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Gravestone Symbolism

Definition: This article lists the symbolism used on gravestones and what those symbols mean.
This article lists the symbolism used on gravestones and what those symbols mean.

Have you ever wondered through cemeteries looking at the different symbols and statues that are a part of the person's gravestone and wonder what those symbols meant? You have symbols all around you and most people don't even notice them. It has been said that "A picture is worth a thousand words," well symbolism is also used to convey those words as well.

This article will provide you with examples of those symbols and a short explanation of their meaning.




Agnus Dei

Agnus Dei Represents the Lamb of God.
Alpha and Omega

Alpha and Omega First and last letters of the Greek alphabet. Symbolizes the beginning and the end.
American legion

American Legion Found on graves of people who were American Legion members, an organization for veterans.

Anchor Hope or eternal life. Often on sailors' graves. Anchors are also a Masonic symbol for well-grounded hope, therefore they are often found on Masons' graves.

Angel A guide to heaven.

Saint Matthew, one of the four evangelists, was often represented as a winged man.

Ankh An Egyptian symbol of eternal life.

Anvil Symbolizes the creation or forging of the universe. Also found on blacksmiths' graves.

A.O.U.W. Ancient Order of United Workmen, a fraternal benefit society. Click here for more information (offsite link).

Apple Apples represent salvation, sometimes sin.

A.R. Arbeiter Ring, an American Jewish fraternal organization committed to social justice. Later became the Workmen's Circle.

Arch The passage to heaven.

Arrow Arrows symbolize mortality and martyrdom.

Artillery Artillery, such as cannons, on a gravestone usually represents military service.

Baha'i Symbol of the Baha'i Faith, a monotheistic religion. For more information, please visit their official website.

Beehive Often used by the Freemasons and Independent Order of Odd Fellows. It symbolizes human industry, faith, education, and domestic virtues.

Bell Often symbolizes a church bell, and therefore religion.

Bible or Book Often used on the gravestones of ministers or clergymen. However, it is sometimes found on gravestones of very devoted religious people also. Books may also represent a person's good deeds and accomplishments being recorded in the book of life.

Bird Peace, messenger of God. The most common birds found on gravestones are doves.

Bones Death, decay.

Boat A voyage; crossing over to the other side.

B.P.O.E. with Elk B.P.O.E. stands for Benevolent Protective Order of Elks, a fraternal organization.
broken bud

Broken Bud or Branch Someone who died an untimely or premature death. Usually seen on a younger person's gravestone.
broken chain link

Broken Chain Link Symbolizes a loss in the family.
broken wheel

Broken Wheel Symbolizes the end of life; a break in the circle or wheel of life.

BRT with a Train Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen. A fraternal organization for men who worked as trainmen.

Butterfly Symbolizes resurrection, and also the soul leaving the body/flesh.
calla lily

Calla Lily Flower that represents beauty.
Canadian Legion

The Canadian Legion of British Empire Service League A Canadian organization formed in the 1920's for war veterans and their dependants. Usually seen with a maple leaf.
century plant

Century Plant Represents immortality; everlasting life.

Circle Eternal life - no beginning, no end.
clasped hands

Clasped Hands Farewell to earthly existence. Also unity. Often used as a Masonic and I.O.O.F. symbol. Deborah, a website visitor, told me that in the Native American culture clasped hands represent a Delaware grave.

Clock Mortality, death; the passage of time.

Coffin Symbolizes mortality and death.
Cohanim Hands

Cohanim Hands Hands with thumbs (and sometimes forefingers) joined. This is a Jewish symbol that represents members of the priestly tribe of Aaron.

Colonial Daughters of the 17th Century An organization for women who descended from an ancestor who rendered service in the Colonial wars from 1607 to 1699.

Column Mortality. A draped or broken column represents the break in earthly to heavenly life. The draped arch also symbolizes mourning.
Comedy Tragedy

Comedy and Tragedy Masks Symbol of drama and theatre. Also known as theatre masks.

Corn Rebirth, fertility.

