Frazer Blog

Cemetery symbols and the art of death

by | Jul 27, 2016 | For Families

A woman standing next to large concrete pillars

Cemeteries are a great place to find a lot of society’s symbols of death and mourning.

Symbols are depicted through statues, headstones, and other memorials. Some vary between cultures and change over time, while some classics remain the same.

Here are a few of the common (and other not so common) symbols of death:

1. Hourglass

An hourglass with wings was common on gravestones in the 17th and 18th centuries. It was a symbol with a pretty heavy message — time is fleeting. While it might seem kind of depressing at first, it also can be interpreted along the lines of “carpe diem” or “seize the day” — a call to make the most of the time you have.

2. Winged Skull

A picture of a human skull with wings, also known as the death head, was a common symbol for colonial America. It was used among Puritans because of their disdain for using religious symbols on graves. The winged skull represents both death (the skull) and resurrection (the wings). The style of the winged skull varies because the engraving was used as a signature and would let people know who made the headstones.

3. Clasping Hands

The symbol of two hands in a handshake represents a relationship between the departed and those still alive. It also represents that the living will reunite with the dead someday. This symbol was common for headstones of married couples. The details (such as the sleeve of the hand) carved into each headstone would signify which hand belonged to the husband and which to the wife.

4. Winged Cherub

The winged cherub evolved from the Puritan winged skull symbol. It took out the macabre human skull and replaced it with an angelic face. The cherub represents the rebirth of the soul in heaven.

5. Torch

A torch represents a few things. The inverted torch meant a life was extinguished too soon. In Christianity, the undying fire was a symbol of eternal life. It was a popular 19th-century symbol and was common in cemeteries as well as on jewelry used to remember the dead.

6. Cross

The cross is a common symbol in Christianity for the resurrection and promise of eternal life. While it’s a common symbol to find in a cemetery, the styles vary among gravestones. The style of the cross can actually tell you a lot about the deceased, such as their ancestry or denomination of Christianity.

7. Snake

A snake also can have a few different meanings depending on the style. A snake with its tail in his mouth, creating a circle or hoop, represents eternal life. But a coiled snake can represent Satan or a person who lived a sinful life.

8. Book

An open book represents a religious text such as the bible. It can be interpreted as a person who died with great faith or knowledge. If the pages are blank it also represents a story or life that wasn’t finished.

9. Obelisk

An obelisk evolved from the Egyptians and was used to honor the sun gods, but it eventually became a popular symbol in western cemeteries. The shape of the obelisk is meant to represent family and also a spiritual connection between heaven and earth, but there also were other reasons for the symbol’s popularity. The symbol was less elaborate (and easier to afford) than other memorials, as well as easier to fit into a tightly packed cemetery.

10. Draped Urn

The urn was used as a symbol throughout the ages to represent the final vessel for the dead and the fact that we all someday return to ash or dust. A drape over the urn symbolizes both mourning and the physical barrier between the realms of the living and the dead.

Modern Symbols

Technology is creating new types of symbols we build into our memorials. Advancement in engraving can now put high levels of detail and art on headstones. There are even headstones carved into guitars or dolphins.

Others are adding digital elements with QR codes linked to online profiles and obituaries. And still others have joked about a more unpleasant outlook — a headstone that displays our social media stats: Twitter followers, Facebook friends, and Tinder matches.

There are countless symbols we see in cemeteries when it comes to memorializing the dead. What are some of the ones you commonly see? Share with us in the comments below!


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