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A Guide to Cemetery Symbolism

Mamerto Adan is a feature writer who is back in college once again. Science is one of his favorite topics.

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Halloween was nearing when I wrote this article. And it’s that time of the year when Death becomes Life. Depending on the culture, Halloween is celebrated differently through morbid, but colorful traditions. But it all boils down to one thing, Halloween is an ever reminder that death is just another reality we must accept. And as what my friend noted, death isn’t just accepted here, but embraced and celebrated. And if that’s the case, I know that cemetery visits are also a cherished tradition. Actually, I have a fear of cemeteries, thanks mostly to my parents forcing me to go to a funeral. But even my morbid fear of the necropolis never stopped me from marveling at those strange symbolisms it had. People with sharp eyes often noted that crosses and angels aren’t the only decorations graves have. We might see something as striking as a winged skull, a tomb draped in stone veil, plants, trees, anything. And the coming Halloween inspired me to brave the bowels of the internet to search for the various symbols one could find in a cemetery.

And suddenly, I found cemeteries less frightening now, but fascinating.

We Will Start with Crosses

Crosses in a military cemetery in France.

Crosses in a military cemetery in France.

Crosses were the staple of cemeteries. A stone or wooden cross marking the grave of the deceased is our general idea of a final resting place. A lot of times, crosses served as monuments for someone of Christian faith, being a symbol of the said religion. For the bereaved, crosses represent the passion and resurrection of Christ, a victory over death and a reminder of how the deceased found eternity in the afterlife. Nevertheless, crosses are also used for secular shrines, and it’s a common sight in war memorials.

Crosses found in cemeteries come in many variants, depending on the traditions and cultures. One example is the Calvary Cross. Calvary Crosses are graveyard stone crosses mounted on bases shaped to resemble the hill of Calvary. A cross, with a circle in the middle intersection the upright and crossbar is the Celtic Cross. They are ornately decorated and popular in U.S. cemeteries in the late 19th century. Those who cannot afford an expensive grave marker might resort to simple Cement Crosses, which is basically a homemade cross of cement. Then there is the cross with chalice to mark the final resting places of Roman Catholic priests, crosses with the crown of thorns symbolizing the suffering of Christ and victory over death, crosses with lilies as a symbol of resurrection, plus much more.

A cemetery Celtic Cross.

A cemetery Celtic Cross.

These are just few of the examples, and covering the many variants of cemetery crosses requires a separate article. But crosses aren’t just the symbolism one might find in cemeteries. Older cemeteries may feature more intricate, and mysterious decorations, statues and symbolism. And again, since there are so many, below are just a few of them.

Inverted Torch

An inverted torch.

An inverted torch.

When combing the cemeteries just for the morbid atmosphere, one might stumble upon what looks like a torch carved on tombstones or monuments. The only difference here is that it is inverted. One might think that the stone carver was having a bad day, but an inverted torch is actually one of the many symbolisms of death. An inverted torch is an allusion of death and afterlife. It is inverted to signify death, but the still burning fire symbolize life. That even at death, the soul is still alive in the afterworld.

Draped Objects

This time, an urn is used.

This time, an urn is used.

You could also find tomb monuments shaped like objects draped in shrouds, and it is a common knowledge that shrouds are symbol of mourning. In fact, during the Victorian times, heavy black fabrics were draped throughout the homes of the bereaved. At the same time, the carved draperies represent the parting of the veil between this world and the afterworld.

The Career Representation

An anchor on a tomb.

An anchor on a tomb.

Going back to the chalice marking the final resting places of priests, people might put representations of their vocations and careers in their tombstones. For example, those who served in the military would have carved swords in their shrines, and at the same time anchors were used in place of crosses for dead seamen or naval officers (though anchors were actually disguised crosses when people wanted to show their faiths in less obvious way). Masonic symbols of compass and set squares then adorn the tomb of Freemason Grandmasters.

Doves

This time, this dove is dead.

This time, this dove is dead.

When women died young, likeness of doves are placed on their tombs as a representation of peace and purity. In cases of sudden and unexpected deaths, the doves are shown lying lifeless, or ascending to heaven.