Cornucopia Also known as the "Horn of Plenty." Symbolizes an abundant, fruitful life. Also a symbol of the harvest, which in turn symbolizes the end of life.

Crooks Shepherds crooks, usually found on graves of Independent Order of Odd Fellows members (a fraternal organization). Symbolizes the opening of earth to the heavens.

Cross A cross represents Christianity.

Crown Victory or triumph over death.

Crown and Cross Symbolizes both victory and Christianity. Also, this symbol sometimes denotes a member of the York Rite Masons.
D of P

D of P Degree of Pocahontas (sometimes seen as the Daughters of Pocahontas), organized in 1885. The female auxiliary for the Improved Order of Redmen, a patriotic organization.

Daisy Symbolizes innocence; usually found on graves of young children.

D.A.R. Daughters of the American Revolution, a non-profit women's organization for the descendants of American Revolutionary War veterans.

Dog Loyalty, fidelity, watchfulness, and vigilance.

Dogwood Resurrection, sacrifice, and eternal life.

Drapery Mourning.

Eagle Eagles are often seen on gravestones of Civil War veterans.

Saint John, one of the four evangelists, was often represented as an eagle.

Eagle, Double-headed A Masonic symbol, part of the Scottish Rite. It symbolizes the 32nd degree in this Rite.
Improved Order of Red Men

Eagle with FFC Symbol of the Improved Order of Red Men, a patriotic society. Their motto is Freedom, Friendship, and Charity.
Fraternal Order of Eagles

Eagle with FOE Symbol of the Fraternal Order of Eagles, a fraternal organization.
Improved Order of Red Men

Eagle with TOTE Symbol of the Improved Order of Red Men, a patriotic society. TOTE = Totem of the Eagle.

Easter Lily Purity, Chastity. Maria, a website visitor, sent me the following information:

"The lily has been used to marking the graves of young martyrs who died preserving their virginity and purity. Sometimes it is just a symbol of their youth and virtue, but sometimes it used as an indication of how they died."

Shari G. also sent me the following info about this symbol:

"I just wanted to add that the lily, with its symbolism of virginity, has been one of the symbols typically associated with the Virgin Mary. Paintings of the Annunciation and of Mary with the baby Jesus usually feature the lily, reinforcing the Christian belief in her virginity."

Eastern Cross Also Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, and Greek Catholic. They have three bars that symbolize the cross Christ was crucified on:

Top Bar - Title Board
Middle Bar - Board on which the Lord's hands were nailed
Bottom Bar - The footrest

For more information, please click here (offsite link, will open in new window).

Derek R., a website visitor, sent me the following information about this symbol:

In Russia, the slanted bottom section represents St Andrew's cross. Often there are crosses with another straight cross above the slanted cross (total of three straight and one slanted) that represents St Peter's cross.

Andrej G., a website visitor, sent me the following information about this symbol:

I'd like to add, that if an orthodox cross has a roof it means that the dead was an "Old Believer" (in Russian- Starover). Such a roof symbolizes a new home for the soul of the dead (this roof called "golubets"). They always use a cross with eight ends as they believe this form is the oldest and perfect (assuming that 4-ended cross came from the atholic church). Such a cross could also indicate that the dead was an Old Believer (they preferred rather high crosses).

Eucharist The body and blood of Christ. Usually found on graves of priests and nuns.

Eye Usually found in a triangle or within a sunburst. This is a masonic symbol.
Foresters of America

F of A Foresters of America, a fraternal society founded in 1895 that provided life and disability insurance to its members. Usually contains an eagle, crossed flags, and a deer. Their motto was Liberty, Unity, Benevolence, and Concord.
fallen tree

Fallen Tree Mortality, Death.

F.A.T.A.L. (with five-pointed star) Motto of the Order of the Eastern Star; stands for "Fairest Among Thousands, Altogether Lovely."
Virgin statue

Father Time and the Weeping Virgin Masonic carving. The carving consists of a weeping virgin holding a sprig of acacia in one hand, and an urn in the other hand. A broken column is in front of her. Father Time is behind her, attempting to untangle the ringlets of her hair. It symbolizes that time, patience, and perseverance will accomplish all things.
Knights of Pythias

FCB with Shield and Suit of Armor Symbol of the Knights of Pythias, a fraternal organization. FCB stands for Friendship, Charity, and Benevolence.

