Gravestone Symbols from A to Z
Gravestone symbols from A to Z reveal interesting insights into our ancestors’ lives and beliefs.
When you were learning to read as a child, you probably learned the alphabet from A to Z. Likewise, learning gravestone symbols from A to Z will help you learn to “read” a cemetery.
In just a glance as you walk through a cemetery, you’ll be able to tell what club your ancestors belonged to, what their religious beliefs were, how they died, and what they valued.
Gravestone Symbols from A to Z – Letter A
Sometimes an anchor was placed on the gravestones of seamen since it was their last resort in a storm.
But more often, the anchor on a gravestone was a symbol of hope. The Bible references an anchor in connection with hope in Hebrews 6: 18-19, “. . . lay hold upon the hope set before us: which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast . . .”
Those without hope may be like a ship tossed on the sea, their emotions being carried in every direction. The anchor would remind family members visiting the grave to hold on to the hope of seeing their loved one again.
To members of Freemasonry, the anchor represented well-grounded hope, a life well-spent, and eternal tranquility.
Gravestone Symbols from A to Z – Letter B
A book on a gravestone can symbolize the good deeds of the departed, as recorded in the Book of Life. It can also represent the scriptures, as a sign of faith.
Books may also indicate that a scholar or teacher is buried at the gravesite. An open book can signify an early death for someone whose life story was not yet fully written.
Click HERE to learn about the gravestones of 3 famous authors.
Gravestone Symbols from A to Z – Letter C
The Celtic cross has a ring or nimbus that connects the four arms. It originated in Ireland and Great Britain in the Early Middle Ages.
Irish legends hold that St. Patrick introduced the Celtic cross. Adherents claim St. Patrick combined the symbol of the Christian cross with the symbol of the sun, worshipped by pagans, to attract new believers to Christianity. Others interpret the placement of the cross on top of the sun as Christ’s superiority over the pagan sun gods.
The legends may be true, but it also may simply be that the circle gives structural support to the arms, so it was easier to create.
If your ancestor has a Celtic Cross, chances are good that you have an Irish heritage.
Gravestone Symbols from A to Z – Letter D
Doves are a symbol of purity and innocence. They are often carved on infant’s gravestones.
It was a dove that brought an olive branch to Noah on the ark after the rains stopped. So doves also represent hope.
The dove in flight is a cemetery symbol of the Holy Spirit. This comes from the New Testament references to Jesus Christ’s baptism by John the Baptist, “And straightway coming up out of the water, he saw the heavens opened, and the Spirit like a dove descending upon him.” (Mark 1:10)
Gravestone Symbols from A to Z – Letter E
An elk on a gravestone!? Yes, there are lots of them. Since 1868, millions of Americans have joined the Benevolent Protective Order of the Elks, more commonly called The Elks Club. There are currently more than 2,100 Elks lodges across the nation.
The Elks Club sprung up from some very unlikely beginnings. The organization was founded in 1868 in New York City by 15 actors and theater crew under the name the Jolly Corks. It was a drinking club, formed to circumvent a state law that closed saloons on Sundays.
As the fraternity expanded, members decided to change their name from the Jolly Corks to The Benevolent Protective Order of the Elks to avoid attracting the attention of police.
Why “Elks”? Well, that depends on who you ask. Some say the elk was chosen as a mascot because it lives in herds, is a distinctively American animal, and is strong in defense of its own.
Others say it was because some members of the Jolly Corks admired a mounted elk’s head they saw at P. T. Barnum’s museum. Never mind that it was really a moose head – they had been drinking, right?
But from those unlikely beginnings, sprang a very influential organization. The Order of the Elks spends more than 80 million dollars per year to promote educational, benevolent, and patriotic community programs. Learn more HERE.
Gravestone Symbols from A to Z – Letter F
Freemasons, with more than 6 million members worldwide, are the largest and most widely recognized fraternity.
