Stories Told in Stone

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