Headstone Symbols is a website for those who have wondered what the symbols on headstones and tombstones mean. Not only does it contain an alphabetical list of symbols found on gravestones, it contains information and stories on how to decipher the true meaning of headstones that contain many symbols.
Headstone symbols is a work in progress and will be updated on a regular basis. Our aim is to provide you with a definitive guide to deciphering the symbols of headstones with in-depth information and beautiful graveyard photography. We also encourage contributions from you to help grow this resource. To find out more about and to contact Amanda Norman and Mark Kneale, please go to About Us.
Gravestone Symbols and Meanings A – Z
A lot of churchyards, graveyards and Victorian cemeteries have a story to tell you about the dead buried in these beautiful gardens of death. The symbols carved onto the tombstones, mausoleums, tombs and gravestones of medieval and Victorian dead, represent the deceased’s life journey, beliefs and occupations. Some cemetery monuments go that one step further and have elaborate symbolism, also known as funerary art that will unlock the secret lives of those buried beneath.
The list below is a collection of headstone symbols commonly found in numerous churchyards, graveyards and cemeteries across the UK. A brief interpretation of the tombstone symbol is offered, but when trying to decipher the true meaning of a headstone, you have to look at all of the symbols together in order to work it out.
Headstone Symbols A
- Acacia Bush is usually connected with the burning bush in the Bible, and so represents immortality. In flower symbology it represents friendship. See Flowers
- Acanthus Leaf is a common motif seen the edges of a headstone. It symbolises the immortality of the soul but can also indicate suffering
- Acorns on a headstone symbolises the power of spiritual growth from a kernel of truth and also potential strength as it has the ability to grow into a mighty oak
- Agnus Dei is Latin for ‘Lamb of God’ and is emblematic of Christ. It is usually represented by the figure of a lamb bearing a cross or banner
- Alpha (α) and Omega (Ω) From Revelation 22:13, ‘I am the Alpha and the Omega, the First and the Last, the Beginning and the End.’
- Amaranth in Victorian symbology it represented immortality
- Anchor symbolises hope and steadfastness to the Christian faith. It can also signify that the person was a sailor
- Anemone in mythology were formed when Aphrodite’s tears fell on Adonis’ grave, so they can indicate forsaken love or death of a loved one
- Angels praying in cemeteries often indications religious devotions
- Angel pointing towards Heaven with outstretched wings usually represent escorting the soul to Heaven
- Angel that points downwards usually represents sudden departure or an untimely death
- Angel weeping signifies grief over an untimely death
- Angel blowing a trumpet on a headstone signifies the Day of Judgement
- See also Cherubs
- See also Putto
- Ankh was a sacred symbol in ancient Egypt and seen as the key to eternal life. See also Flaybrick Hill Egyptian Tomb
- Arch represents the entrance to heaven
- Arrow is a general symbol of death and not the cause of death. It can be seen in a hand, carried by Death or piercing a body part
- Asphodel In Victorian symbology it represented ‘I will be faithful’
Headstone Symbols B
- Bay leaf – In Victorian symbology it represented fame. Also see Laurel and plants and flowers
- Bells were traditionally rung in churches for the dead. The Death Knell was rung to signify when someone had passed and hand bells used in funeral processions. For Whom the Bell Tolls
- Birds can represent meanings associated with the species. See Dove, Pelican
- Book on a headstone usually symbolises the Book of Life, but can mean the Bible, learning and faith
- Bones on a tombstone remind the viewer of what will become of them. See Memento Mori
- Broom (flower) In Victorian symbology it represented humility
- Bull if winged represents Luke the Evangelist
- Bulrush can represent salvation, as the baby Moses was saved after being found in the Nile rushes
- Buttercup on a headstone represents ‘childhood memories‘ in Victorian symbology.
