A walk through a cemetery can yield some very interesting questions. The taphophile in me wonders how people with a shortened life passed. I think about the stories their lives were. And sometimes, I wonder what some of the symbols carved into the headstones mean. Some of the images that create the headstone symbolism seem very cryptic and therefore are misunderstood.

The only people who truly know are the ones who have it carved into the gravestone, but even then, it could have a different meaning to the deceased than the person who put it there. There are certainly many websites who break down what some of the symbols, and yet I wonder if there is any science to it, or if it is like dream symbol interpretation, especially as there are no definitive proof to the meanings of all symbols. While some, like fraternal organizations, religious symbols and tools of the trade can be obvious, other headstone symbols such as animals and seemingly random items, are left to interpretation.

Some symbols could have had a significance at the time of their carving, and that definition may have changed over time, so it is important, like most things in life, to keep them in context. I was interested in some of the most common headstone symbolism. I found most of the symbols were related to trades, military service, organizational or religious connections or symbols of death.

Headstone symbolism related to trades

Tools of the trade are very common and are placed on the headstone to honor the deceased occupation. Some of these symbols include anvils (ironworker), hammers (carpenters), theater masks, music, paint palettes, scales (lawyer), ships (sailor), guns (military or hunting) and more.

Headstone symbolism and military service

Guns, flags, and letters and mottos associated with military service are very commonly found on the headstones of veterans. American Legion or Daughters of the American Revolution are both organizations that will also have symbols people may use to identify their connection to military service.

Fraternal Organizations

Organizations such as the Elks, Independant Order of Odd Fellows, Knights of Columbus, Masons/Freemasons and Woodmen of the World are all organizations that have related symbols that many of their members include on headstones.

Masonic headstone symbolism can include anchors, beehives, an eye, a 5 pointed star and most notably a compass and square.

Woodmen of the World/ Modern Woodmen of America is a fraternal group founded in 1883. “The Woodmen of the World emblem is a sawed-off tree stump, often with a mallet or beetle, an ax, and a wedge:  the motto “Dum, Tacet Clamat” (Though Silent He speaks”) usually appears somewhere on the border.” Source: Headstone Symbolism

Religious headstone symbolism

Alpha and Omega Greek Letters, Lamb and Lion, Angels, Crosses, Crucifix, Ankh, Arches, Bible, Dove, Cohanim hands, Bahai star, Eucharist, Fish, Menorah, Moon with Star (Islam),Shih Tzu of Fo (Buddhist), and Star of David are just a few of the symbols connected to religious beliefs. Given the connection of death and afterlife beliefs, it is not unusual to see this type of symbol on headstones.

Symbols of Death

Broken items typically signify an untimely death. Whether broken wheels, circles, branches or links, the bearer of these types of symbols are thought to be young and that their lives were taken prematurely.

Additionally, arches, columns, bones, ships, clocks, hourglass, coffins, drapes, and a broken harp or lyre tend to symbolize crossing over or passing into death. They can also symbolize mourning.

Honoring a loved one by using headstone symbolism important to them due to their career, their service, or their relationships, is a valuable way to remember them. Heflebower Funeral and Cremation Services comes besides you in the time of loss to help you truly honor your loved one, in any way you feel best suits you.