Posted by Gaylord Cooper on October 23, 2017 in Guest Bloggers

This article originally appeared in Ancestry Magazine, Sept-Oct 2009.

Tombstones are another great source of posthumous information. The carvings on gravestones, called icons, were and still are used as a type of shorthand for stone carvers. Each icon conveys a greater idea, thereby saving time and expense (and space). Tombstone icons can give information about an ancestor’s religion, family relationships, military service, society membership, occupation or trade, and even accidents or illness that may have killed them.

Here are a few of the most common ones and their meanings.

Anchor — hope (‘’the anchor of the soul”)

Angel — messenger between God and humankind

Angel (flying) — guide from earth to afterlife

Angel (trumpeting) — calling forth the resurrection

Angel (weeping) — grief

Arrows or darts — mortality, the dart of death

Birds — the soul

Clock or hourglass — the passage of time

Coffin — mortality

Column (broken) — sorrow or life cut short

Cross — salvation

Dove — Holy Ghost

Father Time — mortality

Flame (burning) — life

Flower — the frailty of life

Flower (broken) — death

Garland — victory in death

Hand pointing upward — ascension to heaven

Handshake — farewell to earthly existence

Heart — the abode of the soul

Ivy — memory, fidelity

Lamb — Christ, meekness, sacrifice, or innocence

Lamp — truth, knowledge

Laurel — victory

Lily — resurrection, purity

Palls/drapery — mortality

Palm — victory over death

Picks and shovel — mortality

Pomegranate — immortality

Poppy — sleep

Portals — passageways to an eternal journey

Rose — sorrow

Scythe — time or time cut short

Skeletons — mortality

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

Skulls and crossbones — death

Sun (rising) — renewed life

Sword — martyrdom or courage

Urn — mortality

Wheat — time or divine harvest; often used to denote old age

Willow — grief

 

 

Gaylord Cooper

Gaylord Cooper is the author of "STORIES TOLD IN STONE: Cemetery Iconology" is subtitled 'A Manual for Genealogy Research' for many reasons. From graveyard to cemetery, author and certified genealogist Gaylord Cooper explains definitions, symbols and sources beneficial in the study of genealogy, culture and history. Readers of many backgrounds will find this both a useful tool for research and a fascinating read for simple curiosity. Sometimes artfully ornate, sometimes tastefully spare, the meanings of icons used on grave markers are explained in detail. Do's and Don'ts for cleaning and preserving gravestones are presented. Worksheets, source lists, field guides and other helpful materials are included. This is a book for people searching for ancestors and recording genealogy, as well as for readers who find beauty in the visual symbolism of architectural and memorial monuments.

10 Comments

  1. Crystal Schroeder

    Thanks for the interesting article. I wonder how many people in the future will smile when they see the logo on my mom’s grave marker, and learn that she was a Chicago Cubs fan.

  2. Edward Yeutson

    My wife and my stone is a 4 generation stone a seat with our marriage date and were. our names and bings I change my name both ser names. my wifes madien name & married name. the reason I did this this way is that my great grand parents were Swedish changed their name like you would change underwear. birth date and were. Parents name. on the back kids & veterens plack.name seat grand kids. we are going to ge bsarried with my Grand parents and great grand parents. and in same cemitarey as my great aunts. as so I had my dad put a small stone with him and his brothers on it at Grandparents grave even thow they are barried 1000 miles apart. my parents grave have myself and my siblings on the back of the stone. I am also considering putting a stone next to my great Grand parents of dates and places were they came from and their name changes. It cost around $15,000 ABT. and when you consider Hotel bills, food, and tranpertation and family History vacations and DNA test to prove the research. Doesn’t take long for the bills to jump to that $15,000 figer. Makes that $350.00 a year for Ancestry look very cheep you can do a lot of research in one year and DNA matches connecting to cousins that help you find your ancestors. I started in 1976 before computers that is why it cost so much. and as you get older and say come down with dimacia or altimers its a way to slow it down. Also I started not knowing anything about my family or pictures now it goes back to 1700 and and I know many cousins I wouldn’t have known otherwise and 1,000 of pictures. I am trying to leave something behind for my kids Grand kids and beond! ( Sorry about the spelling my word program is down that is what I use for spell check as I am disabled)

  3. Karen gordon

    Good evening. I never knew my great grandfather. He died before i was born. My great grandmother i knew alittle bit when i was a kid. I use to go visit her after school. I pick her some wildflowers and she would feed me her Portuguese soup she made. It was so good. I like to know more about them both.

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