- Butterfly represents resurrection as butterflies die each autumn and reappear in the spring
Headstone Symbols C
- Cadaver Stones are Memento Mori symbols to remind us of what will become, so live life for today
- Candles mark our allotted time on earth. See Flames
- Celtic Cross is a cross surrounded by a circle representing eternity or heaven and earth connected
- Cemetery Angels – see Angels
- Chalice or Goblet contains the blood of Christ and represents the forgiveness of sin by his death on the cross
- Cherubs represent innocence and are usually on children’s graves
- Circles represent eternity. See also snake swallowing tail
- Clover seen on a headstone can represent the trinity like the shamrock. In Victorian symbology it represented ‘promise’. See Flowers
- Coffin is a mortality symbol, often seen with the Sexton’s tools
- Column represents a persons life. A broken column indicates a life cut short. A wreath over the column is victory over death
- Cornucopia is a horn filled with fruit. It shows thankfulness to God. See also fruit
- Crook see Lamb
- Cross represents christian faith, but different crosses can also have different meanings, see Celtic Cross, Eastern Cross, Quatrefoil cross
- Crown on a headstone represents the Crown of Life
- Cup see Chalice
- Cypress trees in Victorian symbology represented death and morning
Headstone Symbols D
- Daffodil on a headstone – in Victorian symbology it represented unrequited love
- Daisy In Victorian symbology it represented innocence, and so are sometimes on children’s graves. See also Flowers
- Dandelions were used in the renaissance as a symbol of the Passion of Christ
- Darts are symbols of death and are sometimes seem carried by skeletons or piercing the deceased’s flesh
- Death Head see Memento Mori
- Disce Mori Latin for ‘Learn that you die’
- Dove has several meanings. Flying down represents the Holy Spirit. Flying up represents the Soul’s journey to Heaven. In profile or with an olive branch represents peace
- Drapery seen on headstones and urns signifies death and mourning. It can represent separation as the Temple in Jerusalem had a curtain separating the sacred area
Headstone Symbols E
- Eagle can represent the U.S.A. and will usually have the motto ‘E Pluribus Unum’. it is also the symbol of John the Evangelist
- Eastern Cross see Orthodox cross
- Egg and Dart is sometimes used in borders. it loos like eggs in cups separated by a vertical line. It symbolises life and death
- Evening Primrose In Victorian symbology they represented silent love
Headstone Symbols F
- Father Time is a figure holding a scythe and/or an hourglass, waiting patiently for a life to end.
- Fern leaves on headstones – In Victorian symbology represented solitude due to them living in the middle of forests. Also see plants and flowers.
- Flames are concerned with the life spirit. Extinguished candles and torches indicate death
- Flowers conveyed secret codes in Victorian times. Each plant or flower represents something of the deceased.
- Fruit can represent faith in God and also the fruits of the holy spirit from Galatians 5:22+23 ′ But the fruit of the Spirit is love, joy, peace, long suffering, gentleness, goodness, faith, meekness, temperance’. Also see plants and flowers.
- Fugit Hora is Latin for ‘Hours are Fleeting’ or ‘Time Flies’. Usually accompanied by an hourglass on a headstone
Headstone Symbols G
- Gates are symbolic of heaven
- Glass Domes or Immortelles placed on graves as a permanent memorial of the persons life
- Green Men usually adorn churches, but can appear on grave stones. Usually represents new life and life everlasting
- Grapes seen on a headstone are linked to the blood of Christ as they are used to make wine. Also see plants and flowers.
- Grim Reaper seen on a gravestone is the personification of Death. It is usually confused with the far older myth of Father Time
Headstone Symbols H
- Hands on gravestones frequently appear and convey a variety of meanings
- Hand pointing up indicate gone to heaven
- Hand pointing down Hand of God. Sometimes represent a sudden death
- Clasped hands being guided to heaven
- Handshake is a farewell from earthly life and welcome to God’s kingdom
- Hands Praying in religion devotion
- Hands reaching either God reaching down for the deceased or the soul reaching upwards or both
- Cupped hands represent an offering to God
- Harp in the Bible is linked with praise to God, ‘Praise the LORD with harp: sing unto him with the psaltery and an instrument of ten strings’ Pss 33:2. It can also show a musical talent of the deceased or Irish heritage.
- Hawthorn In Victorian symbology represented hope. It’s May blossom is also linked with rebirth. Also see plants and flowers.
- Heart can represent love, the sacred heart or love of God. An inverted heart or one being pierced represents death
- Heliotrope In Victorian symbology it represented ‘devoted attachment‘
- Horses have been associated with power and vitality since the earliest times. Shown on a headstone it could represent that the family owned racehorses. It can also be a symbol of a farmer if associated with other tools of the trade. In medieval times a horse with rider was used to show the dual nature of Jesus. Together they were one entity, but the horse represented the human aspect of Jesus and the rider His divine nature
- Hourglass represents time draining away, or winged ‘time flies’
Headstone Symbols I
- IHS (sometimes IHC) is a monogram or symbol representing the Greek contraction of “Jesus”: Sometimes regarded as an abbreviation of the Latin phrase meaning “Jesus, Savior Of Men”
- INRI is often seen on a banner of a Latin Cross: “Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum”. Latin for Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews
- Ivy on a headstone is associated with grapes and the two are often found together. As it is evergreen and is frequently found clinging to dead trees it represented immortality and the eternal soul. In Victorian symbology it represented friendship
Headstone Symbols J
- Jasmine In Victorian symbology it represented amiability
- Judgement Day is usually symbolised by trumpeting angels often holding the book of life or palm branches
Headstone Symbols K
- Key represent a knowledge of the scriptures as they are a key to heaven. Also Saint Peter as usually represented with the keys to Heaven
Headstone Symbols L
- Ladder Jacob’s ladder that leads to heaven
- Lambs are representations of Christ, ‘The Lamb of God’.
