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N

Letter N

If what you’re looking for on a headstone, or in a graveyard, or a cemetery begins with the letter N, you will find it here within the graveyard symbols A to Z.

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  • Nails are sometimes used to represent Christ’s suffering on the cross

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To view more of Amanda’s graveyard photography, please visit her AmandaNorman.com
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D headstone-meanings-and-symbols

Drapery in Cemeteries

Drapery in cemeteries and old churchyards is commonplace. You can see it draping headstones and urns, and it symbolises death, and mourning.

In the Victorian era, the urn became a popular symbol of death. It symbolises the return of the physical body to dust, while the soul is everlasting.

The urn’s history started in Pagan religions that carried out cremation. It wasn’t until the late 19th century that attitudes changed due to increasing populations and unhygienic burial conditions.

The ashes of the deceased where commonly collected and buried in an old, or roughly made cooking pot. As these civilizations grew the containers became more elaborate.

The Victorians love of ancient Greek and Roman style decoration is on show in many of their cemeteries and churchyards.

An urn with drapery found in the wonderful churchyard of St Cuthbert's
An urn with drapery found in the wonderful churchyard of St Cuthbert’s

Drapery

Below are some other points to consider in regards to deciphering the meaning of drapery in churchyards.

  • It can represent separation as the Temple in Jerusalem had a curtain separating the sacred area
  • Drapery seen on headstones usually depicts the veil between life and death. It can also represent the crossing of that plane and to others, it symbolises God’s protection until Resurrection
  • During the deceased’s journey from their home to their burial ground, a black cloth draped their coffin. This was the pall and is prior to the creation of hearses.

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D headstone-meanings-and-symbols M

Danse Macabre

The Danse Macabre or translated into English, the Dance of Death is a medieval allegory that reminded folk about memento mori.

Danse Macabre
Danse Macabre, anonymous woodcut in Guy Marchant editions, Paris, 1491 & 1492, London, British Museum

Danse Macabre

In Heidelberg’s university library, the world’s oldest woodcut shows it in all its glory. It dates to somewhere between 1455-1458.

It’s message is clear!

No matter our status in life, the dance of death unites us all. It depicts each rank in society, from the pope through to a child, walking with the dead into Hell.

I’ve included an extract of the text, Death to the Child: –

Crawl over here. You must learn to dance here.
Weep or laugh, I hear you just the same.
Even if you had the teats in your mouth
it wouldn’t help you in this hour.

Oh my dear mother.
A black man drags me away.
How can you leave me now?
Now I must dance and can’t yet walk.

Heidelberg’s Dance of Death 1455-1458

Sadly, at one time you could see a mural of it on a wall inside a charnel house within the Saints Innocents Cemetery in Paris. Demolition of the wall took place in 1669.

Last but not least, the Danse Macabre popularity grew when played out in the streets of Germany and Spain. Due to the Black Death, it’s message was clear.

Legend of the Three Living and the Three Dead

Finally, there is a legend of the three living and the three dead that is older than the Danse Macabre. It dates to the 13th century and survives due to its popularity in frescoes and murals.

Three young gentlemen on horses meet three cadavers who warn them of the following: –

What we were, you are;
what we are, you will be

Legend of the Three Living and the Three Dead
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D headstone-meanings-and-symbols M

Memento Mori

Memento Mori reminds us, the living that the best preparation for a good death, is to lead a good life. Only then will this ensure that we reach Heaven.

Memento Mori – Remember that YOU will die

Memento Mori was taken very seriously back in the 16th and 17th centuries. Today however, I believe that the message Memento Mori portrays, is just as significant, except for the Heaven bit.

Memento Mori skull and crossbones
Memento Mori skull and crossbones

The Puritan Belief

After doing some research, I discovered that The Puritans of the 16th and 17th century had strong religious views following the Reformation in England.

The Puritan belief was that only a select few could reach Heaven, with the remaining doomed to be born, live, die and then rot.

Back in the day, burial near the altar within a church was the preferred choice for a Puritan as Heaven was within reach. Unfortunately, churches were running out of space, hence the beginning of artistic expression on headstones within the churchyard.

By placing final reminders upon one’s headstone, this would ensure that others would follow in their path.

Mortality Symbols

The skull and crossbones is a common symbol of Memento Mori. Other common symbols include: –

  • Hourglass to show that time is fleeting
  • Wings to show an ascension to Heaven. Typically shown on skulls and hourglasses
  • Coffins and Sexton tools

Centuries ago with various plagues and diseases, death was always imminent. Thankfully modern advances in medicine and life expectancy have increased.

Winged skull with an hourglass and Sexton tools
Winged skull with an hourglass and Sexton tools

I do feel disappointed that the art of Memento Mori and its message isn’t popular. COVID is a reminder that life can be fleeting and that we should live life for today!

Why should we be afraid of death?

