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Symbolism in Gravestone Art


One of the most interesting facets of studying gravestone art is the symbolism of the icons carved on the stones. Many of these provide insight into the nature of the culture in which the deceased lived. Others make a statement about the life or death of the deceased.


Some designs are easily interpreted. For instance, a winged hourglass tells the observer that time flies, a tree stump or broken limb indicates that life has been cut short and an angel trumpeting is a call to the resurrection. Other symbols are more difficult to interpret and even experts do not always agree. Many symbols even have multiple meanings. Here are a few of the more common symbols and their generally accepted meanings.


Anchor—hope (“Hope is the anchor of the soul.”)

Angel—messenger between God and man; guide

Angel (flying)—rebirth

Angel (trumpeting)—a call to the resurrection

Angel (weeping)—grief

Arrows or darts—mortality, the dart of death

Birds—the soul

Clock—passage of time (these are rare, but there’s a fine example in Peterborough, NH)


Column (broken)—sorrow, life cut short


Dove—Holy Ghost

Effigies—the soul

Father Time—mortality

Flame (burning)—life

Flower—the frailty of life

Flower (broken) —death

Garland—victory in death

Gourds—the coming to be and the passing away of earthy matters; the mortal body

Hand (pointing upward)—ascension to heaven

Hand (pointing downward)—calling the earth to witness

Handshake-farewell to earthly existence

Heart—the abode of the soul; love of Christ; the soul in bliss

Ivy—memory and fidelity

Lamb—Christ; the Redeemer; meekness; sacrifice; innocence.

Lamp—truth; knowledge


Lily—resurrection; purity


Palm—victory over death

Picks and Shovels—mortality


Poppy—a symbol of sleep, and therefore death (Victorian)

Portals—passageways to the eternal journey


Scallop shell—the resurrection; a pilgrim’s journey; the baptism of Christ

Scythe—time or time cut short


Skull (winged)—the flight of the soul from the mortal body

Skulls and crossbones—death

Sun (rising)—renewed life

Sun (setting)—eternal death

Sword—martyrdom; courage;

Torch (inverted)—life has been extinguished

Torch (burning)—immortality; truth; wisdom

Urn—mortality (a receptacle for the bodily remains)

Wheat—time; the divine harvest (often used to denote old age)



Want more information on symbols??? The following publications are a good place to start:


The Masks of Orthodoxy: Folk Gravestone Carving in Plymouth County Massachusetts, 1689-1805 by Peter Benes.


Early American Gravestone Art in Photographs by Francis Duval and Ivan Rigby.


Graven Images: New England Stonecarving and Its Symbols by Allan Ludwig.


A comprehensive pamphlet entitled “Symbolism in the Carvings on Old Gravestones” is also available from The Association for Gravestone Studies at