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Old headstones especially from the Victorian period up until mid twentieth century use graveyard symbols to represent the deceased’s life journey, beliefs and occupations. This carefully chosen collection of graveyard and cemetery photographs showcases the various graveyard symbols and their meanings.
If you’re looking for skull and crossbones, skeletons, cadavers, hourglasses with or without wings and cemetery death heads, please refer to the relevant galleries listed below as these represent different eras.
- Memento Mori Gallery – Up to mid 18th century featuring cadavers, sand times, skull and crossbones
- Cemetery Death Heads – Mid 18th century featuring cherub heads with wings or foliage
Old Headstones Have a Story to Tell You!
If you’re a regular reader of my blog, you will know that I find modern day cemeteries to be boring and so very disappointing. I find row upon row of uniformed headstones with their brief inscriptions to be plain, straight to the point and I miss that feeling of being drawn to a particular headstone, intrigued to find out more.
‘Boring I hear you say, cemeteries are not places of joy and happiness?’
Well, the Victorian’s had the right ideas about cemeteries. They built them as parks so that they could stroll amongst the elaborate monuments and eat their picnics amongst the dead. Death certainly wasn’t to be feared. It was to be a celebration of ones life and an ever lasting tribute carved into stone for all to see. They used graveyard symbols to represent their loved ones, thus allowing more to be said on a headstone or a monument.
We have lost the beauty of elaborately carved headstones that use graveyard symbols to provide information about the deceased in a format that can be understood by all cultures. The trade would have once flourished with skilled stone masons pouring their love and time into creating these wonderful headstones, that would last decades if not centuries.
Sadly as time goes by, we are loosing these beautiful cemetery headstones and monuments to the elements of weather and the lack of funds from no surviving relatives. Therefore it’s really important that people like you and me continue to promote their outstanding beauty in whatever form we can. If your local cemetery holds events such as tours, please go along and support them.
Furthermore, cemeteries these days are becoming full. If you turn a cemetery upside down, it will resemble a city full of skyscrapers and therefore, changes are afoot.
The Burial Act of 1857 made it an offence to remove corpses from graveyards, which in turn helped end the the days of robbing corpses to sell to the medical establishment.
At this current moment in time grave recycling isn’t an option unless the law is change. Re-use of graves is also very controversial, but as stated in this 2016 The Guardian article, ‘Re-using Graves Means UK Cemeteries Will Never Run Out of Space‘ is one possible solution. Personally, I realise that we have a problem that needs addressing, but I always imagined a grave lasting an eternity or until withered away and if grave recycling is to be a considered option, we will be faced with losing the beautiful headstones of yesteryear and this saddens me. I read another very good article from the Guardian titled ‘Death in the City‘ and I recommend you read it.
Graveyard Symbols and Meanings
Headstone Meanings Dictionary
As I build my collection of cemetery photographs that showcase the graveyard symbol perfectly, I will include the meaning below as well as above in the gallery.
Cemetery Angels and their Meanings
A cemetery angel that points towards Heaven with outstretched wings could represent escorting the soul to Heaven
A cemetery angel that points down could represent sudden departure of an untimely death
A weeping angel signifies grief over an untimely death
Crown on a Headstone
A crown on a headstone can represent triumph or victory over death. Again, you need to look at the rest of the headstone to decipher it correctly. The image above in the gallery shows a cherub or angel handing the Crown of Life to the devoted soul of the deceased as represented by a hand pointing towards Heaven. “Be Thou Faithful Unto Death, And I Will Give Thee The Crown Of Life” (John 2:10).
If a crown is seen with a cross, this can represent victory and Christianity and possibly a mason.
Drapery on a Headstone
The drapery usually depicts the veil between life and death and the crossing of that plane and to others it can symbolise God’s protection until Resurrection.
Hands on a Headstone
Hands Clasping or Shaking of Hands – Firstly, it could represent a Mason. It could also represent a married couple if male and female as denoted by the sleeved cuffs. If this is the case, the hand on top can sometimes represent the partner who passed first and will guide their loved one to the afterlife when the time comes. It can also symbolise a farewell to Earth and God’s welcome to Heaven or indicate a relationship between the deceased and those they left behind. You would need to look at the other symbols on the headstone in order to decipher the meaning
Hand holding a heart – Symbolises charity and could be used to denote a mason
Hand holding a pen – Could symbolise a writer or the writing of names in the book of life
Hand pointing down – The hand of God descending from Heaven or represents an untimely, sudden or unexpected death. If a finger points to a book it typically represents the bible
Hand pointing up – Points towards Heaven
Hands praying – Religious devotion
Torches on a Headstone
If lit or upright this will represent life
Inverted torches denotes the passing of the soul to the afterlife
Wheat on a Headstone
A sheaf of wheat seen on a headstone can mean a number of things. Wheat is one of our most basic foods and some say that it is a gift from God as the origin of wheat is unknown. As wheat is a harvested grain, it can be used to represent immortality and resurrection. Finally, it can also mean that the person buried has lived a long and fruitful life, more than seventy years.