Strange Cemetery Symbolism: What Does It All Mean?

People have been burying their dead in graveyards for thousands of years, and cemetery symbolism has evolved quite a bit since those early, simple, rock-covered graves. To most people, cemeteries are simply places where the dead are buried. However, if you wander through a cemetery, you'll come across some interesting details, especially if you read the headstones. Most have things like names, dates, and descriptions like "mother" or "father," but others have engraved and attached symbols. All of those images have a purpose - they aren't there just because they look pretty. The symbols used in graveyards changed throughout the centuries, leaving behind some strange carvings that once held plenty of meaning. Here are some of the meanings behind symbols in cemeteries that you might come across as you wander local graveyards.

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  • Death's Head Is A Reminder Of Mortality

    The death's head symbol appears on tombstones from the 17th century on up to modern times. The Puritans started using it to represent their own mortality, and as reminder that their dead loved ones were going to heaven. This is particularly important as small, churchyard cemeteries filled up and new ones, outside of the bounds of the church, were used. A sign of religious purity (hence the name Puritans) needed to go on their gravestones, so the death's head became their symbol of choice.

  • An Urn With Crepe Is A Symbol Of Mourning And The Loss Of An Elder

    While urns with crepe , a kind of cloth that was popularly used in the 19th century for mourning clothing, are not usually engraved on gravestones, they can be found attached to them. People started using this symbol during the Victorian Era to mark the graves of their elders, and to symbolize the act of mourning itself. Urns date back thousands of years, and were commonly used to hold the remains of the dead, even when they weren't cremated. The cloth was added on in the 19th century, when the passing of Prince Albert plunged Queen Victoria into deep mourning, starting off the mourning practices that lasted until the beginning of the 20th century.

  • A Cross With Three Horizontal Lines Means Orthodox Christianity

    The Russian Orthodox Cross has been around for thousands of years. If you see it on a headstone, it means the person or people buried there practiced this form of Christianity - for example, late actress Natalie Wood, whose headstone at Pierce Brothers Westwood Memorial Park in Los Angeles features the symbol.

    Each of the three bars on this cross has a specific meaning. The short top bar stands for the mocking sign that, according to the Orthodox Bible, Pilate ordered hung over Christ's head. The longer center bar, which resembles that on a traditional cross, is for Christ's arms, while the angled bar at the bottom is for his feet.

  • Morning Glories Symbolize Resurrection

    Morning glories play an important part in many ancient mythologies and traditions. For example, in Hawaii, their vines are believed to have been used as swings that transport the dead to the underworld. However, when you see a morning glory on a standard gravestone, it is a sign of resurrection. These flowers gained popularity as a symbol during the Victorian Era, and, since the living flowers bloom in the morning and fade away in the evening (hence the name "morning glory"), they perfectly fit the idea of souls returning after death.

  • A Hand With A Finger Pointed Up Means The Deceased Is Going To Heaven

    A Hand With A Finger Pointed Up Means The Deceased Is Going To Heaven
    Photo: Amanda Sedlak-Hevener

    Hands play an important role in gravestone symbolism. The hand itself represents leaving life behind, and the finger pointing upwards is a sign that the person buried below has ascended to heaven. If two fingers are shown pointing upwards, the deceased is a clergyman; the extra finger reinforces his chances of making it to heaven. Hands have appeared on graves since the times of Ancient Egyptians, but this particular form became popular during the 19th century.

  • Treestones Mean Nature, Death, And Family

    Trees play an important part in many religions. For example, in Christianity, they represent the tree of life. A treestone, as seen above, is a stone version of a tree trunk. Some of them have special carvings added on, but the basic treestone could be bought from the Sears and Roebuck catalog during the early 20th century. The treestone itself means nature, death (since the tree has no leaves), and family, as the number of branches usually indicates the number of family members buried nearby.