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’
Explore more than just the letter H
Here at Headstone Symbols, we are building a complete reference guide to provide you with a complete A-Z.
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.
If what you’re looking for on a headstone, or in a graveyard, or a cemetery begins with the letter F, you will find it here within the graveyard symbols A to Z
Graveyard symbols beginning with the letter 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
Cherubs represent innocence and are usually on children’s graves
Chrisma is a cross formed by the Greek letters chi and rho. see XP
Circles represent eternity. See also snake swallowing tail
Clocks or a clock dial is a mortality symbol meaning the passage of time
Clover seen on a headstone can represent the trinity like the shamrock. Occasionally the lucky 4 four leaf clover is seen. In Victorian symbology it represents ‘promise’.
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. The first mention in the bible of a grave marker is a pillar in Genesis 35:20
Cornucopia is a horn filled with fruit. It shows thankfulness to God
Crook upside down may represent a shepherd, upwards a priest. Otherwise see Lamb
Explore more than the letter C in Graveyard Symbols
Dart is a symbol of death and is sometimes seen carried by skeletons, or piercing the deceased’s flesh
A dart can indicate death
Arrows and spears can also appear on headstones to represent death, and not how a person died
They are also used in egg and dart reliefs around the edges of monuments and headstones, representing life and death.
And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire: And he had in his hand a little book open: and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth
Firstly, allow me to take you on a wonderful journey of showcasing to you, the changing fashion of the churchyard death head.
I love visiting old graveyards and searching for stories of the dead. The older the headstone, the more thrilled I am. During my search however, I have come across these fascinating death heads that mostly have a skull or a cherub’s face. You will find them more commonly on headstones dating from the 16th to 17th centuries. Edinburgh and Northumberland to date, are two of my most favourite places to see them.
These death heads are more than a nice, or probably not so nice carving on a headstone. Interestingly, this depends on your view of them. I adore them!
They are a warning to us all that we cannot avoid death, and that no matter what our status is in life, we are all the same in death.
Secondly, another common interpretation of death heads and other mortality symbols, is to inform us to LIVE LIFE FOR TODAY!
Of course, this message is still strong today.
Thirdly, not all death heads are depicted with two crossed femurs (known as the crossbones). Sometimes you may see one femur, or you may see a skull gnawing on a femur of which, I have yet to find. The earliest example of a death head that I have found to date, is a simple circle as pictured above.
The skull itself represents death and is influenced by the ossuary’s or charnel houses of the early centuries.
An ossuary is a building that contains lots of skulls and bones, and was used when burial space was scarce. Back then, someone had the job to retrieve skeletal remains once the body had decomposed.
Importantly, fashion and religious beliefs dictated such imagery and largely depended on the craftsmanship of the local stonemason. Sources of reference included wood carvings, architectural motifs, plaster work, and books including the Bible.
The changing fashion of a churchyard death head
Since the reformation in the 16th century, few headstones now exist, which I feel is a real shame.
As I previously mentioned, the look of a cemetery death head was highly influenced by fashion, religious beliefs, and attitudes of the times. Obviously, my taste in fashion isn’t popular.
During the 16th and 17th centuries you had a choice of the following: –
A winged skull
Skull and crossbones
A cherub’s head with wings
Interestingly, wings represent the ascension of the soul into Heaven, or regeneration of the soul. Consequently, I have found more cherub’s faces with wings than skulls. Edinburgh has some amazing winged skulls to see.
On a side note though, In Ireland, County Meath, there are some beautiful stone sarcophagi that you must see. These feature rare examples of cadavers from the 14th and 15th centuries and can be found in Stamullen, and Drogheda.
Green Man Death Head
In Scotland’s, Greyfriars Kirkyard, you will find a wonderful cemetery death head resembling the Green Man. Following research from the British Association for Local History, I read that the Green Man when used as a death head, is seen as a dual emblem. It’s hideous face may represent sinful flesh that decays and the sprouting greenery represents the resurrection.
Winged Head and the Soul Effigy
With the introduction of the Regency period, we can clearly see the skull and crossbones fall out of fashion. This results in the image of a cherub that represents our soul becoming more common. Interestingly, in America, they call it a soul effigy.
In addition, the winged cherub relays an important message. Those who find grace, may win Heaven.
In England, the cherub’s face is similar to the face of a Renaissance putti, which is child like. [Ref: BAHL]
If you look closely at the image below, you will see that the feathers have been replaced with foliage.
Indeed, this is one of my favourite images. I simply adore their two faces and I do wonder what story they tell. Without a shadow of a doubt, this image has a neoclassical feel to it.
The Neoclassical period in Europe for visual arts began c. 1760 and was influenced by the arts of Rome and Ancient Greece. This period also coincided with the 18th century, Age of Enlightenment, which was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe. Many art students ventured on a grand tour of Europe and returned home from Italy with newly discovered Greco-Roman ideals.
Last but not least, we arrive in the Victorian era, which was the period of Queen Victoria’s reign starting in 1837, and lasting till her death in 1901.
Allow me to take you back to a time prior to Victorian cemeteries and their magnificent splendour.
Taking a walk in, or past your local churchyard is not a pleasant experience. I’m taking you back to a time of disease, plagues and poor sanitary conditions. Consequently, our life expectancy isn’t long and unfortunately, your local churchyard is bursting at the seams with rotting corpses. Imagine the putrid scent in the air and the horrific sight before you?
Thankfully, the answer came in the form of Victorian cemeteries.
From 1800 onwards, numerous companies built dedicated gardens to dispose of the dead away from our cities. Moreover, these new gardens became places of beauty where the Victorians liked to take a walk as well as enjoy a picnic. In addition, they created a whole new language of funerary art, which subsequently resulted in the death head falling out of fashion.
In particular, flowers and draped urns, along with various animals are common place for the Victorian dead. Today, and at a glance, you can certainly tell a persons status in life simply by looking at the grandeur of their final resting place.
Places I recommend visiting
To end with, I recommend that you visit Edinburgh so that you can come face to face with its death heads. As I write this now, I have a strong urge to simply book myself a ticket and hotel so that I can go exploring. I feel Edinburgh’s calling.
Therefore and finally, it’s time for you to grab your camera and visit your local cemetery, or churchyard.
What story can you uncover about some of your local inhabitants?