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Tombstone Art and Symbolism
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Tombstone Art and Symbolism

A cemetery is a place of rest for the dead, but did you know it can also be a rich source of art? Tombstones  of the 18th and 19th Centuries in particular are rich with elements meant to convey meaning and beauty. Below are examples of common symbols found in historic cemeteries. Images are from cemeteries from the Texarkana area and represent the 19th Century ideals of eternity.

This list is by no means comprehensive. Additions will be made to the glossary periodically, so visit again!

Anchor

The anchor was a common early Christian  symbol representing Christ.

See Also: Fern, Woodmen of the World

Sacred Heart Cemetery, Edward F. Robbins

Angels

Angel with crossed arms and upturned face.

This is a common pose of mourning. The upturned face looks towards Heaven and the afterlife. Angels are often depicted as guides to Heaven or guardians of the tomb.

Woodlawn Cemetery, Daisy Marshall Monument

 

Angel with wings unfurled, dropping roses

An angel in this pose represent rebirth. In Christian symbolism, roses represent the achievement of perfection or the completion of life.

State Line Cemetery, Haydon/Fouke Monument

Books

Books on Tombstones generally represent Holy Scripture,  the Word of God, etc. Books can also refer to the general concepts of Knowledge, Education or Scholarship. Sometimes books are used to mark the graves of teachers.

Woodlawn Cemetery, Mary Haigh

 

Chain

Three Link Chains represent the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. The letters, "F, L, T" inside the links stands for  Friendship, Love and Truth.

See Also: Book, Eye

Rose Hill Cemetery, Texarkana, Texas

Cross and Crown

A cross shown in conjunction with a crown represents the Sovereignty of the Lord.

State Line Cemetery, Dora V. Hawkins

Drapery

A tombstone with a representation of drapery sybolises sorrow or mourning and is sometimes used with other symbols such as urns. This is one of the most commonly found grave art symbols.

Rose Hill Cemetery, Minerva A. Cullom

Dove or Bird in Flight

Birds can represent the soul and a bird in flight specifically represents an assurance of the deceased's passage to Heaven. Doves represent the Holy Spirit. A dove with an olive branch in its mouth represents Peace.

Rose Hill Cemetery, James Berry

Eye

An Eye on a grave marker stands for the All Seeing Eye or the Eye of Providece, also known as the Eye of God. If this symbol looks familiar, it is because the All Seeing Eye is also found on the back of a U.S. One Dollar Bill.

See Also: Book, Chain

Rose Hill Cemetery

Fern

Ferns represent Humility and Sincerity

See Also: Anchor, Woodmen of the World

Sacred Heart Cemetery, Edward F. Robbins

Flag

Flags have always represented patriotism, but they also may mark a military veteran

Cleveland Cemetery, WWI Veteran Melvin T. Hawkins

Gateway

 

Gates represent the Gates to Heaven or the Gateway to the Afterlife. The Gate is usually depicted as standing ajar, implying the welcome of the deceased into Heaven.

[Left] Rose Hill Cemetery, Edith M. Helm

[Below] Woodlawn Cemetery, G. Coleman

Hands

 

 

 

Hands Represent different things depending on the specific position. Also, gender is indicated by the sleeve cuffs depicted. For instance, a frill at the cuff indcates the burial of woman.

 

 

 

 

A Hand Pointing up can mean the reward of the righteous or the deceased'sHeavenly reward. I also refers simply to the ascension to Heaven.

Rose Hill Cemetery, Mrs. C. A. Pritchard

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

A Hand Pointing down represents mortality or sudden death.

Rose Hill Cemetery, unidentified grave

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Clasped Hands or a Handshake can mean a welcome to Heaven or, when a Male and Female hand are represented, marriage.

Sacred Heart Cemetery, Katie Kline

Irish or Celtic Cross

Typically found marking the graves of Irish-American immigrants, the Celtic Cross is one of the most distinctive Crosses found in funerary art. The Circle represents infinity and the design is attributed to St. Patrick.

Sacred Heart Cemetery, John and Ellen O'Doherty 

Lamb

Lambs represent innocence and are used to mark the graves of children.

Shell

The Shell represents Birth and Resurrection.

See Also: Sleeping Figure

 

State Line Cemetery, Edward Trigg

Sleeping Figure

A sleeping form generally represented the sleep of death. A sleeping child or cherub was used to mark the grave of a child.

See Also: Shell

Rose Hill Cemetery, Marcus Torrance

Tree Stump

Tree Stumps are indicative of a life cut short. Often, but not always, used to mark the graves of the young.

See Also: Lamb

Sacred Heart Cemetery, Maria Fronhoff

Urn

Urns refer back to the Bible verse which mentions the body returning to dust. Urns are also used to hold the ashes of a cremated body. A draped urn specifically refers to the soul having left the body.

Mt. Sinai Memorial Garden at State Line Cemetery, Heilbron family plot

Wheat

Wheat represents harves and in the context of a grave stone, generally refers to the "harvest" of a person who has lived a long life and earned their reward. It often marks the grave of the elderly.

Woodlawn Cemetery, Lou Hall Gutirrez

Woodmen of the World Markers

Woodmen of the World Markers are very distinct and there are a variety of designs. Two elements found in all Woodmen of the World monuments are the WoW marker and a tree stump. Traditionally, tree stumps refer to a life cut short, but in this context they refer mainly to the connection to the Woodmen of the World.

Mt. Sinai Memorial Garden section of State Line Cemetery, Junius Stone

Wreath

Wreaths are an ancient symbol for victory or, in Christian religions, the victory of redemption.

Rose Hill Cemetery, Mollie Lee