F.C.L. Motto of the Women's Relief Corp. Stands for "Fraternity, Charity, and Loyalty."

Fern Humility and sincerity.

Fish Symbolizes Christianity.

Flag Usually found on veterans' graves.

Flame or Torch Eternity. An upside down torch represents the end of life.

FLT in Chain Links A symbol of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows, a fraternal organization. Stands for Friendship, Love, and Truth.

GAR Grand Army of the Republic. A fraternal organization for men who fought and were honorably discharged from the Union Army during the Civil War.

Garland Victory in death.

Gate Passage from earth to heaven.

Grapes Blood of Christ.

Hammer A hammer symbolizes the power of creation. It can also represent the person's profession.
Hammer and Sickle

Hammer and Sickle Emblem of the Communist movement, symbolizing the alliance of workers and peasants.
hand holding heart

Hand Holding Heart The hand holding a heart is a symbol used by the I.O.O.F (Independent Order of Odd Fellows) and Masons, both fraternal organizations. It symbolizes charity.

Hand Pointing Up Hand pointing up to heaven.

Hand Pointing Down The hand of God descending from heaven.
Hand writing

Hand writing Writing names in the book of life. Can also be found on writers' graves.
praying hands

Hands Praying Pious devotion.
hands reaching

Hands Reaching Usually the hand of God reaching down from the heavens, and the hand of the deceased reaching up to grab it in greeting.

Harp A harp symbolizes praise to God. They are often carved with a broken string, representing a break in mortal life.

Heart Person's spirit or soul. Sometimes the sacred heart of Christ.
Hebrew Letters

Hebrew Words Hebrew words for "Here Lies."

Horse Death. White horses represent good, while black horses represent evil.

Hourglass Passage of time.

Hummingbird Often found on infants' gravestones. Usually just decorative.

IHS Sometimes looks like a dollar sign. IHS stands for the first three letters of Jesus' name in the Greek alphabet.

Here's another meaning for IHS, contributed by Jim Miller:

This symbol also stands for "in hoc signo", Latin for "by this sign we conquer", referring to the cross. It is actually more involved than that, and apparently also has some fraternal applications.

Here is the Wikipedia entry for this phrase:

I.O.M. Independent Order of Mechanics. Fraternal organization formed in 1868. Their symbols include Jacob's Ladder and an ark.

Ivy Friendship.

Jaycees The United States Junior Chamber. A non-profit organization for people between the ages of 18 and 41 that provides the tools they need to build the bridges of success for themselves in the areas of business development, management skills, individual training, community service, and international connections. More information can be found on their website,

Jr. OUAM The Junior Order of United American Mechanics. It is the oldest fraternal order that is still active in the United States. It was founded in Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1853. For more information about this organization please see the official website.
Masonic Keystone

Keystone with letters HTWSSTKS The Masonic Keystone, which is the Masonic mark of an Ancient Grand Master. HTWSSTKS stands for "Hiram The Widow's Son Sent To King Solomon."

Knot A tied knot symbolizes marriage and unity.
K of C

K of C Knights of Columbus, a fraternal organization for Catholic men.

KOTM Symbol of the Knights of the Maccabees, a fraternal organization.
L.A. to B.R.T.

L.A. to B.R.T. Symbol of the Ladies Auxiliary to the Brotherhood of Railroad Trainmen.

Lamb Lambs are often seen on children's gravestones. A lamb represents innocence.

Lamp Wisdom, faithfulness.

Laurel Laurel represents the "evergreen" memory of the deceased.
lily of the valley

Lily of the Valley Purity, innocence, virginity.

Lion Strength.

Lotus Symbolizes creation and rebirth. Often seen on gravestones and mausoleums with an Egyptian architecture style.