Many of the beliefs and symbols of the Freemason fraternity are said to have been preserved from ancient times by the masons who worked on Solomon’s temple.
The most widely recognized symbol of Freemasonry is the square and compass with the letter G at the center.
The letter G stands for both God and geometry. A belief in God is the main requirement for Freemasonry membership. Geometry is said to help unravel the wonders and mysteries of nature and the universe.
The square is a reminder to keep actions square and true with God and all mankind. It represents fairness, stability, balance, and having a solid foundation.
The compass then deals more with the spiritual realm and the square with the earthly realm. Together, they represent both earthly and spiritual responsibilities. To the Masons, the symbol is a reminder to do well by all mankind on earth and to keep an eternal perspective in preparation for eternity with God.
Since compasses are used to draw circles it is symbolic of infinite unending boundaries and spiritual eternity.
Gravestone Symbols from A to Z – Letter G
This gravestone represents the gate of heaven which was closed with Adam’s sin and reopened through the resurrection of Christ.
It gives hope to the family of the departed that their loved one will enter heaven through the power of Christ’s atonement.
Gravestone Symbols from A to Z – Letter H
One of the most common symbols on gravestones is the hand. There are clasped hands, pointing fingers, hands holding objects, and more.
A hand with a finger pointing down represents the hand of God. The swirls at the top of this hand are symbolic of clouds or heaven.
The chain represents the family. Notice that it has a broken link. That separate link is symbolic of the deceased.
God is reaching out with one finger to bring them to heaven to join their departed family members. Learn more about hand gravestone symbols HERE.
Gravestone Symbols from A to Z – Letter I
Sometimes the letters I, H, and S are intertwined on a gravestone, making them look like a dollar sign.
But the letters are actually a religious symbol. I, H, and S are the first three initials (iota-eta-sigma) of the name Jesus Christ in Greek: ΙΗΣΟΥΣ.
This symbol was introduced in Ireland in about 1780 and was very popular from about 1810 to 1830. It is often seen on Catholic gravestones today.
Learn more about the symbol IHS and other Irish gravestone symbols, click HERE.
Gravestone Symbols from A to Z – Letter J
Judgement scales on this old gravestone in Bamburgh, Northumberland, England remind cemetery visitors of the balance between justice and mercy on judgment day.
Gravestone Symbols from A to Z – Letter K
K is for keys. Keys on a gravestone represent the keys to enter the gates of heaven.
The other symbols on this gravestone are heavenly as well. There is the all-seeing eye of God at the top.
The other three symbols come from the teachings of the Apostle Paul to the Corinthians about the different degrees of glory in heaven. He taught, “There is one glory of the sun, and another glory of the moon, and another glory of the stars: for one star differeth from another star in glory.”
Gravestone Symbols from A to Z – Letter L
Lambs are the most common symbol on infants’ gravestones. They are usually lying down and are often asleep.
In the book of John in the New Testament, it is recorded that Jesus asked his apostle Peter three times if he loved Him. Each time, Peter affirmed that he did. And Jesus replied, “Feed my sheep. Feed my lambs.”
A lamb on a gravestone can be a Christian symbol of one who follows the Good Shepherd.
Sheep are instinctive followers. When one sheep decides to go someplace, the rest of the flock usually tags along behind them – even if it is not a good choice. If one sheep runs off a cliff, the other sheep in the flock may follow.
Likewise, small children are naturally submissive and loyal to those who lead them.
Gravestone Symbols from A to Z – Letter M
In a cemetery, you expect to see flowers, crosses, angels, and lambs on gravestones. But you may be startled to come across a moose head! When you do, you may be quite sure that the deceased belonged to the Loyal Order of the Moose.
In 1888, the Loyal Order of the Moose was founded as a fraternal and service organization. Well, at least on the surface anyway. In reality, it was a social drinking club and the meeting lodges were called Watering Places.
Later, the focus shifted to more charitable causes. The order currently has more than a million members scattered throughout the United States, Canada, Great Britain, and Bermuda.
