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“Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;
Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes
Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,
Let's choose executors and talk of wills”
- Shakespeare, Richard II
Graveyards are full of secrets and symbolism which can especially be seen on the grave statues and epitaphs on tombs. Have you ever wondered what an angel with a sword means or what a rose represents about the deceased? Here’s a guide to what certain symbols in the graveyard signify and what they reveal about your relatives from the past.
There’s a rise in the number of people going on cemetery tours. This growing trend sounds morbid to some but it’s not just teen goths, ghost hunters and vampire wannabes walking through the graveyards. For those interested in the architectural beauty of the gravestones and tombs, local historians, collectors of epitaph or indeed people doing some research in genealogy, the graveyard is a fascinating place.
A headstone, tombstone or gravestone is a marker placed over a grave. The stone normally inscribes the name, birth date and death date of the deceased. In some circumstances the stone is inscribed with a symbol. These symbols sometimes offer clues about the deceased’s religion, the level of mourning, and their family’s hopes for them in the afterlife. They can also reveal certain characteristics of the deceased’s life when they were living - offering perfect clues to the lives of your ancestors.
Here’s a guide on some of the most common symbols found in cemeteries and what they reveal about the deceased.
A lamb or hummingbird on a graveyard denotes a child whilst a vacant chair depicts the loss of a child. Hummingbirds and empty chairs also signifies the death of a child.
Owl: Wisdom and watchfulness
In ancient Greece, the Owl was often associated with Athena, goddess of wisdom and it’s become a symbol of status, intelligence and wealth.
Rabbit: Humility, gentleness and self-sacrifice
Rabbits tend to be seen as gentle and not self-assertive. The symbol of the rabbit is strongly tied to the cycle of life, fertility, death, and resurrection.
Ox: Patience and strength
In ancient times the ox was a sacrificial animal and it has become a symbol of patience and strength. In early Christian writings the ox is accepted as a symbol of Christ, the true sacrifice and is often seen on gravestones to represent this religious meaning.
As well as strength the lion is seen as an icon of self-control, nobility, fairness, courage and patience. Lions tend to be charismatic, prideful, protective, and peaceful creatures so one marked on a grave is a true compliment to the deceased.
Dog: Loyalty, fidelity, watchfulness and vigilance
The dog has long been known as man’s best friend and the animal denotes companionship, loyalty and protection.
Butterfly: Short life
The butterfly symbolises the soul leaving the body and also represents a short life.
Flowers & Plants
Easter Lily: Purity and chastity
The white lilies have been a fitting representation for the greater meaning of Easter as they carry the message of joy, hope and life.
Calla Lily: Beauty
Calla lillies are known for their attractiveness. They often feature in wedding bouquets as a sign of purity but also represent resurrection; hence why they are often planted on graves or featured on gravestones.
Roses are heavily symbolic, often used in heraldry, badges, and coats of arms. The rose is a flower of great beauty and mesmerizing fragrance. Roses act as a metaphor for life; after overcoming much hardship, one will find inner harmony, union, and happiness.
In Victorian times, young women woeful about love began a custom using the daisy. Girls would pluck a daisy's petals, one by one, and sing, "He loves me, he loves me not," with each pull of the petal. This game represents innocent childhood and purity.
Oak Leaf: Longevity
The oak tree embodies towering strength, supernatural power and eternity. Its attraction for lightning, its size and longevity (oaks are known to easily surpass 200 years of age) all make the oak a powerful, life-affirming symbol.
Sheaf of wheat: Harvest, reaping of life
The wheat motif on a gravestone celebrates a long life lived in abundance. The sheaf of wheat is usually found on older peoples' gravestones.
Weeping Angel: grief
Also known as the angel of grief a weeping angel symbolizes grief, especially mourning an untimely death.
Angel with trumpet: Call to resurrection
An angel statue with one (sometimes two) trumpets are symbolic to the day of judgement. It’s long been used throughout the years as a memorial sculpture. An angel with a horn is a representation of the archangel Gabriel.
Angel carrying a departed soul: Protection
Often depicted with a child in its arms or as a guardian embracing the dead the angel carrying the deceased in their arms is a sign of an escort to heaven. The messengers of God are often shown as escorting the deceased to heaven.
Flying angel: rebirth
An angel with open wings is thought to represent the flight of the soul to heaven.
Angel with a sword: Justice
The angel with the sword depicts the angel Michael. The sword is double edged, representing truth and justice.
Anvil: creation of the universe
An Anvil indicates the creation or forging of the universe. Anvils can most often be found on the graves of blacksmiths.
Broken chain link or wheel: loss in the family and life
The wheel has long been a symbol of life, with the belief that life revolves in a circular motion, where one life ends the other begins. However, a break in the wheel of life symbolizes the end of life. A break in the chain denotes a loss in the family ties with the person represented as a link.
Recognized as an ancient symbol for death, the urn represents the return of the body back to ashes and dust, leading to the soul’s rebirth into the next realm. When shown draped with a cloth, the cloth is representative of death, the final partition separating the living world from that of the dead.
Anchor: hope and eternal life
An anchor on a gravestone is often found on the graves of sailors, and symbolizes steadfast hope life that goes on beyond death.
Beehive: Industry, faith, education, domestic virtues
Beehives are symbolic for human industry, faith, education and domestic virtues, and are frequently found on the gravestones of Freemasons and Independent Order of Odd Fellows.
If you’re planning a trip to a graveyard make sure you take the time to appreciate the symbols carved in the gravestones. The language of the symbols will help you to understand your ancestors in a better manner and could provide some interesting insights into who they truly were.