Headstone symbolism


Here is a selection of the symbols that might be seen on graves and what they mean:

  • Anchor – seafarer, also Christian symbol for hope/ salvation. When the anchor is wrapped in vines, it represents strong Christian faith.
  • Angel flying or with trumpet – resurrection
  • Ankh – Egyptian symbol for life and immortality
  • Baby’s face with wings – departure of the soul
  • Bird – soul or spirit, resurrection
  • Broken column – a person, especially one of great promise, who has died young.
  • Butterfly – soul or spirit, resurrection
  • Celtic Cross – union of heaven and earth
  • Cherub – the soul
  • Christian Cross – death and resurrection
  • Dawn – rays of the sun, the triumph of day (life) over night (death)
  • Door – passage from this world to the next
  • Feather – ascension, prayer and faith
  • Fleur-de-lys – three prongs, representing the Holy Trinity
  • Garlands – victory in death
  • Grapes/grapevines – sacrifice
  • Handshake – farewell and friendship
  • Hourglass – A reminder of mortality
  • Ivy – immortality
  • Lamb – purity, innocence, sacrifice
  • Lamb bearing flag/cross – Christ’s sacrifice
  • Laurel wreath – earthly success, victory, immortality
  • Laurel wreath, inverted – death and resurrection
  • Palm branch – righteousness, resurrection, martyrdom
  • Pelican – sacrifice of Christ on the Cross
  • Pillar – tree of life, linking heaven and earth
  • Scales – justice, balance
  • Skulls – seat of the spirit, intellect and the part of the body most resistant to decay (not a sign of pirates: the Jolly Rodger flag used the skull and crossbones to put the fear of death into sailors)
  • Snake biting its own tail, (orouboros) – rebirth, immortality
  • Snake wrapped around a staff (Cadaceus) – doctor or surgeon
  • Square and Compass – Masonic symbol of judgement/geometry
  • Star – light overcoming darkness, enlightenment, wisdom
  • Torch inverted – if burning, resurrection, if extinguished, death
  • Urn – mourning. If undraped, a younger person, if draped an older person.

For Spartans, only warriors who had died in battle and women who had die in childbirth were honoured with headstones. Spartan mothers were venerated as the creators of warriors and the act of dying in labour had similar status to dying in battle.

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