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 (trumpeting)—a call to the resurrection
Arrows or darts—mortality, the dart of death
Clock—passage of time (these are rare, but there’s a fine example in Peterborough, NH)
Column (broken)—sorrow, life cut short
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.
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
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 www.gravestonestudies.org.