- Lamps represent the light of truth or Christ
- Laurel In Victorian symbology it represented glory. Laurel wreaths are usually made from Bay trees. Also see plants and flowers.
- Laus Deo is a latin phrase for ‘Praise be to God’
- Lily of the Valley In Victorian symbology it represented ‘return of happiness’ as taken from Eve’s expulsion from the Garden of Eden, her tears turned into lilies of the valley. Also see plants and flowers.
- Lion can represent power or a family crest. A winged lion represents Mark the Evangelist
- Lyra see harp
Headstone Symbols M
- Marigold In Victorian symbology it represented grief. Also see plants and flowers.
- Masks are the sign of a theatrical person as in the comedy and tragedy masks
- Memento Mori is Latin for ‘Remember Death’. Usually accompanied by a skull or skeleton. It is there to remind passers by that they will eventually die
- Masonic Symbols are numerous and a subject in themselves. See Deciphering a Masonic Grave
- Moon Often on masonic graves
- Moss In Victorian symbology it represented maternal love. Also see plants and flowers.
- Myrtle In Victorian symbology it represented love
Headstone Symbols N
- Nails are sometimes used to represent Christ’s suffering on the cross
Headstone Symbols O
- Oak seen on a headstone – In Victorian symbology it represented hospitality
- Orange blossom In Victorian symbology it represented chastity. Also see plants and flowers.
- Orthodox cross has three bars, the bottom one slanted
- Ouroboros see Snake swallowing tail
- Owl represented knowledge in ancient times. In Christianity it can show meditation due to it remaining motionless during the day or Christ, as it is all seeing
Headstone Symbols P
- Palm Tree or Frond has traditionally been a symbol of victory. In the bible it was used to symbolise Jesus’ triumphant return to Jerusalem and on the Temple of Solomon. On headstones it represents the victory of the spirit over the flesh. Also see plants and flowers.
- Pansy In Victorian symbology it represented thoughts. Also see plants and flowers.
- Passion flower In Victorian symbology it represented faith. It is identified by its 10 petals and nails in the center. Also see plants and flowers.
- Peacock represents immortality as it was believed that its flesh did not decay after death
- Pelican There is an ancient legend that in times of famine, pelicans feed their young with their own blood. This was adopted by early Christians as a symbol of Christ’s sacrifice to humanity. As most stonemason’s did not know what a pelican looked like, they can resemble swans
- Peony is a represented as a rose but without thorns on its stem. It is used to represent Mary
- Pentagram is often identified of as an occult symbol, but is also used in most world religions and organisations to represent five elements. It can represents the first 5 books of the bible, the 5 wounds of Christ or the Masonic five points of friendship
- Periwinkle In Victorian symbology it represented ‘tender recollections’
- Phoenix is often represented by a bird above flames. It symbolises rebirth
- Pomegranate is often recognised on a headstone by a fruit split showing many sections. It has been used as a Christian symbol for hundreds of years, but the symbology is not known. It can represent the blood of Christ, the many seeds represent the many followers of one faith community. Also see plants and flowers.
- Poppy In Victorian symbology it represented consolation. Also see plants and flowers.
- Primrose In Victorian symbology it represented youth. Also see plants and flowers.
- Putto or Putti are smiling and joyful cherubs and are associated with death since the Renascence
Headstone Symbols Q
- Quatrefoil crosses are made up of 4 circles that partly overlap to form a cross. they symbolise the 4 apostles. These usually contain IHS or an Agnus Dei
Headstone Symbols R
- Ram see Lamb on Headstone
- Raven are often used to represent solitude. They can also show God’s providence as Elijah was fed by ravens in the wilderness (1 Kings 17:4)
- RIP is an abbreviation of the Latin ‘requiescat in pace’ or (in English) Rest In Peace
- Rocks usually at the base of the grave marker represent the ‘Rock of Faith’, or St. Peter, the rock that Jesus built his church on
- Rose can mean many things dependent on its colour, so on headstones it may mean beauty, purity, young love or death in youth. Roses and lilies intertwined represent the frailty of mortality. See also Peony
- Rosemary In Victorian symbology it represented remembrance. Also see plants and flowers.
Headstone Symbols S
- Scales represent Judgement, but also can appear on a merchant’s grave or a Libran’s
- Scythe seen on a gravestone is a sexton’s tool, symbol of Death or Father Time, or a farmer
- Set Square and Compasses are well known Masonic symbols, but could also indicate the tools of a stonemason. A page will be devoted to Masonic Symbols as they can be baffling to the casual gravestone reader
- Serpent see snake
- Sexton’s tools usually spade, pick, turf cutter and mattock. Symbols of mortality
- Shamrock represents the Holy Trinity or Ireland. Also see plants and flowers.
