anchor with a broken chain stands for the cessation
Arch - Victory of life; or victory in death.
Arrow - denotes mortality
Angels - the agent of God, often pointing towards heaven;
guardians of the dead, symbolizing spirituality. Angels are shown in all
types of poses with different symbolism.
Two angels can be named, and are identified by the objects they
carry: Michael, who bears a sword and Gabriel,who is depicted with a horn.
Blowing a trumpet (or even two trumpets) representing the
day of judgment, and Call to the Resurrection
Baby's chair - small, empty furniture symbolized unfulfilled
lives of children; represented the child now gone; with small shoes on
chair - connection to childhood, symbolized inability to achieve adulthood
Carrying the departed soul as a child in their arms, or
as a Guardian embracing the dead. The "messengers of god" are often shown
escorting the deceased to heaven.
Flying - Rebirth
Many angels gathered together in the clouds - represents
Weeping - Grief, or mourning an untimely death.
Bible - connotes a religious lay person or a cleric
Book - faith, learning to read and write, a scholar. A prayer,
or knowledge or even memory (where it has a dog-eared page). It may represent
the Book of Life and is often shown as a bible. A popular form is the book
as a double page spread.
Candle, with a flame - Life
Chalice – sacraments
Cherubs - the graves of children
Cherub's Head - the soul.
Children - usually represent the untimely death of the innocent.
They may be shown mourning a parent, but if holding a skull that means
they are dead themselves.
Sleeping - sleep is the tie between life and death; children
are purity, artlessness, innocence
Chrisma - a cross like shape formed by a combination of two
Greek letters, chi (X) and rho (P) corresponding to CH and R of the word,
Christ, hence a symbol for Jesus Christ.
Circle - perfection or eternity in the after world, life
Coffin, Sarcophagus, Cemetery monument - mortality.
Column, broken - an early grief, end of life, sorrow. Life
cut short too soon. May be girded with flowers. This image represents the
decay. It usually represents the loss of the family head.
Columns, with archway - Heavenly entrance
Cross and Anchor - another early Christian symbol referring
to Christ as "hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sincere and steadfast"
Crown - immortality, righteousness, victory, triumph, resurrection,
symbolic of honor or glory, glory of life after death. May be shown being
offered to those on Earth by Angels.
Crown on a cross - sovereignty of the Lord.
Doors and gates - passage into the afterlife. Heavenly entrance
Drapery over anything - sorrow, mourning
Flame - eternity.
Grim Reaper - Death personified.
Harp - Associated with David in the Old Testament; symbol
of St. Cecilia, patron saint of musicians. Symbolic of worship in heaven,
Hourglass - Time's inevitable passing, attribute of death
and Father Time, represents the passage of time and the shortness of life.
On its side - that time has stopped for the deceased.
Keys - Keys stand for spiritual knowledge or, if held in the
hands of an angel or saint, the means to enter heaven.
Winged - time's swift flight.
Knot - The interlaced celtic knot represents reserection
and life everlasting.
Labyrinth - The passage of life
Lamp - Knowledge, a love of learning, and the immortality
of the Spirit.
Pall, Pick, Spade - Mortality
Pitcher – Jewish symbol - Traditional symbolism for Levites
would have been the
pitcher or ewer, representative of washing the hands of the High
Rod or staff - comfort
Scroll - Symbol of life and time.
Both ends rolled up indicates a life that is unfolding like a scroll of
uncertain length and the past and future hidden. Often held by a hand representing
life being recorded by angels. Can also suggest honor and commemoration.
Scythe - Death, the divine harvest
Shell - The use of shell in burials is pre-Christian in
practice and pre-dates even Egyptian burial practices. Shell is symbolic
of fertility, resurrection and pilgrimage. Shells, coins and small stones
are the traditional objects left at grave sites. There are several meanings
given to this act. It may be a symbolic referral to the ancient custom
of burying the dead under a cairn of rocks to protect the body from scavenging
animals, or a reminder that the individual is not forgotten.
Scallop - symbol of the Crusades, pilgrim, pilgrim's journey,
resurrection, life everlasting, connotes one's life journey. A symbol of
birth and resurrection, a traditional symbol of the Puritans.
Ship - the grave of a seafarer
Sickle - death as the "last harvest"
Skull, skeleton - Mortality, death
Star - Stars stand for the spirit, piercing the darkness
as an expression of their triumph against the overwhelming odds of oblivion.
Five pointed stars represent the spirit rising to heaven.
Sun setting - Death
Sun shining/rising - Renewed life
Sword - a military career
Swords, crossed - indicates death in battle
Torch - lit or upright torch represents life, the inverted or
extinguished - death.
Trumpets - Victory and Resurrection
Urn - Greek symbol of mourning, the body as a vessel of
the soul, originating as a repository for the ashes of the dead in ancient
times - a popular symbol of mourning. Most represent an ossuary. In several
examples an Angel is looking inside it as if to inspect the contents. A
flame is sometimes shown coming from the Urn. They are often draped with
a cloth or festooned with a wreath or garland. This fashion of Urn's persisted
well into the 1850's at least.
Urn, draped connotes death, often of an older person.
Vessel with flame - the eternal flame or the eternal spirit
Winged face - Effigy of the soul of the deceased.
Winged globe - a symbol of the Egyptian sun god, Re; on
Victorian monuments it is symbolic of the power that can recreate and,
with the wings, means, "God, Lord over all, creator."
Winged skull - Flight of the soul from mortal man
Winged wheel - symbolized the holy spirit.
