Headstone Symbolism Dictionary
Headstone Symbols Dictionary:
When you first enter the cemetery and take a look around, you’ll be greeted by a vast collection of imagery. There is a story to be found here, and learning the language carved in the stones is important for both your genealogy journey and your Ancestral magic practice.
Understanding the symbols you see, allows you to interpret the messages left for you by your Ancestors. They can give insight into how religious someone was, whether they were optimistic or fearful about what was waiting for them on the other side, whether they believed in reincarnation and even what their occupation was.
The following dictionary contains some of the most popular symbols found in the cemetery. I have divided them into the categories of flora, fauna, objects, and human. While I would have loved to include everything, this should serve as a sufficient jumping off point for your studies.CEMETERY SCAVENGER HUNT - Find the following symbols on a headstone: skull, hand, ivy, hourglass, column or pillar, heart, key, oak leaf, rose, urn.
Bonus: find a headstone with your birthday.
FLORA: Plants of the Dead
All living things have a spirit, and that includes the plants and trees you encounter in the cemetery. Plants play an integral role in magic and ancestor work. These spirits belong to both the living and the dead.
Even the most manicured of burial grounds will have an abundance of different species you must get to know.
Keep a record of which tree and plant species are located in close proximity to your ancestors gravestones as well as which ones decorate their headstones.
These plants can be incorporated into your spells and rituals.
Acanthus leaves: Often used in cemetery architecture, these leaves represent the “prickly” or difficult parts of life. However they do offer hope about what is waiting for a person on the other side.
Acorns or Oak Leaves: a symbol of spirituality. Someone who lived a humble life or showed strength and determination.
Anemone: According to Greek mythology, anemone flowers grew from the tears Aphrodite cried upon Adonis’ grave. These blooms represent sincerity, beauty and everlasting love.
Bellflower: There is a wide range of bellflower species, but on a headstone most of them represent sorrow and mourning. Their shape is indicative of the “dead bell” that was rung while leading a funeral precession.
Buttercups: These delicate yellow flowers represent the sweetness and innocence of youth. They often indicate the grave belongs to a child or someone who died well before their time.
Calla lily: This elegant flower not only represents marriage and passion but it also can symbolize resurrection and the purity of soul.
Chrysanthemum: Chrysanthemums are indicative of hardiness and longevity due to the fact that they can survive in colder temperatures. In Japan, the chrysanthemum represents the sun, mortality and happiness.
Clover: When in the three-leaved formation known as the shamrock, the clover represents the holy trinity as well as Irish identity. A four leaf clover symbolizes someone who was lucky or blessed in life.
Daffodil: Also known as Narcissus, the daffodil has a wide range of attributes it can be associated with; love, devotion, vanity, youth, innocence, triumph and sacrifices.
Daisy: Daisies come with an abundance of folklore attached to them. In medieval and early modern Britain, a symbol known as a hexafoil would be carved into the walls and beams of a house or a church for protection. The daisy also appears to be used as a divinatory tool around the world used for predicting love or how many children one may have. And of course, daisies are a symbol of death. When someone dies, it is said they are now “pushing up daisies.” On a headstone a daisy can represent the death of a child, innocence, simplicity, protection and sweetness.
Evening primrose: This wildflower commonly grows in rural North American graveyards, so it naturally has become associated with death. On a headstone it represents eternal love, remembrance and hope.
*Tip: An evening primrose picked from a cemetery can aid in divination and spirit communication.*
Evergreen: Evergreens of all varieties represent immortality and the travelling of souls. Not only found on headstones, the trees themselves are often planted in the cemetery and act as a spiritual guardian.
Fern: When seen on a headstone, Ferns are all about sincerity and having a humble nature, but ferns have a rich symbolic history around the world. For the Maori they represent new life and fresh beginnings. In Japan they can symbolize hope and optimism.
Grapes: Grapes and grapevines symbolize fertility, prosperity, and abundance. They are also associated with the blood of Christ and a soul being forgiven for their sins in the afterlife.
Hawthorn: Hawthorn trees have long been associated with love and marriage in the Celtic world. In the British Isles they bloom in May, and are associated with the Gaelic festival of Beltane. One a headstone they represent love and union in marriage.
Holly: The druids associated holly with divinity and eternal life. One American folk belief says that holly on a headstone would protect it from lightning storms.
Ivy: Ivy is a fitting symbols for a headstone due to the fact that it represents rebirth and regeneration. Ivy can often be found growing on headstones, slowly reclaiming them back into the land.
Laurel: For the Romans, laurel was indicative of glory and mastery. To be given a laurel wreath was a high honour. In headstone symbolism laurel speaks of eternity, prestige and a blessed soul.
Lily of the Valley: Like the calla lily and the madonna lily, the Lily of the valley is a favourite in funerary art and motif. On a headstone they represent renewal, rebirth and purity. They also symbolize a soul at peace.