Learn more about the Loyal Order of the Moose and other fraternity gravestone symbols HERE.
Gravestone Symbols from A to Z – Letter N
Nesting underground is symbolic of death and resurrection.
This odd little groundhog is in an underground nest carved into a tree gravestone that doubles as a planter.
It served as a reminder to the family that although they would not see their loved one through the long “winter of death” they would be reunited in the “spring of resurrection morning”.
Gravestone Symbols from A to Z – Letter O
This obelisk is at the tomb of US President Abraham Lincoln in Oak Ridge Cemetery, Springfield, Illinois, USA.
The obelisk is the most common Egyptian symbol in modern cemeteries.
Obelisks are upright four-sided pillars that gradually taper off at the top into a pyramid shape.
In ancient Egypt obelisks, which are shaped like rays of sunshine, were a symbol of the god of the sun Re, who had the power of creation. Thus, obelisks in modern cemeteries represent God or the great creator.
Learn more about obelisks and other Egyptian gravestone symbols by clicking HERE.
Gravestone Symbols from A to Z – Letter P
Palm trees have been considered sacred in many regions of the world and in many religions. Here are a few examples.
- Egypt – palm branches represent immortality
- Judaism – the lulav, a date palm frond, is used in the Sukkot Festival or Feast of the Tabernacles, a thanksgiving celebration of the harvest
- Ancient Greece – a palm frond was awarded to victorious athletes
- Assyria – the palm tree is considered to be a sacred connection to heaven since its branches reach to skies and its roots are anchored in the earth
- Rome and Phonecia – palm trees appear on ancient coins
- Islam – palm trees are a symbol of rest and hospitality
To Christians, palm branches are associated with Jesus’ triumphal final entry into Jerusalem. In the Bible, it says that the people, “took branches of palm trees, and went forth to meet him, and cried, ‘Hosanna, blessed is the King of Israel that cometh in the name of the Lord’” (John 12:13).
Thus, to Christians, palm fronds represent the victory of the spirit over the flesh.
Gravestone Symbols from A to Z – Letter Q
A quill on a gravestone symbolizes a life cut short for someone whose life story was not yet fully written.
A quill may also indicate that the deceased was a writer or teacher.
Gravestone Symbols from A to Z – Letter R
Just as a rose given on Valentine’s Day symbolizes love, a rose on a gravestone symbolizes eternal love.
A rosebud is symbolic of a life not yet in full bloom and is usually seen on the gravestone of a young child, youth, or young adult.
A broken rosebud is symbolic of a life cut short.
Roses on gravestones often have three leaves, symbolic of Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Gravestone Symbols from A to Z – Letter S
The Star of David is the most recognized symbol of Judaism. It is seen on many Jewish gravestones as well as on the national flag of Israel.
The star is six-sided and is made up of two intertwined equilateral triangles. In Hebrew, it is called Magen David or David’s shield, representing the protection of the ancient king.
To learn more about Jewish gravestone symbols, click HERE.
Did you know that all of the cemeteries in Israel have been photographed with the BillonGraves app?! This amazing feat was done by BillionGraves’ partner, MyHeritage. Learn more by clicking HERE.
Gravestone Symbols from A to Z – Letter T
Tree gravestones are unique. Have you ever seen one? The first time I saw a tree gravestone at a cemetery, I did a doubletake. It looked so real that it blended in with the surrounding trees, appearing at first to be part of nature.
In 1890, Joseph Root started a non-profit organization designed for the common man so no one would have to die without life insurance. It was more than an insurance company, it was a fraternity. He called it the Woodmen of the World.
The Woodmen of the World promoted their organization as being for the “Jew and Gentile, Catholic and Protestant, the agnostic and atheist.” The company motto stated that “no Woodmen shall rest in an unmarked grave.”
Learn more about the Woodman of the World gravestones and see some amazing photos by clicking HERE.