Lyre Often have a broken string, symbolizing the end of life. Lyres are usually found on the graves of musicians.
Father Time

Man with Hourglass and Scythe Father Time. An old man with a beard, holding a hourglass and/or scythe.

Menorah A menorah, which is a candelabra with seven branches, is a Jewish symbol. It usually marks the grave of a righteous woman.

Moon Rebirth. A crescent moon and star symbol like the one pictured here is also a symbol of Islam.

Moon with Seven Stars, the letter "R", and a dove Symbolizes a member of the Daughters of Rebekah, the female auxiliary of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.
morning glory

Morning Glory Symbolizes the Resurrection; also beauty, youth, and love.
mortar and pestle

Mortar and Pestle Usually found on the gravestones of pharmacists, and sometimes doctors.

Music Usually found on the graves of musicians. The music can be from a song the musician wrote, or it could be the deceased person's favorite hymn.

MWA MWA stands for Modern Woodmen of America. This was the original name for the Woodmen of the World organization.
oak leaf

Oak Leaf Longevity (long life). Deborah, a website visitor, told me that in the Native American culture an oak leaf represents an Algonquian grave.

OES, 5-Pointed Star Order of the Eastern Star, the largest fraternal organization in the world to which both women and men may belong. A woman must be related by birth or marriage to a Mason in order to become a member of OES, and a man must be a Mason to join.

O.S.C. Order of Scottish Clans. A fraternal and benevolent society that was founded in 1878. They provided life and disability insurance to Scottish immigrants and their descendants. They became a part of the Independent Order of Foresters in 1971.

Owl Wisdom, watchfulness.

Ox Patience, strength.

P of H Patrons of Husbandry, also known as the National Grange. An agricultural organization.

Palette and Brushes Usally found on artists' gravestones.
palm tree

Palm Tree or Frond Victory over death.

P.A.P. with Moose Loyal Order of Moose (LOOM), a fraternal organization. P.A.P. stands for their motto: Purity, Aid, and Progress.
passion flower

Passion Flower Symbolizes Christ's passion.

Piano Most likely symbolizes someone who was fond of playing the piano.

Pitcher Often found on graves of prohibitionists. Represents virtue and control.

If it is found on a Jewish grave, it symbolizes a Levite, a person who was responsible for cleaning the hands of the Temple Priest.

PLEF, sometimes with crown and shield Symbol of the Pythian Sisters, a fraternal organization for women. The letters PLEF stand for their motto: Purity, Love, Equality, and Fidelity.

Plow A plow symbolizes the harvest; the reaping of life.

Poppy Poppies symbolize eternal sleep.

Portrait Usually a portrait of the deceased.

Rabbit Humility, gentleness, self-sacrifice.

Rifle Usually found on the graves of military members and hunters.

R.N.A. Royal Neighbors of America. A non-profit fraternal membership organization that offers life insurance, annuities, and medicare supplement for women. The first meeting was held in Council Bluffs, Iowa in January 1892. The organization was officially formed on March 21, 1895. It is still active. For more information, please visit their website:

Rooster Symbolizes an awakening, or calling attention to the person's death. It also symbolizes vigilance.

Rosary Almost always found on Catholic gravestones. Symbolizes devotion to Mary and constant prayer for the deceased person.

Rose Symbolizes beauty.
St. Aldemar

Saint Aldemar Commandery A Knights Templar organization. Masonic.

S.A.R. Sons of the American Revolution, a fraternal society that was organized in 1889 for male descendants of American Revolutionary War veterans.

Scales Often marks the grave of someone who was in the legal profession. Sometimes seen with a statue of Saint Michael, which symbolizes his duty of weighing the souls of the departed.

Scarab An Egyptian symbol of spontaneous creation. Also symbolizes the renewal of life.

Scroll Symbolizes the scriptures.

Scythe Reaping of life.
Seal of Ohio

Seal of Ohio Ohio's state seal.

Shell Baptism or rebirth.
Shih Tzu of Fo

Shih Tzu of Fo Guardians of Buddah.

