Seen in both Christian and Jewish cemeteries, the dove is a symbol of resurrection, innocence, and peace. An ascending dove represents the transport of the departed soul to heaven. A dove descending represents a descent from heaven, assurance of safe passage. A dove lying dead symbolizes a life cut prematurely short. If the dove is holding an olive branch, it symbolizes that the soul has reached divine peace in heaven.
Similar to the Winged Skull, the flying hourglass symbolizes the swift passage of time – sometimes literally flying with wings.
Hands – Pointing Finger
A hand with the index finger pointing upward symbolizes the hope of heaven, while a hand with forefinger pointing down represents God reaching down for the soul. Seen as an important symbol of life, hands carved into gravestones represent the deceased’s relationships with other human beings and with God. Cemetery hands tend to be shown doing one of the four things: blessing, clasping, pointing, and praying.
Ivy and Vines
Ivy carved into a tombstone is said to represent friendship, fidelity, and immortality. The hardy, evergreen lead of the ivy denotes immortality and rebirth or regeneration.
Laurel, especially when fashioned in the shape of a wreath, is a common symbol found in the cemetery. It can represent victory, distinction, eternity or immortality.
The lion serves as a guardian in the cemetery, protecting a tomb from unwanted visitors and evil spirits. It symbolizes the courage and bravery of the departed. Lions in the cemetery can usually be found sitting on top of vaults and tombs, watching over the final resting place of the departed. They also represent the courage, power, and strength of the deceased individual.
Oak Leaves and Acorns
The mighty oak tree, often represented as oak leaves and acorns, signifies strength, honor, longevity and steadfastness.
A sleeping child was often used to signify death during the Victorian era. As expected, it generally decorates the grace of a baby or young child. Figures of sleeping babies or children often appear with very few clothes, symbolizing that young, innocent children had nothing to cover up or hide.
The inverted torch is a true cemetery symbol, symbolizing life in the next realm or a life extinguished. A lit torch represents life, immortality and the everlasting life. Conversely, an inverted torch represents death or the passing of the soul into the next life. Generally the inverted torch will still bear a flame, but even without the flame it still represents a life extinguished.
A tombstone in the shape of a tree trunk is symbolic of the brevity of life. The number of broken branches appearing on the tree trunk may indicate deceased family members buried at that site.
The urn symbolizes death itself. The Greeks used the urn as a symbol of mourning since it was often used as a repository for ashes of the dead. From the 1770’s to the 1820’s, urns with willow branches carved around them were popular on gravestones in New England’s burial grounds. The urns symbolizes death and the willows symbolized grief.
The dripping branches of weeping willow trees symbolize the drooping spirits and hearts of those who have lost their beloved family member. The weeping willow tree was a very popular carving on gravestones at the end of the 1700’s and early 1800’s in Massachusetts among early settlers.
In its generic form, the wheel represents the cycle of life, enlightenment, and divine power. A wheel might also represent a wheelwright. Specific types of wheel symbols that might be found in the cemetery include the eight -spoked Buddhist wheel of righteousness, and the circular eight-spoked wheel of the Church of World Messianity, with alternating fat and thin spokes. Or, as with all cemetery symbols, it could just be a pretty decoration.
Popular in the 17th and 18th centuries. Symbolizes the fleetingness of life and the sold soaring into the afterlife.
(Above descriptions by Kimberley Powell – Cemetery Symbols & Icons)
After reading through each description of cemetery iconographies, students were tasked to respectfully walk the graveyard to see what they can find.
What is the oldest grave? How many symbols can you identify? What is the most unusual inscription?
Students stumbled upon this tombstone. The urn iconography on this stone symbolizes death itself. The Greeks used the urn as a symbol of mourning since it was often used as a repository for ashes of the dead. From the 1770s to 1820s, urns with willow branches carved around them were popular on gravestones in New England’s burial grounds. The urns symbolized death and the willows symbolized grief. (Kimberley Powell – Cemetery Symbols and Icons)