As a professional tarot reader, it was only the other day that a lady in her 80’s came to see me for a reading.

Sadly, she was experiencing depression as a result of watching her friends die as well as awaiting her own demise.

Of course, it must be very difficult and I have lots of empathy, but I advised her to LIVE LIFE FOR TODAY!

Live life for today!

The message of Memento Mori certainly lives on in me.

Unfortunately, conditioning of our beliefs begins in our childhood and never stops. We are led to believe that most of us won’t live beyond our 70’s, but many of us do.

It was only last year (2021) that there was a report of the oldest lady in the world dying at the age of 135. Ref: The Independent

Sadly, my client was simply waiting for the inevitable. She had full use of all of her senses and she wasn’t in a wheelchair. She did leave me with feelings of positivity.

Death is something that we cannot avoid and therefore we should remember to live our lives, Memento Vivere, as death may arrive within the next hour or day.

Memento Mori Headstones

Memento Mori Headstones in the 16th century usually displayed the following: –

  • Deceased’s name
  • Date of birth and date of death
  • Here lies the body of‘ placed before the name
  • An image of a skull with or without crossbones

The vision of the skull and the word ‘body’ summed up the expression that we are born to live, die and rot.

Skull and Crossbones
A skull and crossbones

Cadaver Stones and Memento Mori

Cadaver stones, a choice of the wealthiest in society in the 14th to 15th centuries, depict a rotting corpse in a funeral shroud. Often they show plenty of creatures eating the flesh. These stones are some of the earliest depictions of Memento Mori.

No matter how much wealth a person had or what their status was in life, we are all equal in death. Latin phrases like Memento Mori (remember that you will die) and Memento Vivere (Remember to live) became popular around the same period of time.

  • A coffin symbol on a gravestone symbolises death
  • Seeing a clock dial on a headstone is also new to me, yet it’s quite common in the graveyards of Cornwall that I visited. A clock dial can represent a passage of time, and in some cases if it has hands it can show the time of death.

Death Heads

During the 17th century, the Puritans were losing their grip on society and attitudes were changing. People now believed in the possibility that there was life after death, and the possibility that one could reach Heaven.

With this changing attitude, imagery on the headstones began to soften. You can read more about death heads here.

Finally, the gruesome imagery of Memento Mori has now softened thanks to The Victorian’s. Their use of urns and flowers have unfortunately, replaced the art I love to see.

The changing fashion of death heads
The changing fashion of death heads
  • The hourglass seen on headstones symbolises that time is passing rapidly and we are one hour closer to our death. If the hourglass depicted on a headstone is on its side, it usually represents that the deceased had their life cut short unexpectedly
  • A scythe or sickle on a gravestone, commonly associated with the Grim Reaper is a symbol of death because of its use to cut down the harvest (reap). We also see the mention of a scythe in the bible, revelation 14

And another angel came out from the altar, which had power over fire; and cried with a loud cry to him that had the sharp sickle, saying, Thrust in thy sharp sickle, and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth; for her grapes are fully ripe.

King James Bible
  • A sexton looks after a church or graveyard, and is typically a grave digger. We often see his tools such as a spade or a turf cutter, together with a ribbon, carved on a headstone
  • Skulls and skeletons represent death and we see them together with the following phrases: –

Memento Mori – Remember you will die
Memento Vivere – Remember to live
Vive Memor Leti – Live remembering death
Fugit Hora – Time Flies

  • Torches on a headstone sometimes look similar to a candlestick and shouldn’t be confused. If a torch is seen lit, or upright, it represents life. If inverted a torch denotes the passing of the soul to the afterlife

Winged Skull on Headstones

  • Feathers or wings on a headstone usually depict the ascent to Heaven.

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M

Letter M

If what you’re looking for on a headstone, or in a graveyard, or a cemetery begins with the letter M, you will find it here within the graveyard symbols A to Z.

Marigold in Victorian symbology it represents grief
Masks are the sign of a theatrical person as in the comedy and tragedy masks
Memento Mori is Latin for Remember Death. The phrase is usually accompanied by a skull or a skeleton. It is there to remind passers by that they will eventually die.

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headstone-meanings-and-symbols L

Lily on a Headstone

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Firstly, the connection of flowers with death goes back to the dawn of history, and it is quite common these days to find a Lily on a headstone.

In ancient Egypt and during the Roman Era, Lilies were often associated with death and funerals.

Commonly for the Victorian’s, the recently deceased would rest in their home prior to their funeral taking place. The use of flowers surrounding the body served to not only mask the sadness, but also the smell of the body. The lily deserves special prominence as it has a strong fragrance and was a favourite symbol of the Victorians.

Last but not least, their are varying species of lilies, each with their have different symbolic meaning. To decipher the true meaning of a lily on a headstone, you have to look at the other symbols surrounding it.