Gravestone Symbols from A to Z – Letter U
The urn symbolizes death itself. In the mid to late 1800s, Australians followed the example of the ancient Greeks who used the urn as a symbol of mourning since it was often used as a repository for the ashes of the dead.
It is somewhat of an irony that the urn was such a popular 19th-century Australian gravestone symbol though because very few people were actually cremated when the urn motif was at the height of its popularity.
Cremation was practiced anciently, then made illegal during the Middle Ages, only to be restored again in modern times.
In 1891, South Australia became the first state to legalize modern cremations. But then for a full decade, there was no place to have bodies cremated.
Gradually, the idea took hold, and by 1901, Australians had built their first modern crematorium in the West Terrace Cemetery in the South Australian capital of Adelaide.
To learn more about Australian gravestone symbols, click HERE.
Gravestone Symbols from A to Z – Letter V
In past generations, the deceased was laid out in their own living room or parlor for days prior to burial. Family and friends were invited into the home to pay their respects and comfort the living. The entrance to the room was often draped with a black veil, signifying the passage from life to death.
Anciently, temples also had veiled passages.
A gravestone draped with a veil can also be thought of as a curtain pulled back on a stage. All eyes would be drawn to the deceased as they passed through the veil, just as all eyes fall on the main actor or actress at the start of a play. It symbolizes the importance of each individual to God and to their family.
Gravestone Symbols from A to Z – Letter W
Winged skull gravestone symbols were common in 18th-century cemeteries. While they may look strange to us today – even morbid or creepy – they held important meaning for our ancestors.
Death was a frequent visitor to households in the 1700s. In many areas, it was a world of poverty with poor sanitation, malnourishment, and scant medical knowledge. Infant and child mortality were high. Epidemics of smallpox, measles, and whooping cough swept through communities, overcoming the most vulnerable.
Since death was an everyday part of this generation’s life, it makes sense that emblems of mortality made their way onto tombstones.
Learn more about winged skull gravestone symbols by clicking HERE.
Gravestone Symbols from A to Z – Letter X
The letter “X” and the letter “P” are sometimes engraved together, or overlapping, on a gravestone. These are the first two letters of Jesus Christ’s name from the Greek alphabet, Chi (X) and Rho (p).
This is called the Chi-Rho Cross. This symbol was first used by Emperor Constantine.
It is said that the night before Constantine was sending his soldiers out to battle he prayed. Then he had a dream in which he saw the symbols of Chi-Rho, Christ’s name, in a sunset. He then put the symbol of the Christian god on his flags and on his soldier’s shields.
Gravestone Symbols from A to Z – Letter Y
The word yahrtzeit literally means “time of one year” in Yiddish. On the first anniversary of the death of a loved one, the parents, spouse, siblings, and children meet at the gravesite or in the home of the deceased for a day of fasting and prayer.
On this anniversary, they light a candle called the yahrtzeit. This is a ritual to keep the deceased family member’s memory alive. The yahrtzeit candle is left to burn for 24 hours.
Yahrtzeit candles are also engraved on headstones as a symbol of remembrance.
Gravestone Symbols from A to Z – Letter Z
Zzzzzzzzzz . . . this sleeping baby is a lifelike remembrance for brokenhearted parents.
The symbolism is simple – “baby is only sleeping”. He will wake in the morning. Resurrection morning.
We need you!
We need your help with taking gravestone photos to help preserve history! When photos are taken with the BillionGraves mobile app, each picture is automatically tagged with GPS coordinates.
This allows families to easily find their ancestor’s final resting place at the cemetery so they can grow their family tree. It also allows future volunteers to see exactly what has already been photographed and what still needs to be done.
If you would like to volunteer to take gravestone photos with your smartphone click HERE to get started. You are welcome to take photos of gravestones at your own convenience, no permission from us is needed.
If you still have questions after you have checked out the resources above, you can email us at Volunteer@BillionGraves.com.
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Happy Cemetery Hopping!