Cemeteries can tell stories without words. Gravestone symbols often depict how people died and were mourned by their family. Some tombstone symbols are still used today, while other headstone symbols and their meanings have become more obscure in modern times. This cemetery symbolism guide will help you discover hidden histories in your local burial ground.
Angel tombstones represent the guardianship of someone’s soul and protection on their journey to Heaven. Weeping angels convey the sorrow of an untimely death.
Broken things symbolise a life cut short. A rose bud with a broken stem represented a girl who died before blossoming into womanhood. A broken link in a chain represents a loss in the family.
A symbol of the spirit of the soul, and, in the Christian faith, of Jesus, the light of the world. A broken candle symbolises a life ended too soon.
Cherubs often indicate the grave of a child, with the winged angelic entities interpreted as guardians of a soul on its way heavenward.
Circles represent hope of eternal life. They are sometimes depicted in the form of a snake swallowing its own tail, or as a wheel. A broken wheel symbolises the end of someone’s life on earth.
A Christian symbol of faith and the hope of resurrection to eternal life in Heaven.
The dove represents love, peace and the freedom of someone’s spirit. It’s also a Christian symbol of the Holy Spirit and hope of resurrection and eternal life.
A symbol of Christ, the Lamb of God (Agnus Dei, in Latin), often marks the graves of children.
Scythes, also known as sickles, on gravestones represent the Grim Reaper, the harvester of souls. They are sometimes depicted with symbolic hourglasses, or wheatsheaves.
Carvings of skeletons on gravestones are a depiction of Death in ‘human’ form, reminding us of our own mortality.
The skull is a reminder of our own mortality. A winged skull on a tombstone depicts the fleetingness of life and the soul’s onward journey to the next one on a higher plane.
Hourglasses represent the passing of time and how a person’s hours on earth came to an end. A winged hourglass on a gravestone is a symbol of the fleetingness of life.
A Latin gravestone inscription which means “remember you must die.” A reminder for us to contemplate our lives and that all of us are mortal.
In the Jewish tradition, the seven-branched candelabrum may be depicted on a wife or mother’s gravestone to represent how she lit candles on the Sabbath.
Flames represent eternal light or life. Often, flaming torches are depicted upside down on tombstones. The still-burning flames representing an eternal life that cannot be extinguished.
Clasped hands are a cemetery symbol of unity, loss and parting from a loved one left behind. They also represent how the person will be there to lead the bereaved when they make their own journey to Heaven.
Star of David
This six-pointed Star of David, or Shield of David, is a symbol of the Jewish faith. On some gravestones, the words ‘here lies…’ are also inscribed in abbreviated Hebrew text within the star.
Divine guidance. The five-pointed star is an ancient symbol representing earth, air, water, fire and spirit. To Christians, a symbol of Christ’s wounds, in Pagan and Wiccan faiths they’re a symbol of protection.
Snakes or serpents are ancient gravestone symbols of everlasting life and are often depicted on gravestones chasing their own tails to create a circle, another symbol of eternal life.
A symbol of life, the setting sun represents life at an end. A rising sun depicts faith in the hope of resurrection.
The urn was a Classical Greek symbol of mourning, representing how our bodies are a vessel for the soul. A shrouded urn on a tombstone represents death’s final curtain.
A symbol of everlasting life. A tree stump depicted on a gravestone or cemetery statue represents a life cut short.
A poignant tribute to an infant or child, associated with comfort and protection. Teddies have become significant symbols on headstones in modern times.
A sheaf of wheat or corn is the cemetery symbolism of the life of someone who lived to a ripe age.