Broken Pillar or Tree Stumps

A broken pillar in a cemetery.

A broken pillar in a cemetery.

Pillars represent long life, hence a memorial of a broken or unfinished pillar means someone died so suddenly. It is the preferred markers for young people who went too early, or victims of violent crimes. Tree stump symbolism are also used in place of broken pillars, being also a symbol of life cut short.

Winged Skull

One of the more interesting grave symbols.

One of the more interesting grave symbols.

This is one of those ominous and morbid tomb decorations. As if cemeteries are creepy enough, seeing a skull symbol adds to the spooky atmosphere. But rather than freaking out the visitors in the graveyard, winged skulls have deeper meanings. It means death is just another state of a person’s existence. His journey is not over, and it goes on in the afterlife. But this time, he sheds his physical form (signified by the skull) and flies in the afterlife, as if having wings.

Winged Hourglass

An hourglass on a tombstone.

An hourglass on a tombstone.

Human days on earth are always numbered, and the winged hourglass represents the swiftness of time’s passage. Time flies, and the wings on the hourglass are a constant reminder.

Angels and Cherubs

An angel on a grave.

An angel on a grave.

But who could forget another staple of the necropolis. In fact, the presence of the angels and cherubs made cemeteries less frightening. And when a religious person dies, stone angels adorn his grave, to indicate his religious devotions. They also represent the guardianship of the soul, as they journey to heaven. Cherubs on the other hand mark the graves of children, and they are presented as younger versions of angels. That’s comforting, as real cherubs presented in the Bible are much more imposing.

Open Book

A bibliophile's favorite.

A bibliophile's favorite.

Finding an open book on someone's grave may indicate his love of literature. Or studying is an important part of his life. The book may also be a reference to the Bible, or a person’s heart being open to God.

Snapped Rose

We know someone died young.

We know someone died young.

Again, this is one of those cemetery symbolisms that tells the observer that someone died too early, or the deceased is a woman. When we talk about snapped roses on someone’s grave, the blossom of the rose symbolizes a lady’s age, and a snapped stem signifies that she died too early.

Clasping Hands

A form of goodbye.

A form of goodbye.

Clasping hands symbol is a form of farewell of the living to the dead. In cases of married couples, where one died and the other is left behind, the clasping hand on the grave is a parting symbol. Clasping hands symbol also signifies hope of reunion, when one day they will see each other in heaven.

Wheat

Someone got harvested.

Someone got harvested.

Death is often personified as a cloaked skeleton with a scythe. And in everyday agricultural life, a scythe is used for cutting crops, like wheat. And what a way to signify life on gravestones, the life that Death is about to harvest. A carved wheat symbolizes long life, a life that Death will cut.

Open Doors and Gates

Entering a different world.

Entering a different world.

Passages to other realm, like the afterlife is signified by open doors, or gates. Whereas the dead leaves the land of the living to enter another state of existence in a different world.

Lamb

A religious symbol

A religious symbol

And for departed children, the Lamb is a fitting symbol, being a representation of innocence and a reference to Christ.

And There Are More Out There

Listed here are just few of the many cemetery symbolisms. Humans have varying interpretations of life and death, expressed to the many carved representations on graveyards. The understanding might be different, but one thing is for sure here. Life and death are more than just natural cycles for humans.

References

  1. Meier & Enermark (30 October, 2014), "A Graphic Guide to Cemetery Symbolism". Atlas Obscura.
  2. Cemetery Symbolism: What Do Those Mysterious Monuments Mean? (n.d.). Retrieved from Cemetery Symbolism: What Do Those Mysterious Momuments Mean? – The Laurel Hill Cemetery Blog
  3. Portals—Heavenly and “Not So Much” (22 April, 2021). Retrieved from Portals—Heavenly and “Not So Much” | Gravely Speaking


Comments

Mamerto Adan (author) from Cabuyao on October 11, 2021:

In my case, the broken pillars and the celtic cross caught my eyes.

Louise Powles from Norfolk, England on October 10, 2021:

There's certainly some very ornate gravestones out there. I like the book one.

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