- Sheep see Lamb on Headstone
- Shells, Scallop are a symbol of the spiritual journey in life and may indicate someone who had come back to Christianity. As the Scallop is also a sign of St. James it can also represent Spain, where he is Patron Saint
- Ship usually represents a mariner
- Skeletons are a reminder of death and its permanence. See Memento Mori Symbols
- Skull and Crossbones are a reminder of death and its permanence. See Memento Mori Symbols
- Sleeping Child is sometimes found in cemeteries to show the death of a child
- Snake represents life and death
- Snake swallowing tail or ouroboros is an ancient symbol for eternity and the cycle of life and death
- Snowdrop In Victorian symbology it represented hope. Also see plants and flowers.
- Sphinx are found on Victorian monuments when it was fashionable to have symbols of ancient Egypt on tombs. It also shows someone who had visited the area on the Grand Tour
- Staff denotes divine protection ‘I will fear no evil: for thou art with me; thy rod and thy staff they comfort me’ Pss 23. If it is entwined by 2 snakes it shows a doctor or medical professional
- Stars have may meanings and the rest of the headstone may give clues. These are most common on Masonic graves
- A single star may represent Jesus
- Five pointed see pentagram.
- Six pointed is the Star of David and also shows the 6 attributes of God ‘power, wisdom, majesty, love, mercy and justice’.
- 7 points may represent the gift of the spirit in Isaiah 11:2 or angels in Revelation 1:20
- 8 can show the fruits of the holy spirit in Epistle to the Galatians. See Fruit
- 12 can show the apostles or the zodiac
- Sunflower in their youth follow the sun, but when mature they face the East. They represent Christianity in Catholicism. In Victorian symbology it represented consistence. Also see plants and flowers.
- Swan see Pelican
- Swastika is an ancient symbol of well-being, so sometimes appears as a motif on headstones
Headstone Symbols T
- Tempus Erat is the Latin phrase meaning ‘Time Has Run Out’ or ‘Time Is Gone’
- Three’s can represent the Holy Trinity or Faith, Hope and Charity
- Tools are either sexton stools or tools of a trade. A further page will be devoted to these in the future
- Torch seen on a headstone represents life. Burning it represents eternal life, inverted or extinguished symbolises death. Entwined by a snake indicates health
- Tree Generic tree’s can represent the tree of life or living life in Gods will (Pss 1:3), while identifiable species have their own meanings. See Palm, Weeping Willow
- Tree Trunk is often realistically carved as a grave marking. A broken trunk denoting a life cut short
- Trumpet is usually carried by an angel representing Judgement Day
- Tulip In Victorian symbology it represented ‘declaration of love’. Also see plants and flowers.
Headstone Symbols U
- Urn represents death. They are abundant in Victorian cemeteries, even though cremations were rare in this era. The tradition is thought to relate to the Roman practice of keeping ashes in urns. Coverings to urns can give additional information
Headstone Symbols V
- Vine represents Christ and his followers. Also see plants and flowers.
Headstone Symbols W
- Weeping Willow has long been associated with mourning
- Wheat usually indicates a long life. Also see plants and flowers.
- Winged circle represents the Egyptian god Horus are is for protection
- Winged skull is a Memento Mori symbol representing the ascension into Heaven
- Woodbine In Victorian symbology it represented paternal love
- Wreath indicates victory over death. Also see plants and flowers.
Headstone Symbols X
- XP, often overlapped, represent ‘Chi Rho’ the first two letters of the word ‘Christ’ in Greek
Headstone Symbols Y
- Yew tree represents immortality as it is an evergreen tree and can live for thousands of years. In Victorian symbology it represented sorrow
Headstone Symbols Z
- Zodiac symbols are a surprising image on a Christian headstone. Interest in astrology increased in the Victorian era when the boundaries of science and spirituality blurred with new discoveries and theories. Older examples of groups of 12 symbols can be sometimes found on medieval churches
A Taphophile’s Reference
Headstone tourist (otherwise known as a “cemetery enthusiast”, cemetery tourists, “grave hunter”, “graver”, or “taphophile”) describes an individual who has a passion for and enjoyment of cemeteries, epitaphs, gravestone rubbing, photography, art, and history of (famous) deaths.
This perfectly describes Amanda Norman and Mark Kneale who have worked together to compile this every growing list. Below are some of the books they have purchased and used for reference and highly recommend to any taphophile interested in learning more.
- Understanding Scottish Graveyards - Betty Willsher
- Scottish Epitaphs (Epitaphs and images from Scottish graveyards) – Betty Willsher
- Stones 18th Century Scottish Gravestones – Betty Willsher and Doreen Hunter
- A Scottish Graveyard Miscellany (Exploring the folk art of Scotland’s gravestones) – Hamish Brown
- Stories in Stone (A field guide to cemetery symbolism and iconography) – Douglas Keister
- 31 London Cemeteries: To Visit Before You Die