Showing posts with label symbols. Show all posts
Showing posts with label symbols. Show all posts

Friday, September 9, 2011

Symbols: Flowers and the Frailty of Life

Symbols have been used on tombstones for centuries.  But it was not until the mid-1800’s that this secret code caught on with the ‘common folk’ who could finally afford to decorate their graves with statues and carvings.

Painting by James Tissot
The Victorians were known for their love of ornate designs, and this carried on to their gravestones.   Stone carvers of the period created works of art.  Rural cemeteries became the poor person’s art gallery, offering carvings, statues, and buildings of spectacular craftsmanship.

The Victorians were enamored with flowers, which were known to have their own language.  Give a woman a red rose and that signified love, a yellow rose indicated friendship, and a white rose meant innocence or secrecy.  It is no wonder they carried this silent language on to the grave.

Roses on a tombstone can have several meanings, depending on the number shown and if the rose is in bud or bloom.  A rose symbolizes love, hope and beauty.

Two roses joined together signified a strong bond, as on this couple’s stone.

A wreath of roses stands for beauty and virtue.

Age could also be noted with a rose bud indicating the grave of a child.  A partial bloom was used to show someone who had died in his or her teen or early adult life.  And a full bloom signified someone in the prime of life.

A broken blossom, whether a rose or another flower, indicated that someone had died too young.

Another flower that is abundant in the cemetery is the lily, which stands for innocence and purity.  There are several various types of lilies used on gravestones, each with a slightly different meaning.
The most popular is the Easter Lily, which represents resurrection and the innocence of the soul being restored at death.

Calla Lilies represent marriage and fidelity.

A Lily of the Valley signifies innocence, humility and renewal.

The Fleur de Lis is actually a stylized lily that represents the Holy Trinity.

And the Daffodil, also part of the lily family, indicated grace, beauty and a deep regard.  You’ll notice that live daffodils are abundant in older cemeteries during the spring.

Other flowers used on gravestones include the daisy, which means gentleness and innocence.  And the morning glory, which suggesting mourning, mortality and farewell.

Greenery is also used to convey unspoken thoughts.  Many stones are covered in Ivy to imply faithfulness, undying affection and eternal life.

The fern was very popular in Victorian times as an indicator of sincerity and solitude.

And the palm, another plant associated with Easter, signified triumph over death, and a forthcoming resurrection.

Wander any cemetery and you will discover a secret language communicated through symbols.  All it takes is the interest to learn what each generation wished to imply with their symbols, and the time to let them speak to you, offering interesting insights into someone’s life and time.

It’s the weekend; take some time to listen to this silent language.

~ Joy

(This is one of the topics I speak on for Genealogical and Historical societies.  If your group is interested in a presentation, please contact me here or on Facebook at

Tuesday, April 19, 2011

Religious Symbols in the Cemetery

It seems appropriate, with this upcoming religious holiday weekend, to take a closer look at what religious symbols can be found in the cemetery.  Here are several of them, listed alphabetically.
Alpha Omega – The first and last letter of the Ionic Greek alphabet.  A verse from the Book of Revelation, “I am the alpha and omega,” - the beginning and the end.

Anchor – The anchor has been a symbol of steadfastness and hope in the Christian religion.  Early Christians used the anchor as a secret symbol to guide the way to religious meetings.

Anchor with Cross – Another Christian symbol referencing a verse from the book of Hebrews referring to God as “hope we have as an anchor of the soul.”

Angels - Believed to be the spiritual messengers in most major religions.  Angels are seen as the guardians of death.  We will take a more in-depth look at angels in next Tuesday’s blog.

Book – It may be opened to indicate the Bible or The Book of Life.  A closed book may indicate the completion of a life's story.

Book with finger pointing upward indicates faith. 

Chalice – The cup represents the sacraments, especially in the Catholic rite of Communion.  Often a chalice marks the head stone of a priest.

Christ – Symbol of Christian religion.  The Savior or Redeemer.

Clergy – Those ordained to perform the duties of ministering in the Christian religion also have symbols that indicate the branch of faith they followed.

Columns joined with an archway – Portrays the entrance to heaven.

Cross – There are numerous versions of a cross.  We will take a more in-depth look at them on Friday.  For today, the cross is the most recognized Christian symbol.  Shown here are the Latin cross, used mostly in Protestant religions, and the Crucifix, used in the Catholic religion.

– A symbol of victory and righteousness, triumph over death.

Dove – The dove is a symbol of devotion.

Grapes, Grape Leaves, Grape Vines– All indicate the Christian faith.

Hands – We use our hands to communicate.  Two hands held in prayer show reverence and devotion.

A hand with a finger pointing up indicates a soul’s ascension to heaven.

Therefore, you might surmise that a finger pointing down would bode ill, but actually the meaning is mortality or sudden death.

Harp – A symbol of music and worship in heaven.

I H S – The three letters usually appear on a cross and are derived from the first three letters of Jesus’ name in Greek – Iota, Eta and Sigma.  This has also been said to stand for the Lain words “Iesus Hominum Salvator – “Jesus, mankind’s savior.”
 $ - In the Latin alphabet, I H S O Y S, again, Jesus’ name, is combined and interwoven.

Ivy - A plant that never losses it’s color and clings tenaciously symbolizes immortality and eternal life.

– The lamb is used on the stones of children because it is a symbol of innocence.  It has been used to mark children’s graves since Egyptian times.  The lamb is also a symbol of Christ.

Lamp – Usually it has a flame rising up from it.  The lamp indicates a love of knowledge, wisdom and faith.

Lily - A lily or lilies may be used to symbolize innocence and purity.  Often they are associated with the Virgin Mary.

– May be used as a headstone and is a Christian symbol of St. Peter or the resurrection of Jesus.

Scared Heart - A heart encircled with thorns indicates Christ’s suffering.

Star – A 5-pointed star is symbolic with the five wounds of Christ.

Star of David – A symbol of Judaism.  This six-pointed star represents divine protection.

Thistle – A symbol of sin and earthly sorrow.

Woman hanging on cross – This was originally the drawing that accompanied the hymn “Rock of Ages.”  It indicates unwavering faith.  Commonly used on Masonic graves.

 Wreath – Symbol of eternity.

Many gravestones are a combination of religious symbols that look well thought out and artistic. 

On Friday, Good Friday in the Christian religion, we will explore the variations, designs and meanings of crosses in the cemetery.

~ Joy