Have you ever walked through your local cemetery and wondered about the symbolism around you? Maybe you have traveled to different cemeteries in North America and noticed that those on the Eastern Seaboard have different markings than those further West? Cemeteries are like open-air museums, which offer a wealth of historical and cultural information for archaeologists, genealogists, historians, conservationists, and hobbyists alike.
There are many cultures and religions that use symbolism in their grave markers. For this instalment, we will be focusing primarily on North American Christian gravemarker symbols (say that five times fast!). This includes the colonial period from the 1600s through to the 1700s and up to the rural garden movement of the 19th century.
It turns out there are a lot of people in this world, and well, people have been burying their dead for as long as there have been dead people to bury. Go figure!
A Brief History of (mostly Christian) Grave Symbols in North America
Gravemarker iconography is as vast as it is fascinating. These symbols can reveal information about religion, socioeconomic status, trade networks, gender, race, ethnicity, regional culture, and even consumer behavior.
Gravestones in the 17th and 18th centuries were made mostly from local materials. This included sandstone, limestone, slate, or whatever else was available to a particular region. The earliest grave markers in the colonies were also made of wood or even fieldstones. By the 19th century, marble and brownstone were popularized, and by the 20th-century, granite became the most common material. This is just a general guideline of materials used. A more accurate history shows a wide variety throughout counties, states, and towns.
So what about the carvings found on these gravestones? Friend of the blog, archeologist Robyn Lacy, gave us some insight. Turns out that many of our recognizable gravemarkers in North America were influenced by English designs from the 16th and 17th centuries.
The oldest English gravestones in North America are from the 1620s in Ferryland, Newfoundland. These gravemarkers were carved from local slate, and featured a curved top and all capital letters. As more skilled carvers immigrated to the colonies, more complex and ornamental gravemarkers followed. Through the 17th to 18th centuries, popular symbols including skulls with wings and hourglasses, and death-centred epitaphs that began with “Here Lies the Body of…”, reflected the Memento Mori aesthetic popular in Europe.
Skulls and hourglasses soon evolved into cherubs and soul effigies (images of the dead themselves with wings going up to heaven.) This gentler iconography also included plant and animal symbols, and by the 19th century, willows and urns were common symbols on gravestones. More romantic, and less spooky.
The Victorian era’s interest in ornate and romantic imagery was a major influence on cemetery iconography and landscapes. The creation of rural cemeteries was a turn away from the more religious iconography of the past with heavy influences from Greek architecture and a period of Egyptian Revival. Cemeteries and their symbols were now intended to comfort the living in the face of death.
Jumping ahead to the 21st century, we see mass production and consumer culture reflected in our cemeteries. Where gravestones were once ornate commissioned pieces, today they are more often ready-made consumer goods. Yet, laser etched recipes, video cameras, portraits, and QR codes are just modern, technological versions of what came before.
A note on the limitations of this article. Many histories of North American cemeteries focus on the white Christians buried therein. But not everyone in this era was white, not everyone was in North America by choice. and not everyone had the luxury of being buried in ways that honored their roots. In colonial graveyards, there are former slaves and free black people buried beside the settlers, but you may not recognize this just by looking at the gravestone. The history of these older cemeteries has been white-washed. We are starting to recognize and acknowledge this mistake, but more work needs to be done.
Common Grave Symbols
Gravemarker symbols are personal and historical expressions of history, folklore, and religion. This is just a brief list of some of the more common symbols that are linked to North American Christian Colonialist culture. Not all of these symbols are inclusive of Christianity.
The Death Head is probably the most famous symbol found on a gravestone. It comes in a lot of forms, the most famous being that of a skull with wings, but it can also appear as an hourglass, a cherub face, or even the portrait of the deceased (known as a cherub head or as a soul effigy)! The wings symbolize the soul flying to heaven, and the skull or hourglass … well … that is a pretty blunt image of the passage of time. You may have read about its connection to the Puritans, but this is unfortunately fake news!
Robyn is quick to point out that Death Heads and Cherubs are linked to medieval European memento mori. These images were carved into gravestones so anyone looking at them would be reminded that one day they would die. The link to Puritans comes from a study published in the 1970s that has since been debunked in part by the original authors. If you want to learn more about this history and the research around these symbols, you should check out The Archaeology of American Cemeteries and Gravemarkers.
The willow, along with the Urn, came to replace the Memento Mori inspired images of death. Both symbols were popular in the late 18th to early 19th centuries. The weeping willow symbolizes sadness or mourning. In Christianity, the willow is linked to the gospel of Christ due to the fact that the tree will flourish no matter how many branches are cut off. It is often paired with other Christian symbols such as the lamb or the cross.
The urn, along with the willow, is considered a softer and more romantic symbol than the previous harsher memento mori. The urn was one of the most popular symbols in the 19th century. At the time urns did not contain ashes, but were purely decorative and appeared in a lot of art. The urn symbolizes the soul, and the veil draped over the urn is believed by some to symbolize the veil between earth and the heavens—life and death!
Harps are mentioned often in the Bible as a source of both entertainment and divine music. This symbol conjures up heavenly music (how many of you just pictured an angel playing the harp?).
We could write volumes on angels in cemeteries. Cherubs carved as Cherub Heads were popular symbols on some of the earliest gravestones in colonial America. They eventually evolved into full cherubs in part because of Victorian influence. In Christianity, these angels were sent to guard the way of the tree of life and were originally depicted in religious art as the bearers of God’s throne. Like the symbol of the Lamb, they can often be found on the graves of children.
