Wednesday, November 30, 2011

The Symbolism of Tombstones

Some people find graveyards unnerving. I, myself find them quite fascinating! When one enters a graveyard, one is surrounded by many works of art that eulogize family, friends, loved ones, and even pets, that have passed away. Some of these tombstones are very simple; name, date of birth, and date of death. Other tombstones are elaborate carvings and statues! During my many wanderings and photo taking adventures, I have become curious as to what some of the more frequent and popular images I was seeing stood for (besides a nice image to look at)! Below are some examples of the more popular tombstone images and the meanings that coincide with them.

Angels are seen as the agent of God, often pointing towards heaven. They are also seen as guardians of the dead while symbolizing spirituality.

Books remind us that tombstones are documents, bearing vital statistics and epitaphs concerning the deceased. Books may be open, possibly to signify that the stone is a kind of biography, or closed in recognition of the fact that the story of the dead is over. The book on a tombstone may be The Book or The Bible. This identification can be defined by the presence of a citation (i.e. John 19:14) or an actual line of scripture or literature that could have been a favorite of the deceased. Also, the deceased may have just really liked to read!!

 The butterfly can represent ones soul. It is also symbolic of Christ’s resurrection. This meaning is derived from the three stages of the life of the butterfly; the caterpillar, the chrysalis, and the butterfly. These three stages symbolize life, death, and resurrection and / or rebirth depending on one’s religious beliefs. The butterfly can also symbolize a short lived life.

 A symbol of Christianity. The cross can represent faith, hope, and charity. Also, it can represent protection. The most visible and popular symbol of the Christian faith, the cross has been used for religious and ornamental purposes.

The dove appears in both Christian (usually Catholic) and Jewish cemeteries, representing some of the same things and some different things in each. Catholics usually see the dove (which makes its first Biblical appearance in Genesis carrying an olive branch for Noah) as the Holy Spirit. Jews interpret the dove as a peace symbol. The biblical allusion to the dove also suggests a connectedness with the earth.  A white dove represents purity and spirituality, especially in Europe.

 The Lily represents chastity, innocence and purity. Hence, it was a favored funeral flower of the Victorians. The use of lilies at funerals symbolizes the restored innocence of the soul at death.  In some Christian traditions, the first lily sprang forth from the repentant tears of Eve as she was sent out of Eden.

The Lamb usually marks the grave of a child. The lamb always stands for innocence. Christians go a little further and associate it with the Lamb of God, meaning Jesus.

In the days when the deceased were laid out in parlor, it was the custom to cover everything in black. Draperies, with their fancy frills and tassels, are more elaborate than a simple shroud. They allow the expression of mourning to linger long after the body has been taken out the front door. Curtains can also set the stage. Parted, they reveal a telling excerpt. What is important in such displays is the main actor or central object of the stone. In this photo, it is a cross that is revealed.

The rose represents love, beauty, hope, and unfailing love. It is also associated with the Virgin Mary, the "rose without thorns."   A red rose symbolizes martyrdom and a white rose symbolizes purity and virginity. Whether the rose is a bud, flower or somewhere in between indicates how old the person was at the time of death:
Just a bud - normally a child 12 or under
Partial bloom - normally a teenager
Full bloom - normally in early/mid twenties. The deceased died in the prime of life
Rosebud, broken - life cut short, usually found with a young person's grave

For more interesting tombstone meanings, please check out the site below, which I used to gain the above knowledge to share with you, the reader!

 By Michele Nelson

Michele started playing with her parent's Polaroid Camera when she was five. Throughout the years, she has used mnay different cameras and has self taught herself how to use each one. Photography is a hobby she highly enjoys and likes to share her photos with family and friends. Michele currently resides in NEPA with her loving husband, Glenn, and their dog, Killer.


  1. This is really interesting, Michele! Beautiful artwork, as well. I often wondered what some of these symbols meant.

  2. Do you know if they make paw prints memorial plaque? I've heard of people doing this for their dogs and I would really like to do this if I can. Do you know anything about it?