4    Nov 20101 comment

Cemeteries: Gravestone symbols

Grave of David Belilios, died at age 16 (March 1898). Hong Kong Jewish Cemetery

What do you see in a cemetery?

Gravestones, at a minimum, provide the name and dates for the deceased individual. But there's often much more.

Many stones also carry symbols with specific meanings, which may indicate the deceased's age (young, old), an occupation,  religion, organizations, military service or other meanings.

The Heritage Bulletin of Oregon devoted an issue to a detailed list and photographs of many symbols commonly found in cemeteries.

Here are some common symbols and their meanings.

ANCHOR: Hope; sometimes a trade or field of military service (photo left)

ANGEL: Guardian or messenger between God and man

ASPHODEL or LILY: Plants with white, pink or yellow flowers - including the narcissus and daffodil - reminds visitors of their mortality.

BOOK: The holy book or Bible, "book of life." Closed, end of life or a complete life. A pile of books may indicate the deceased was scholarly or educated.

BUDS:Renewal of life. Broken branch with bud for children (life cut short). (photo right)


CHAIN WITH MISSING LINK:  Family circle broken. (photo left)

COLUMN, BROKEN: End of life or life cut short.

CROSS: Many different crosses with many meanings.

CROWN: Victory or victory over death. Cross and crown, authority.

DOOR: Entrance to heaven.

DOVE: Soul, purity, peace. (photo right).

HANDS: Various positions. Clasped, farewell or marriage; praying, for eternal life; point up, pathway to heaven; point down, hand of God.

HOURGLASS: Time has run out, time runs swiftly.

IVY: Immortality

LAMB:Innocence, common for children's grave markers.

LYRE: Bridge between heaven and earth; may reflect interest in music. (photo left)

OAK TREE:Sacred tree. Strength, honor, virtue, enduring faith.

TORCH: Eternal life.

Jewish Cemetery Symbols

ACORN: A greater life after burial; acorn grows into a mighty oak tree.

BALL: Cycle of life, eternity.

CANDLE: Eternal light.

HALF-PAGE of a BOOK: A spouse; other half for husband or wife.

MENORAH: Most ancient Judaic symbol. Seven-candle candelabrum is often on the graves of women. (photo right)

POURING VASE:  Grave of a Levite, person who assisted the priest (Kohen) with holy hand washing.

STAR OF DAVID: Also known as the Shield of David, this symbol represents Judaism.

HANDS WITH "V" SIGN:Deceased was a Kohen, a male descendant of the priestly class or Aaron (brother of Moses). (Photo right below)

Plants depicted on gravestones have their own meanings:

Mountain ash (rowan) - Keeps evil spirits from bothering the dead
Cypress - Sign of respect
Holly - Supposedly deterred lightning strikes
Ivy - Friendship and immortality
Laurel - Worldly accomplishment
Myrtle - Achievement and eternal life
Oak - Power, authority or victory
Rose - Perfection
Rosemary - Remembrance
Willow - Eternal mourning

More resources:

Grave Addiction
City of the Silent
From Beyond the Grave
Gravestone Studies - 17th-18th-century symbols (text only)
Gravestone Studies - 19th-century symbols (text only)

Gravestone Studies also contains excellent information on working with stones, how to clean them, what products to use and much more.

Have you ventured into your own ancestral cemeteries? What is the oldest grave you have found?

Search for your ancestors:

Comments (1) Trackbacks (0)
  1. even though its a grave it is beautiful!

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