Much has been written about headstone iconography. All the symbolism present in cemeteries would take many books to catalog. Yet it’s one of the first things I look for when I visit. Let’s explore some of the iconographic images I’ve seen.
I love this angel. It is handcarved into this stone.
When you see a lamb, it’s usually a small child’s grave. The lamb is a Christian symbol for a child.
The wreath is symbolic of victory over death. It comes from the fascination with Greek (as evidenced in the architecture of the stone). The Greeks awarded a laurel wreath to the winner of the race. 2 Timothy 4 in the Bible compares Christian death with the winning of race. Hence the symbolic comparison.
This stone contains a sword, captain’s sash and wreath tied with ribbon and adorned with leaves. This symbols represents a military veteran (sash and sword) and a Christian (wreath and leaves). Captains in the Confederate Army during the War of Northern Aggression wore sashes.
A cross (Christian symbol of salvation), a wreath and lilies all symbolize the victory over death for Christian believers. Lilies can also symbolize innocence and purity.
Two cherubs lean against a Greek styled altar with a large urn. An urn is always symbolic of the soul. ECJ in this case are the deceased initials. At other times, you may see the initials for organizations such as Knights of Columbus.
The weeping willow is symbolic of mourning in death. Notice that in this icon, there are two other graves underneath the tree. This could be symbolic of two loved ones previously passed, but I don’t know for sure. This would be a great example of a personal icon that meant something to the person who designed the stone and to the deceased.
This is a second example of a weeping willow, symbolizing mourning. However, this willow is in a Grecian urn. The urn symbolizes the soul. These Greek symbols are typical in graves from the 1700s and 1800s, which was marked by a fascination with Greek and Roman architecture and symbolism.
This cross embedded in a stone, the base of which is surrounded by three beautiful cherubs, is one of my favorites. This grave is for the small children of a couple. The cherubs are alternately praying, lounging lazily or picking flowers around the base of the cross. The base of the stone reads “These lovely flowers so young so fair called hence by early doom; Just came to earth to show how sweet flowers in heaven could bloom.” The flower theme continues just under the feet of the cherubs where writing “blooms” from a large petaled flower. A vine with flowers winds around the cross.
A pall partially covers an urn on top of an obelisk monument. The obelisk represented a person of great importance, such as family patriarch. It also symbolizes eternal life and regeneration. The urn with mourning crepe symbolizes mourning. In the Old South, when a person died, mourning crepe was spread everywhere – mirrors and clocks were covered, for instance.
The broken column symbolizes a life cut short, as in a person who died young.
Another example of an obelisk covered with mourning crepe – all symbolizing eternal life in the midst of earthly death and mourning.
Before you say, “Another urn covered with mourning crepe,” let me draw your attention to the upside down torches on the four corners of this stone. The torch upright would symbol eternal life, but the torch inverted symbolizes a life cut short or the end of a family line.
This is a great example modern iconography. This stone marks the grave of the pastor of a church. An actual picture of the church is engraved on the stone (an obelisk). Also note the symbol for firefighters on the stone. This symbolizes the pastor’s other chosen vocation.
In yet another example of modern iconography, open gates in the center of the stone lead into Heaven. Praying hands symbolize Christian beliefs. The flowers on the female side of the stone, symbolize femininity, while the tractor on the male side symbolizes the male’s life work.
These stones always fascinate me. I hesitate to call them iconography – it seems like sculpture would be better suited, but this is a symbol. Obviously, it symbolizes the grave of a small child. The child appears to simply be asleep, which symbolizes the words of Jesus in Matthew 9 and John 11, when Jesus refers to a young dead girl and to the dead Lazarus as sleepers.
The two hands clasped in friendship symbolize the hand of God in the hand of the deceased. This is meant to symbolize that the person was a Christian who went to heaven at death.
This hand, with the pointer finger extended upward, is symbolic of a person going to Heaven. There are clasped hands at the bottom of the stone.
Mourning crepe carved over the top of the stone. This looks so detailed, and always amazes me.
This grave of a Confederate General is covered by an epaulette. This is symbolic of his station and rank in the military.
The broken column and wreath here are symbolic of a life cut short, but someone who had a reputation as a Christian.
One of my favorites is this stone in the background, carved as a butterfly. In recent years, butterflies have come to represent eternal life and regeneration.
This stone shocked me at first glance. Here, the pointer finger is extended down and is holding a broken chain. After some digging, I learned that the chain symbolizes a life taken young. The finger of God is pointing down to Earth (not to Hell) to chose the person to come to Heaven.