Madonna Lily: also known as an Easter Lily, this flower evokes an array of feelings in people. It is thought that these blooms were first used in funerals due to their strong fragrance as it was capable of masking the odour of death. The madonna lily on a headstone symbolizes purity and eternity.
Poppy: The poppy is most often associated with the grave of a soldier. During November in Canada, the Royal Canada Legion sells poppy pins that are worn on coats and tops until the 11th (Remembrance Day). It is traditional to visit a cemetery that day and place the poppy on a grace of a WW1 veteran as an offering.
Marigold: In Victorian headstone motif, this flower represents grief and sorrow. In Mexican culture, they are are associated with Dia de los Muertos - Day of the Dead. During this time bright orange marigolds adorn graves and ancestral altars. Their scent is believed to guide the spirits back home.
Rose: No flower has captivated the hearts and minds more than the rose. The juxtaposition between their beauty and their thorns appears in countless literary works. On a headstone a rose can be used to mark the grave of a woman. A rosebud or rose with a broken stems signals the resting place of an infant or someone who died too young. Other meanings are beauty, eternity, love and mortality.
Thistle: Thistles are the national flower of Scotland, so engraved on a headstone they can speak of Scottish heritage, but due to religious associations they can also represent sorrow and crucifixion.
Wheat: A sheaf of wheat, or wheat with a hand sickle can represent living a long life. Wheat stalks are also symbolic of someone with Ukrainian heritage.
Willow: The weeping willow was a favourite of the Victorians and can be found on countless headstones as well as cemetery gardens. Willows represent the underworld, and their cascading branches symbolize our heads bowed in grief and silence.
Lichen: Because lichen makes its home on headstones it is naturally one of the most abundant grave symbols there is. While lichen do cause damage, on occasion they act as a protector for the surface of a gravestone. If they are growing on a porous material such as limestone, they may actually shield it from water which can further degrade it.
Elm Tree: In Greek mythology the first elm trees were grown after the legendary musician Orpheus rescued his wife Euridyce from the Underworld. The infamous Tyburn gallows in England is nicknamed the elms or the triple tree as before it was constructed an elm tree in the area was used for hangings. The saying “sent to the elms” meant you were being sent to your death.
Yew Tree: Yew trees are heavily associated with death and the afterlife particularly in the UK. It was once believed that a yew planted on top of a plague victims grave would help purify the deceased. Areas already containing a yew tree were likely chosen to be burial lands due to their spiritual associations to the ancient pagan groups of Europe.
Cyprus Tree: Cypress trees are associated with death in many European and Muslim countries. Its cone shaped is believed to point towards the heavens. The Greeks and Romans believed Cypress was the first thing a person would see upon entering the underworld. These trees are also thought to be immortal as they can withstand a lot of damage.
Another form of land spirit you are certain to encounter in the cemetery are those of the animal and insect variety.
As cities and towns have gotten bigger, many animals have seen their habitats dwindle and cemeteries have become a refuge for them. In Toronto, our garden cemeteries are home to deer, foxes, coyotes, squirrels, rabbits, raccoons and countless different bird and insect species.
Always be respectful of their space and take special care not to bring offerings that may hurt or poison our animal friends.
Butterfly: The butterfly is the ultimate symbol of resurrection and transformation. They symbolize a person moving from one state of being to another. In recent years butterflies have become a popular choice for the graves of children as they represent peace and beauty.
Birds: Long believed to have the ability to move between worlds, birds on a headstone represent the human spirit and its journey to heaven. The type of bird can offer additional meanings.
Bee: Bees are symbols of craftsmanship and community. A headstone with a bee or hive symbolizes a person who contributed greatly to their community. Bees can also be used to represent Christianity and the Virgin Mary.
Cat: A cat on a headstone is typically used to mark the grave of a beloved pet in an animal cemetery. If seen in a human cemetery it general means the person really liked cats. In most cultures cats are viewed negatively and therefore are uncommon symbols for a headstone.
Dog: Like the cat, a dog on a headstone is often reserved for someone cherishing a pet or displaying their love the animal, but it can also symbolize loyalty, devotion and a friendly personality.
Dove: Doves on headstone have multiple meanings, the most important being peace and tranquility. A dove depicted flying downwards represents the holy spirit, but a dove flying upwards represents the grave occupants soul has ascended to heaven.
Lamb: When it comes to headstones, lambs generally mark the grave of a child. They symbolize innocence, purity and youth.
Lion: Lions are indicative of courage, pride and family legacy. They are often found on mausoleums and tombs and act as a protective figure - much like a gargoyle on a castle.
Pelican: When food is scarce; pelicans will sometimes pierce their own chest and feed their blood to their young in order to ensure their survival. Naturally this motif on a headstone represents sacrifice and undying love.