Ship Ships are usually found on the graves of sailors. Many times they are found on graves of people who died at sea. They sometimes symbolize Noah's Ark, the ship that weathered the storm against all overwhelming odds.

Shoes Empty shoes symbolize the loss of a child. Usually one shoe is overturned.

Skull Death and mortality. A winged skull symbolizes the ascension into heaven.
skull and crossbones

Skull and Crossbones Mortality, Death.
sleeping child

Sleeping Child A sleeping child is a Victorian symbol for death.
hooped snake

Snake, hooped Symbolizes eternal life - no beginning, no end.
Snake with Apple

Snake with Apple Symbolizes sin.

Staff entwined by two snakes A caduceus, which is a short herald's staff entwined by two snakes (serpents) in the form of a double helix. Usually symbolizes someone who worked in the medical profession. However, this is actually a symbols of messengers and commerce. The actual symbol for the medical arts is the rod of Asclepius. Apparently the Caduceus symbol was placed on Army medical uniforms in the early 1900's, and that started the misconception that still prevails to this day.

Snake wrapped on a cross with "In Hoc Signo Vinces" The Masonic brazen serpent, a symbol of the 25th Degree Masons.

I also received another interpretation from Jay R.

I would not attribute this symbol of a Snake wrapped on a cross with "In Hoc Signo Vinces" primarily as a Masonic symbol, but rather as a Christian symbol.

Numbers 21:9
And Moses made a serpent of brass, and put it upon a pole, and it came to pass, that if a serpent had bitten any man, when he beheld the serpent of brass, he lived.

This is seen by Christians as foreshadowing Christ's salvific death upon the Cross.

"In Hoc Signo Vinces" reputedly was the instruction given to Constantine the Great in a dream to place the Cross upon his battle standards, thereby bringing him victory and inspiring him to make Christianity the official state religion of the Roman Empire.
soldier on horse

Soldier on Horse A soldier's grave. If the horse has both front legs in the air, the person probably died in battle. If only one leg is raised, the person probably died as a result of wounds. And if the horse has all four legs on the ground, the person probably died of natural causes.

Stacey, a website visitor, contributed additional information regarding this symbol:

Traditionally, in statuary, when a figure is seen atop a horse in memorial, there are the three meanings: two or more feet raised - death in battle. One leg raised fully off the ground - death from wounds suffered in battle. Standing square or at rest - death of natural causes. This is typically the accepted formula for any equine statue/carving offered in memory of a deceased.

Sphinx Guardian; represents strength and protection.

Square and Compass Usually have the letter "G" in the middle. Found on gravestones belonging to members of the Freemasons (Masons).

Star A five-pointed star represents the Star of Bethlehem.
A six-pointed star represents creation.
White Shrine of Jerusalem

Star, Cross, and Shepherd's Crook Symbol of the White Shrine of Jerusalem. Often seen with the phrase "In Hoc Signo Spes Mea," which translates to "In this Sign (the Cross) is my hope." A society for women who are related to (through birth, marriage, or legal adoption) to a Master Mason in good standing. Founded in 1894.
Star of David

Star of David Divine Protection.

Sun A sun symbolizes the soul rising to heaven.



Cemeteries and Burials


Related Categories:

| The Association for Gravestone Studies | | Why Headstones Face East | Conducting Research in a Cemetery | Free Family History and Genealogy Records | Calvary Cemetery | Find A Grave - Millions of Cemetery Records | Alma Cemetary | LakeView Cemetery - Cleveland | Oak Hill Cemetery - Youngstown | Oakland Cemetery | Sleepy Hollow Cemetery | Picture of Cemetery Ghost Baby | Tolomato Cemetary | The Ghost of Boothill Cemetery | Gettysburg National Cemetery | National Cemetery Administration Home | 10 of the world's most scenic cemeteries - | The Official Website of Arlington National Cemetery | Nationwide Gravesite Locator | Cemetery Records Online - Search Cemeteries | Online Cemetery Records & Burial Indexes (USA) | Potters Field |


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