Woman with or without Bible pointing upward - faith
Woman hanging onto Cross - faith. Original drawing accompanied
Rev. Toplady’s hymn "Rock of Ages." Also seen as woman clinging to pillar
or anchor. Common motif on white bronze monuments and Masonic grave memorials.
Flowers convey love, grief, happiness and other emotions. These
symbolic connections of flowers with emotion are cross-cultural and their
origins are unknown. During the 1800s, the use of floral symbolism became
so popular that almost every flower known had a symbolic gesture attached
to it. The following are some symbolic references to common plants and
Acacia - immortality of soul
Acanthus - heavenly garden. One of the oldest cemetery motifs,
acanthus is associated with the rocky ground where most ancient Greek cemeteries
were placed. It is the most common motif found on memorials.
Bamboo - the emblem of Buddha. The seven-knotted bamboo
denotes the seven degrees of initiation and invocation in Buddhism. On
Japanese memorials, symbolic of devotion and truthfulness.
Buttercup - cheerfulness.
Calla lily - symbolizes marriage.
Cinquefoil - maternal affection, beloved daughter
Corn (Garbe) - it was a country custom to send a sheaf to
relatives on the death of a farmer. It may be used as an occupational symbol.
Crocus - youthful gladness
Cypress tree - designates hope
Daffodil - death of youth, desire, art, grace, beauty, deep
Daisy - innocence of child, Jesus the Infant, youth, the
Son of righteousness, gentleness, purity of thought.
Dead leaves - sadness, melancholy
Dogwood - Christianity, divine sacrifice, triumph of eternal
Fern - sincerity, sorrow
Figs, Pineapples - Prosperity, eternal life
Fleur-de-lis - flame, passion, ardor, mother
Flower - Frailty of life.
Broken flower - a life terminated, mortality.
Forget-me-not - remembrance
Ivy - memory, immortality, friendship, fidelity, faithfulness,
undying affection, eternal life.
Grapes - represent Christ
Grapes and Leaves - Christian faith.
Hawthorn - hope, merriness, springtime
Holly - foresight
Honeysuckle - bonds of love, generosity and devoted affection
Lalla - beauty, marriage
Laurel Leaves - Special achievement, distinction, success,
Lily - majesty, innocence, purity, and resurrection. Often
associated with the Virgin Mary and resurrection. Often used on women's
graves. The use of lilies at funerals symbolizes the restored innocence
of the soul at death.
Lily of the valley - return of happiness, purity, humility.
Morning glory - resurrection, mourning, youth, farewell,
brevity of life, departure, mortality
Mystic rose - Mother
Moss - merit
Mulberry - I will not survive you
Oak tree - hospitality, stability, strength, honor, eternity,
endurance, liberty. It is believed to have been the tree from which Jesus
Christ's cross was made. In smaller pioneer cemeteries, it is common to
place children's graves near oak trees. The oak tree was the tree of life
in pre-Christian times. The Druids worshipped the oak. The oak, oak leaves
and acorn can stand for power, authority or victory. Often seen on military
Passion flower - the elements of the passion of Christ:
the lacy crown—the crown of thorns; the five stamens—the five wounds; the
10 petals—the 10 faithful Apostles
Pineapple - hospitality, good host
Palm - spiritual victory, success, eternal peace, a symbol
of Christ's victory of death as associated with Easter.
Pansy - symbolizes remembrance and humility.
Pine - fertility, regeneration, fidelity
Poppy - peace, rest, sleep, eternal sleep, consolation
Rose - love, beauty, hope, unfailing love, associated with
the Virgin Mary, the "rose without thorns." A red rose symbolizes martyrdom
and a white rose symbolizes purity and virginity.
Whether the rose is a bud, flower or somewhere in between indicates
how old the person was at the time of death:
Just a bud - normally a child 12 or under
Shamrock - Ireland as country of origin
Partial bloom - normally a teenager
Full bloom - normally in early/mid twenties. The
deceased died in the prime of life
Rosebud, broken - life cut short, usually found with a young
Rosebuds, joining - strong bond between two people (e.g.,
mother and child who died at the same time
Rosebuds, several on same branch - secrecy
Rosette - the Lord, messianic hope, promise, love.
Wreath of Rose - Beauty and virtue rewarded
Thistle - earthly sorrow, Christ's crown of thorns, Scotland
as country of origin.
Tree - The all-covering love of Christ. Life, The Tree of
Severed branch - Mortality
Vine - The sacraments, God's blood, God
Sprouting - Life everlasting.
Weeping Willow - Nature's lament, a symbol of sorrow and
Wheat - resurrection, bread and wine (Christian), fertility
Bushel - body of Christ
Wreath or Garland - The use of garlands, wreaths and festoons
dates back to ancient Greek times and it was adopted into the Christian
religion as a symbol of the victory of the redemption.
sheaves - The divine harvest, Often represents the aged.
The laurel wreath is usually associated with someone who has attained
distinction in the arts, literature, athletics or the military. The ivy
wreath is symbolic of conviviality (gaiety or joviality). The wreath and
festoon together symbolize memory.
Ancient symbol of victory. memory, passed to eternal life.
Bridal - may signify the grave of a young bride or
Yew tree - sadness, eternal life
Maiden's Garland - A garland of white paper or linen,
embellished with streamers and a single white glove, which was carried
at the funerals of unmarried women of blameless reputation. The garlands
were hung in the church after the funeral and allowed to decay. Then the
pieces would be buried in the graveyard.