Snake: Prior to the 1900s, snakes were a prominent headstone symbol. They represent mortality and sin, as well as rebirth and regeneration. A snake consuming its own tail - known as a ouroboros - dates all the way back to ancient Egypt and ancient Rome. The ouroboros symbolizes the cycle of life. A snake wrapped around a rod with wings is known a caduceus and dates to the ancient greeks. In North America this symbol represents medicine and therefore is placed on the graves of doctors and surgeons.
Pegasus: As a mythological creature, the Pegasus is an interesting choice for a headstone decoration. It depicts resurrection and rebirth of the soul. The grave occupant may also have been whimsical and fond of literature.
Phoenix: Legends surrounding the Phoenix can be found around the world. On Christian graves they symbolize the triumph of death and the subsequent resurrection which leads to being reborn. In China, the Phoenix is sometimes used to symbolize a happy marriage and longevity, as well as luck and harmony.
Anchor: Commonly found in seaside towns, an anchor on a headstone can signal the grave of a sailor. When the anchor appears upside down it can be a sign that the grave is actually empty and the person was lost at sea. In some regions, anchors also represent the Christian faith.
Broken Pillar: A broken pillar represents an abrupt end. When you see this type of headstone marker or as an engraving, you can assume the deceased died young.
Chair: An empty chair symbolizes the death or a young person, or a life that was cut down early or suddenly. It represents that they are “missing” from the world of the living.
Arrow: Arrows are a symbol of the Death archetype. While most of us picture the Grim Reaper with scythe, he also sometimes pierces people with the arrow of death.
Boat: Boats typically represent a journey. The occupant has finished their voyage on earth, and are ready for their next voyage into the after life. A boat can also represent the grave of a sailor or someone who loved sailing.
Book: On a headstone, a book can have a variety of meanings. The message is interpreted by how the book is display. A closed book often indicates the person lived a long and full life. They made it to the “last page” so to speak. Open books symbolize a life cut short or dying in middle age. Books in general represent the bible or word of god, especially when they are paired with a crown.
Bell: The Dead Bell (also known as the mort, deid, or lych bell) represents the bell rung to announce a death or funeral precession, so naturally they represent grief and sorrow. Bells also show a faith in God and being in his protection.
Hourglass: An hourglass represents the allotment of time each person is given on earth. Because an hourglass can be inverted, it also suggest that souls may also reincarnate, or be resurrected.
Crown: A crown on a headstone means the person in the grave has ascended to heaven. Crowns are also symbols of life and a person who lived well or had some sort of status in the community.
Candle: One of the most enduring symbols of the human spirit, candles speak of hope and optimism. The number of candles can offer additional clues. Like most groups of three, three candles represent the holy trinity. Five candles can be about the crucifixion, and one candle can mean the grave belongs to a Jewish woman. A solitary candle that is being snuffed out symbolizes life coming to an end.
Crook: The shepherd’s crook means charity and community involvement. The crook can be found all over the ancient world and was common in Assyria, Babylonia and Egypt — where it is a symbol of Osiris.
Curtain: The curtain or veil represents the spiritual boundary that divides the living and the dead. In death, the occupant has been granted the ability to travel between these realms. The curtain also represents the end of something - in this case it is the end of a life.
Tip: pay special attention to a headstone that bears this symbol, as the boundary between the world of the living and world of the dead may be thinner here. It would make a good area to perform divination.
Cup: Cups and other vessels have long been associated with divinity and spiritual knowledge. Most of then cup symbolizes Catholicism and the blood of Christ, but it is not a uniquely Catholic image.
Torch: An upside-down torch is only found in cemeteries and graveyards. You won’t find it on other architecture such as churches or museums. Like the candle, the flame of the torch represents life. It provides hope that life can continue after death in some way.
Hammer: A hammer alone or with an anvil on a headstone typically represents the person worked as a blacksmith; a once revered trade. If the person was not a blacksmith they may have possessed a special skill or were a craftsman.
Harp: The harp is the National symbol of Ireland and therefore can represent the grave of a person from that country. The harp also can mean sweetness, grace and finding the heavens.
Key: Secrets, mysteries and divine knowledge are represented by keys. The person in this grave has been given the key to the kingdom of heaven.
Horseshoe: The horseshoe is a symbol of luck and prosperity. It can also symbolize a grave belonging to a professional jockey or horse lover. On some older graves it can also be another hint that the person was a blacksmith.
Scale: Balance, fairness and the law are depicted by this image. A scale almost always adorns the resting place of a lawyer or judge.
Scythe: The scythe and the sickle are the most recognized tools of the Grim Reaper. Scythes are about “cutting down” or harvesting the souls of the living. A grim reminder that Death does conquer all.