The Lamb is common to Christian art, symbolizing the sacrifice, innocence, and purity of Jesus Christ (the lamb of god). In Victorian cemeteries, the carving of a lamb on top of a tombstone was mainly used on the grave of children. In this usage, it transcends Christian iconology and can be found on Jewish graves as well, where it represents innocence.
The symbol of the Dove is depicted in a number of poses and is often shown holding an olive branch. This references the dove sent out by Noah to search for land. The dove came to be a symbol of purity and peace as God made peace with humanity after the flood.
Hands often appear in three gestures.
A single hand pointing down symbolizes the hand of God and is often depicted coming down from clouds, sometimes with three figures pointing downwards to symbolize the Holy Trinity, and other times holding a flower or a broken chain.
A hand pointing upward symbolizes the dead persons’ soul ascending to heaven. If the first two fingers are together then the deceased was part of the clergy. In this instance, the hand will also be encased in a circle with rays of light radiating outward to represent the Holy Trinity.
Hands clasped together often symbolize marriage. The sleeves of the hands are carved to reflect the gender with one being masculine and one feminine. If this is not present, then the hands can represent either a heavenly welcome or an earthly farewell. Robyn told us this is her favorite use of hand symbols, and she has even seen a carving where one of the hands was skeletal! This type of macabre imagery definitely has a tone of memento mori!
Symbol of the Eucharist
This symbol is the image of a chalice with a wafer, grapes, and wheat combined to represent the Eucharist. Eucharist, also called Holy Communion or Lord’s Supper, in Christianity, ritual commemoration of Jesus’ Last Supper with his disciples. The Eucharist is practiced in most Christian churches in some variation from a full ritual of eating a communion wafer and drinking wine from a sacred chalice, to dipping pieces of bread into grape juice. If the gravestone only has grapes and wheat, then this is still considered a symbol of the Eucharist for people of a lower socioeconomic status.
RIP is actually rarer than you may think, and is not often seen beyond Hollywood depictions or your favorite Halloween decor, but you may have seen Alpha, Omega Mu, IHS/IHC, or INRI carved into a gravestone. All these letters have a connection to the practice of Christianity and most likely imply the deceased was devout.
Alpha, Omega, and Mu are the first and last letters in the Greek alphabet. For Christians, the Alpha Omega emblem is related to passages from Revelations. If the letter M (Mu) is inserted into the symbol it expands the meaning to the beginning, the continuation, and the end of all things! The drama! It is a very common symbol in religious art.
IHS/IHC is the first three letters of Jesus’s name using the Greek alphabet: Iota, Eta, Sigma, or from the Roman alphabet.
INRI are the first letters of the Latin words “Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum”, which translates to “Jesus of Nazareth The King of the Jews”. In the Bible, it is stated that after Jesus was crucified Pilate mockingly wrote these words on the cross.
The crown is another important Christian symbol. On a gravestone, it represents the sovereignty of God, and can also be found with a cross. If the crown is found with a cross then the crown means victory and the cross means Christianity. This combination is also connected to members of the York Rite Masons and the Knights Templar.
You may be wondering why there is an anchor on this list, but it is a common Christian symbol. The anchor is a symbol of hope, with this meaning being drawn from a passage in the Bible in the Epistle of the Hebrews 6:
“19 Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast, and which entereth into that within the veil,
20 Whither the forerunner is for us entered, even Jesus, made an high priest for ever after the order of Melchisedec.”
Here is another symbol that is influenced directly from the Bible. Specifically when God curses Adam in Genesis after they eat from the tree of knowledge telling him that thorns and thistles will grow from the ground. Adam’s sorrow is connected to the earth he will walk upon and thistles will grow. The has made the thistle a gravestone symbol for Christians for its connections to earthly sorrow.
Tree-stump tombstones date mostly from the 1880s to the early 1900s. They initially came from the rusticity movement of the Victoria era. The broken branches can represent a life cut short, but they also were part of a movement to turn the focus of death back to life. The tree proved a powerful symbol of both eternity and humanity, recalling the Bible’s tree of life and tree of knowledge.
This seems like a fitting interpretation when you come across them in a cemetery. But, according to Atlas Obscura, there is more than just the symbolism of life—there is a connection to secret societies! Specifically the Woodmen of the World!
Another popular symbol that is not always connected to Christianity. The most common freemason symbol is the square and compass with the letter g in the center. Some say the g stands for geometry, and others say it stands for God. The square and the compass symbolize the interaction between mind and matter and link to the progression from the material to the intellectual or spiritual. The freemasons, or masons, keep their origins shrouded with secrecy. Some scholars believe they date back to stone masons who built the cathedrals in Europe and were self-employed. Hence free masons. Get it?
More on Gravestone Symbols
If you want to learn more about gravestone symbols there are tons of great resources out there. The first book to come out about this topic was Harriette Merideth Forbes’s Gravestones of Early New England and the Men Who Made Them 1653-1800 (1927). You can check out Robyn Lacy’s website Spade & the Grave and listen to her enlightening conversation on the podcast ologies where she goes a bit deeper into the study of gravestones. The book Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography is full of images and quick facts. Our friends over at the Collective for Radical Death Studies have a ton of great resources. You can also check out the website for Mount Auburn Cemetery. Fun fact: it is the first rural-style cemetery in North America!
You know all of us here at TalkDeath love a good Cemetery Scavenger Hunt! Just remember to respect the cemetery grounds and don’t touch the graves! Graveyard rubbings are bad! Photos are good! Rubbings can damage the gravemarker, especially if they are of a softer substance like sandstone. If you want to get more involved in gravestone conservation, then check out our article A Day In the Life of a Gravestone Conservator for more on how to protect, preserve and resurrect gravemarkers.