Lily on a headstone representing Majesty

  • Juno, Queen of Heaven was a Roman mother-goddess protecting childbirth, marriage and women in general.
  • Solomon’s temple – 1 Kings 7:19 – The capitals which were on the top of the pillars in the porch were of lily design, four cubits
  • Luke 12:29 – Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these

Lily of the Valley

In Victorian symbology a lily of the valley represents the ‘return of happiness’. This lily has a look of bluebells and is not to be confused with other lilies. It is also known as the Ladder to Heaven.

Lily representing Purity and Immortality

There’s an old legend about Jove desiring to make the baby Hercules immortal. Whilst Hera, Queen of Heaven was asleep under the influence of a sleeping drug prepared by Somnus, Jove placed the baby to Hera’s breast in order to take the milk that would ensure his immortality. Hercules drew the milk too quickly and some drops fell to Earth, and the white lily was born symbolising purity.

White lilies are also associated with funerals as they represent the soul returning to innocence after death

Lily on a headstone representing Virginity

The white lily also symbolises the Virgin’s purity and is often associated in the Catholic church with the Virgin Mary

Lily representing Resurrection

Finally, the Easter Lily represents new life and hope.

Their white colour represents purity and trumpet shaped bloom corresponds to Gabriel’s trumpet on the Day of Judgement

Varieties of Lily

  • Calla Lily
  • Easter Lily
  • Imperial Lily
  • Lily of the Valley
  • Water Lily

Bibliography:
Flora symbolica; or, The language and sentiment of flowers by Ingram, John H., 1869

Amanda Norman Photography
To view more of Amanda’s graveyard photography, please visit her AmandaNorman.com
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K

Letter K

If what you’re looking for on a headstone, or in a graveyard, or a cemetery begins with the letter k, you will find it here within the graveyard symbols A to Z

  • Key represent a knowledge of the scriptures as they are a key to Heaven. Also Saint Peter is usually represented with the keys to Heaven

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To view more of Amanda’s graveyard photography, please visit her AmandaNorman.com
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J

Letter J

If what you’re looking for on a headstone, or in a graveyard, or a cemetery begins with the letter J, you will find it here within the graveyard symbols A to Z

  • Jasmine in Victorian symbology it represented amiability
  • Judgement Day is usually symbolised by trumpeting angels often holding the book of life or palm branches. See also Biblical Scenes

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Amanda Norman Photography
To view more of Amanda’s graveyard photography, please visit her AmandaNorman.com
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I

Letter I

If what you’re looking for on a headstone, or in a graveyard, or a cemetery begins with the letter I, you will find it here within the graveyard symbols A to Z

  • IHS (sometimes IHC) is a monogram or a symbol representing the Greek contraction of Jesus: Sometimes regarded as an abbreviation of the Latin phrase meaning Jesus, Savior Of Men, or In Hoe Signo vinces
  • 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 represents immortality, and the eternal soul. In Victorian symbology it represents friendship and memory

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Amanda Norman Photography
To view more of Amanda’s graveyard photography, please visit her AmandaNorman.com
Categories
H

Letter H

If what you’re looking for on a headstone, or in a graveyard, or a cemetery begins with the letter H, you will find it here within the graveyard symbols A to Z

A B C D E F G H I J K L M N O P Q R S T U V W X Y Z

  • Hands on gravestones frequently appear and convey a variety of meanings
    • Hand pointing up indicates gone to heaven
    • Hand pointing down indicates the Hand of God. Sometimes represent a sudden death
    • Clasped hands on a headstone can symbolise the deceased being guided to heaven
    • Handshake is a farewell from earthly life and welcome to God’s kingdom
    • Hands praying symbolises religious devotion
    • Hands reaching either God, or if reaching down for the deceased, or the soul reaching upwards, or both
    • Cupped hands represents an offering to God
  • Harp in the Bible is linked with praise to God. It can also show a musical talent of the deceased or Irish heritage.

Praise the LORD with harp: sing unto him with the psaltery and an instrument of ten strings

Pss 33:2.

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Here at Headstone Symbols, we are building a complete reference guide to provide you with a complete A-Z.

Amanda Norman Photography
To view more of Amanda’s graveyard photography, please visit her AmandaNorman.com
  • Hawthorn in Victorian symbology represents hope. It’s May blossom is also linked with rebirth.
  • 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 represents devoted attachment
  • Horses have been associated with power and vitality since the earliest times. They can also represent the long journey to heaven. Shown on a headstone it could also represent that the family owned racehorses, or another trade associated with horses such as a farmer or blacksmith. In medieval times a horse with rider was used to show the dual nature of Jesus. Together they were one entity, but the horse represents the human aspect of Jesus, and the rider His divine nature
  • Hourglass represents time draining away, or winged ‘time flies
  • HTWSSTKS is a Masonic abbreviation of ‘Hiram The Widow’s Son Sent To King Solomon’. It is part of the third degree ceremony so shows that the grave is of a mason at least at this level.