Every time we visit a cemetery and search for our ancestor’s gravestones, we notice the beautiful array of figures – angels, men, women, children – who adorn some of the markers – as well as what is on the stones themselves – urns, anchors, flowers, trees, hands, doves, etc. I decided it was time to do a bit of research on the subject. And what I found will make me never look at a gravestone the same again – look for the symbols next time you visit and it will be a new and interesting way to look at the final resting place of those you love and honor.
Angels grace the tops of many stones – above is the Michael the Archangel – he is always seen with his sword.
Battle Grove Cemetery, Harrison County, Kentucky
This is the Angel Gabriel – he is always represented holding a horn.
An angel, with cross behind, holding what appears to be leaves – there is also a lily of the valley at her feet.
The draped urn is a 19th century symbol of the veil between heaven and earth. Cremation was not practiced at this time, it was simply a decorative touch.
This stone shows the hand of God coming down from the clouds, holding a broken chain. This could be a symbol of the chain of sin, or the opening of the gates of heaven after Jesus’s death on the cross.
The anchor has always been a symbol of hope. But many times the anchor is also shown as a cross, as in this example. The anchor also holds particular significance since this gentleman was killed while serving in the U.S. Navy.
Carlisle Cemetery, Nicholas County, Kentucky
This is one of my favorite gravestones! ‘Do not weep. She is not dead, only sleeping.’ Many memorials have the figures of men, women and children – a lovely memory of those gone before.
From about 1880 to 1920 this gravestone in the form of a tree trunk was very popular, especially with a group called Woodman of the World. This group was much like the Odd Fellows, or Masons, or our Rotary or Lions groups of today. The tree stump is broken, symbolizing the end of life. For some time this group provided every member with a gravestone – they felt everyone deserved to be remembered! This particular example is very striking due to the palm fronds at the base, and the ivy growing up the tree.
This is a beautiful example of a Celtic Cross – always represented with a circle. As in this example they are usually very decorative, with many carved symbols. This cross can be used for anyone, but especially by those of Irish and Scottish ancestry.
A hand with a finger pointing up means the soul has risen to heaven. This example even has the words ‘Gone Home’ added to the symbol.
Hands together are a symbol of matrimony. If you look closely you will see a man and woman’s hand, represented by cuff of a suit and shirt, and a bit of frilly cuff representing the woman’s dress. There is also the addition of the unbroken chain representing the love that still exists.
This gravestone is rife with symbolism! At the very top is the open hand holding a heart, the symbol of love. Beneath that is the all-seeing eye, an ancient symbol for God. And below that is a tent – the portable structure that housed the Ark of the Covenant while the Israelites traveled through the desert. Today it symbolizes a place to summon the powers of God. There are many Masonic symbols on this stone; surely this gentleman was a member.
And finally we have a young child, a life ended far too soon. The lad is dressed, ready for school, resting his arm on his books. His cap rests beside him.
These I pulled from photos taken at various cemeteries throughout the state, and a few from Indianapolis. I can’t wait to visit a cemetery with the primary goal of looking for particular symbols. I believe we’ll have another blog then! Happy researching!