Sexton’s Tools: A sexton is a person who took care of the graveyard or cemetery. They were responsible for digging graves, general upkeep and landscaping. In larger cemeteries the Sexton took on a managerial type role, whereas in smaller ones they typically performed the work themselves. If you see a coffin image on a headstone surround by shovels, rakes and other items of that nature, you are looking at the Sexton’s Tools.
Tip: You may be standing before the cemetery guardian, be sure to leave an offering.
Gate: Like the veil and curtain, the gate is a symbol of moving from one realm to the next. It can also be a depiction of the gate surrounding heaven.
Ladder: Ladders on a headstone can be symbolizing many different things. They appear in Buddhist and Islamic culture, as well as in Christianity. The Freemasons will sometimes use a three run ladder with the letters CHF which stands for charity, hope and faith. If none of those situations apply to the person who the grave belongs to, it could be just about their ascent to heaven or moving on to something better.
Sun: The sun is the universal life force. Without it, everything else seizes to exist. If depicted as rising, it is about beginning a new state of being. If a sun is setting, it is about a state of being ending. Both setting and rising look the same, so use other symbols on the headstone to determine which it is.
Urn: Urns represent the returning of the body to the earth. It became a popular decorative symbol in the 19th century despite cremation being not that popular.
Green Man: The green man or “foliate head” is a figure found in many parts of Europe, but most often in Ireland and the UK. He is a pagan figure who symbolizes the new life that eventually comes from death. This figure can also act as a sort of protector or gargoyle archetype.
Father Time: Father Time is a figure from folklore who symbolizes the time each of us has on earth. While him and the grim reaper are connected in that they both have a relationship to death, they aren’t the same.
Grim Reaper: This well known skeletal figure who carries a scythe or an arrow, is a reminder that death comes for us all in the end.
Death’s Head: The death’s head is one of the most common symbols seen in Europe as well as in the USA - especially in New England. The death’s head can be depicted as a skull and crossbones, a skull with wings (usually angel or bird wings), a skull with sexton’s tools, and even a child’s or mans face with wings. The death’s head represents grief, despair and mortality.
Skulls, bones and skeletons: In general skeletons and bones serve as a reminder that we all eventually face the same fate: death.
Virtues: The seven virtues represent traits we find desirable in others and hope to embody ourselves. Most often the virtues are identifiable by the objects in their possession.
Faith is depicted leaning on a cross, holding a candle or holding a chalice.
Charity tends to have a hand pointing towards her chest or have her breasts exposed. Other times she is shown carrying food for the poor.
Hope is recognized by the presence of an anchor, ship or flowers.
Temperance became a very popular symbol during the prohibition era and can be identified by a water pitcher or sheathed sword.
Justice is one of the most widely recognized virtues because she is always shown holding a scale. She’s not typically found in the cemetery except near the graves of judges.
Fortitude is a warrior archetype and be identified by her hand resting on her hip or if she is holding a sword or club.
Prudence is the least likely of the virtues to be seen in a cemetery but if you are lucky enough to come across her she will have either a snake around her arm or be holding a mirror.
Angels: Angels are usually depicted with wings but they don’t always need to be. These messengers of God can have a variety of meanings depending on how they are depicted. A weeping angel represents sorrow and mourning. A praying angel is a symbol of remaining steadfast in your faith in periods of turmoil or grief. If an angel is shown with a wreath it means the occupant will always be remembered.
Hands: Hands appear frequently in cemeteries and graveyards and can be deciphered based on what they are doing. A handshake between hands that look to be different genders most often symbolizes a husband and wife. A handshake between two hands of the same gender represent brotherhood or friendship but can also be of the deceased being welcomed to heaven. I like to believe that in some instances these handshakes between the same gender were sometimes hinting at a LGBT relationship. While we may never know for certain, this symbol paired with census information could possible reveal the answer. When a headstone shows a hand pointing up it means the soul has ascended to heaven, while a hand pointing down surround by clouds is the hand of god. A hand pointing down sans clouds can mean an accidental death. Handshakes can also represent the living saying goodbye to the dead. Take a look at the fingers of each hand. If they look stiff and straight then that is the hand of the deceased, if they are bent or in a clasping position that is the hand of the living.
Hearts: The heart is a universal symbol for love and it’s no different when it appears on a headstone. A heart with ivy stands for enduring love and companionship. Two hearts stand for matrimony or an important relationship. Hearts on more modern graves often mark the resting place of a child.
Cross: A symbol of Christianity. There are many different types of crosses around the world. Some are simple and in the “t-shape” while others like the Celtic cross incorporate a circle in the design.
Menorah: A Jewish symbol that represents the presence of god. The menorah is often synonymous with feeling hopeful in periods of uncertainty.
Star of David: The most recognizable symbol of Judaism found in a cemetery. It is protective in nature. It means the grave occupant is protected from all six of the directions: north, south, east, west, up, and down.