Gravestones in old and historic cemeteries, especially the very large ones, may be monuments that symbolized the deceased person’s wealth or standing in the community in which they lived and died. Examples of some of these old markers can be seen in thousands of cemeteries throughout the South and the rest of the world. Many of these monuments are truly works of art, but the intricate designs and ornamentation that make them both interesting and unique are not just “art for art’s sake,” they were symbolic in nature. Although literally thousands of tombstone designs and symbols have been used by stone artisans throughout the years, some of them are more prevalent than others.
The majority of symbols on old gravestones reflect the spiritual life of the deceased or close family members responsible for a funeral and burial, so it should be no surprise that an open Bible appears on many grave markers of all sizes. The open Bible symbolizes the deceased was a Christian and lived his or her life according to the scriptures contained in the Bible. In some instances, a favorite Bible verse or its reference is engraved on the open pages or in close proximity to them. The presence of an engraved Star of David means the deceased was of Jewish ancestry. Interestingly, Star of David symbols have been found on tombstones of religious Jews in Europe since the 18th century, about the same time the six-pointed star became symbolic of the Jewish community. Another common religious symbol is the angel. Angels can be found on grave markers throughout the world, where they appear on tombstones of both children and adults. But the presence of an angel universally symbolizes divine love, rebirth, protection, wisdom, and mercy. One of the most photographed of all angels in cemeteries in the United States is a figure known as the “Weeping Angel,” or the “Angel of Grief,” a statue depicting an angel covering her face with her hands.
Emblems that symbolize membership of the deceased in various types of fraternal organizations often were inscribed on tombstones. Some of the more common of these symbols appearing on twentieth century gravestones depict membership in a Masonic Lodge, the Order of the Eastern Star, Woodmen of the World (W.O.W.), and the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (IOOF.) The organization known as Woodmen of the World was responsible for one of the most unique grave markers erected in cemeteries during the early part of the last century. These masonry markers, formed in the shape of a felled tree, or a tree trunk, were provided as a death benefit to Woodmen of the World members. Started in Omaha, Nebraska in 1890, the organization offered financial security, for a fee, that included insurance, to “pioneer woodsmen.” The practice of providing tombstones became too costly for the organization, and by most accounts, was discontinued about 1920. Such a monument marks the gravesite of my own paternal great-grandfather who died in 1915.
Other symbols appearing on old grave monuments include birds, flowers, ivy, and a tree. The bird of choice is often a dove, which means eternal life, representing spirituality and the winged soul. The presence of ivy engraved on a monument or grave stone denotes fidelity, attachment, and undying affection. Poppies represent eternal sleep, while a rose is a symbol of victory, pride, and undying love. Frequently, the rose was the symbol of choice for a child’s grave marker, where it symbolized purity in death. The presence of a single tree on a gravestone represented life and knowledge, but a “leaning tree” meant the life of the deceased was short or interrupted. The leaning tree became a universal symbol of grief, as well.
Inanimate objects appear on old grave markers, too. One such object or symbol is a chain with three links, which represents faith or one’s belief in the Trinity. In addition, this symbol was used to denote membership in the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. If an anchor is present on a monument or grave stone, it may mean the deceased was a sailor or seaman, but its presence more likely signified “hope.” A large number of twenty-first century marble or granite gravestones have urns attached to them, simply for the family’s convenience of leaving flowers. But the presence of an urn atop an old grave monument, sometimes draped in its marble or masonry cloth, is historically symbolic in nature. The urn is the classic symbol of immortality and represents the death of a body and its return to ashes. The presence of a wreath on a skull, although somewhat less common than other symbols mentioned here, simply means “victory over death.”
Animals or reptiles were less often used as symbols on gravestones. One that does appear fairly frequently, however, is the frog. As most gardeners know, the presence of frogs is a sign of a healthy environment. But the presence of a frog on a gravestone of long ago was not so good - it symbolized worldly pleasure or sin. Although I absolutely love (decorative) frogs and have received many as gifts from family and friends over the years, I do not want one on my headstone...... I would much prefer an angel, some ivy, a dove, or a rose.