Originally Published May 20, 2009
It’s springtime and that means walks in the park. But if you’re anything like me, the “parks” you choose to walk in arecemeteries. Colorado hosts a number of interesting cemeteries, from large old cemeteries like Riverside, to smaller, family started cemeteries that can be found all over the state. Cemetery architecture is some of the most unique and intricate stone carving work ever done, and the sheer variety of gravestones that can be found in just one cemetery can be astounding. Certain themes are repeated throughout the country, and throughout the world; common enough that a number of studies and books about the symbolism have been done. Most of the symbols can give you a glimpse at the person buried there, or of their families who commissioned the stone. It’s a tantalizing piece of history that gives you a look into the every day life of the people from the past.
These are some of the most commonly found symbols.
Anchor – The anchor is a symbol of hope, and is often found on the stone leaning, or forms the base of a cross. Navy men, if they do not have a military headstone, often have an anchor on their stone.
Arch – the passage or gateway to heaven.
Book – Open, it represents an open heart and mind, ready to be received by God. A closed book symbolizes the end of life, a completion.
Dove – The most commonly used animal symbol, the dove represents purity and peace and is most often seen holding an olive branch in its beak, like the dove that returned to Noah on the ark.
Draped Urn and Draped Pillar – One of the most common 19th century symbols. The urn itself is unusual, because very few cremations were done, in the 19th century; rather it replaces the skull that was most common in earlier centuries. The draping represents the veil between life and death.
Ferns – Ferns are symbols of humility, frankness and sincerity; much like the fern, hard to find out in the open.
Gates – The gates of heaven.
Ivy – Ivy has many meanings; because it remains green even in harsh conditions, it is seen to symbolize immortality. Because ivy clings to whatever it grows on, it is also seen as a symbol affection and undying devotion. The three pointed leaves have also been used to represent the Trinity.
Lamb – one of the most common symbols used for a child’s grave, especially very young children. Lambs symbolize spring, the beginning of life, and innocence. It is also a symbol of Christ, who is often referred to as the “Lamb of God”- both his innocent child and his sacrifice. A lamb lying down is the most common form, however small children holding or surrounded by lambs are also often used for a child’s grave.
Lily – Usually an Easter Lily, it symbolizes purity and chastity. Lilies became a funeral flower before embalming became common, because their strong pleasant fragrance could mask other, less pleasant odors.
Lilies of the Valley – symbolize innocence, purity and virginity. Because it is one of the first flowers to bloom in the spring, it also symbolizes rebirth and resurrection.
Palm Leaves – Adapted symbolically from the Roman symbol of victory, Christians adapted it as a symbol of spiritual triumph over death.
Pillow or Cushion – A resting place.
Scroll – Used to symbolize the scriptures, even if they are not any biblical quotes on them.
Shells – The scallop shell is symbolic of a journey, or of baptism. Shells can be carved along the stone, or can be, as in our example, the whole of the gravestone itself. The one pictured here is even more unique because the shell holds an infant; the still visible details lead me to think that this was a representation of the child herself.
Sheaves of Wheat – Most commonly found on the stones of someone who lived a long and abundant life of 70 years or more. It is also a Masonic symbol of immortality.
Tree stumps – Used for the graves of men who were members of Woodsmen of the World. Founded in 1890 by Joseph Cullen Root, Woodsmen of the World was a fraternal organization not just for woodworkers, but also other men; they provided insurance and support for their members. The tree stump gravestone was formally adopted as the grave marker for the members in 1899. Occasionally, you will find older gravestones that are indeed tree stumps, but the Woodsmen trees stumps are specifically marked. Women of Woodcraft have similar gravestones; there is usually a section of cut log on its side, with the Women of Woodcraft emblem marked on the end of the log. Some of these logs are highly detailed; others are just column sections with the Women of Woodcraft symbol on the end.
There are many other symbols that I did not mention; most are the markings of fraternal organizations, or like the cross, are clear and obvious as to their meaning. Angels, Greek gods and goddesses, especially the Seven Virtues, a figure asleep or bent over in mourning, skulls or skeletons are all fairly common. Some symbols have no meaning except to the family of the person whose grave they decorate.
Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography