FamHist Blog

Family History Research Hints and Tips

Tombstone Symbols

I looked through photos of ancestors headstones today and again wondered about the meaning of many of the symbols on them.

Some of the themes were obviously favorites of the stone cutters, but many of the symbols were picked by loved ones. They had meaning to the surviving spouse and children.

What were the meanings? I knew that I’d seen them somewhere over the years and thought I’d written them down. After a several hour search, I found the file on a backup CD in one of my storage cases. I don’t know who created the list originally, but thought it would be of interest to you.

The next time you visit the cemetery, see if you can interpret the stories written on the stones.



Ant-Christian industry
Bats (rare)-the underworld
Bee-resurrection. risen Christ; chastity
Birds, flying-flight of the soul back to God
Butterfly-resurrection; Christian metamorphosis
Chrysalis-Christian metamorphosis; resurrection
Cock-vigilance; St. Peter
Descending dove-holy ghost
Dove-peace; innocence; purity (7 doves-holy spirit); messenger of God carrying soul to heaven
Eagle-fierceness; ascension: the heavenly conveyor, national emblem of the United States: the military professional, Civil War casualties
Eagle, winged-St. John, the Evangelist
Fish-Christ; plentifulness
Fox-cruelty; cunning
Hart-the faithful thirsting for God
Lamb-Christ; Redeemer; meekness: sacrifice; child; innocence; most common 19th century child’s marker
Lamb with banner-resurrection
Lion-strength; courage; royalty; power; guardian; fallen hero
Lion, winged-St. Mark the Evangelist
Ox, winged-St. Luke the Evangelist
Peacock-immortality; eternity; resurrection; incorruptibility of the flesh
Pelican-feeds young with own blood; redemption through Christ
Phoenix-immortality; baptism
Rooster-the awakening from the fall from grace; repentance
Sheep & goats-Christians and non-believers
Serpent-symbol of death
Snake-sin; Satan; fall of man
Snake, hooped-eternity
Snake with tail in mouth-eternity; unity
Sphinx-lion represents strength and protection; used to guard entrances
Squirrel-Christian forethought; spiritual striving
Stag-same as hart


Angel-messenger between God & man; guide
Angel, flying-rebirth; guardian angel
Angel, trumpeting-call to the resurrection
Angel, weeping-grief
Breasts-the Divine, nourishing fluid of the soul (17th century); the church; the ministry; the nourishment of the soul
Child, sleeping-Victorian death motif
Death’s head, winged-mortality
Effigies-the soul
Effigies, crowned-personal reward of righteousness
Effigies, winged-the flight of the soul
Father Time-mortality, the grim reaper
Four Evangelists-Matthew, winged man; Mark, winged lion; Luke, winged ox; John, winged eagle
Hand of God, pointing downward-mortality, sudden death
Hand of God, pointing upward-the reward of the righteous; confirmation of life after death
Hands-devotion, prayer
Handshakes-farewell to earthly existence
Hands clasped-in death as in life, the devotion of these two is not destroyed
Imps-figures, some winged, some not, doing funeral related tasks; mortality
Man, winged-St. Matthew the Evangelist
Trumpeters-heralds of the resurrection
Woman, weeping-mourning; recalls myth of Niobe, whom the gods turned to stone as she wept for her slain children


Fugit hora-“hours are fleeting”, “time flies”
IHS-monogram or symbol representing the Greek contraction of “Jesus”: sometimes regarded as an abbreviation of the Latin phrase meaning “Jesus, Savior of Men”
INRI-often seen on a banner of Latin cross: “Jesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum”. Latin for Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews (John 12:19-22)
Memento mori-“remember death”
Tempus erat-“time is gone”; “time has run out”
XP-Chi Rho-first two Greek letters of the word “Christ”


Alpha & Omega-first and last letters of the Greek alphabet symbolizing the beginning & end of all things, see Revelation 22:13
Anchor-hope, life eternal; may signify seafaring profession
Arch-triumph, victory in death
Ark-church; salvation
Ark of Noah (rare)-refuge, salvation
Armor-protection from evil
Arrow-martyrdom, mortality
Arrow, quiver of-warlike
Banner-victory; triumph
Bells-call to worship
Bibles-resurrection through the scripture; the clergy
Book-Bible; wisdom
Books, stacked-knowledge
Branch, severed-mortality
Bugles-resurrection; the military profession
Candle being snuffed-time, mortality
Candle flame-life
Candlestick-Christ; devotion
Celtic cross-circle on it symbolizes eternity
Circle-eternity; or earth
Clock, (rare)-passage of time, mortality
Clouds-the divine abode
Coats of arms and crests-lineage, status
Column, broken-sorrow; broken life
Columns, doors-heavenly entrance
Crescent moon-Virgin
Cross with rays of rising sun-glory
Cross with winding sheet-descent from cross
Crown-reward of faithful, victory, triumph, glory; righteousness; resurrection
Crown on cross-sovereignty of Christ
Darts-mortality, dart of death
Drapery over anything-sorrow; mourning
Field artillery (rare)-the military profession
Finger-pointing to heaven
Fleur-de-lis-Virgin; Trinity
Portals-passageways to the eternal journey
Portraits-stylized likenesses of the deceased
Pyramid-symbolic of death
Rock-steadfastness of Christ; stability
Rosary-devotion to Mary
Scales-weighing of souls; justice
Scroll-the law; Scriptures
Scythe-time, the divine harvest
Shell-pilgrimage: baptism of Christ
Shell, scallop-pilgrim; pilgrim’s journey; resurrection
Ship-the Church
Ships’ profiles-the seafaring profession
Shrine-wisdom; knowledge
Skeletons-mortality, Death
Skull-death; sin
Skull, winged-flight of the soul from mortal man
Skulls and crossbones-mortality
Star-birth-life; Christ
Star, five pointed-Star of Bethlehem; star of Jacob; divine guidance and protection
Star, six pointed-the Father, Creation, heavenly wisdom
Sun-God or Son
Sun, setting-death
Sun, rising-resurrection; renewed life
Suns, moons and stars-the reward of the resurrection
Sword-martyrdom; courage; warfare
Swords, crossed-high ranking military person
Three points, three leaves, three of any thing-Trinity
Torch-zeal; enlightenment
Torch, inverted-extinction of life; death; mourning
Torch, upright-immortality, liberty, upright life, the scholastic world, the betrayal of Christ
Trumpet-day of judgment; resurrection
Urn-soul; mortality
Urn, draped-death, sorrow
Winged wheel-holy spirit
Yoke-burden-bearing; service; patience


Almond-favor from God; Virgin birth
Apple-sin; Eve
Bouquets-condolences, grief
Buds-renewal of life
Cedar-strong faith; length of days; success
Cypress-sorrow; death; eternal life, Roman symbol for mourning
Easter lily-modern flower symbolic of resurrection
Flower-brevity of earthly existence, sorrow; certain flowers may symbolize emotions, particular aspirations, attitudes, both religious and secular
Flower, broken-premature death
Fruit-eternal plenty
Fruit and vine-Jesus Christ; the Christian church
Gourds-the coming to be and passing away of all earthly matters
Ivy-abiding memory, friendship, fidelity
Laurel-victory, triumph, glory
Lily, lilies-resurrection, purity
Lotus-Egyptian water lily and ornament
Oak-supernatural power and strength; eternity
Olive-peace; healing faith
Palm-spiritual victory over death; martyrdom; reward of the righteous; peace; a plant whose leaves resemble a hand
Pomegranate-immortality; resurrection; unity; nourishment of the soul
Poppy-symbolic of sleep, therefore, death
Roses-condolence, sorrow; the brevity of earthly existence; of English descent–the Tudor rose
Sheaves of wheat-time, the divine harvest
Strawberry-righteousness; humility
Thistle-of Scottish descent; the inevitability of death, remembrance
Tree-faith; life; the Tree of Life
Tree, felled-mortality
Tree trunk, broken-premature death
Vine-Christian church; Christ; wine, the symbolic blood of Jesus; the sacraments
Wheat sheaves-the divine harvest
Willow, weeping-grief; death (carried at Masonic funerals); earthly sorrow, the symbolic tree of human sadness, Nature’s lament
Wreath-victory in death, indestructible crown worn by triumphant
Christian; eternity
Wreath worn by skull-victory of death over life

15 December 2007 - Posted by | Research Tips


  1. Well, that list just earned itself a star in my google reader. Thanks!

    Comment by Lee | 3 January 2008 | Reply

  2. […] August 2008 by famhist I posted a long list of some meanings of tombstone symbols in an earlier posting. The list seems to be far from complete.  Additional lists have been sent that should be added to […]

    Pingback by Tombstone Symbols - Continued « FamHist Blog | 17 August 2008 | Reply

  3. Hello,
    On my Greatx3 Grandmother’s Gravestone, we discovered a Circle with letters surrounding it:
    The letters are from top, around to right:


    Any ideas? Her husband (my Greatx3 Grandfather) was a mason but I cannot find any reference to the code.

    James Daniel
    Oklahoma City, OK

    Comment by James Daniel | 29 September 2008 | Reply

    • Hello James, just found your inquiry on a tombstone symbol meaning site. The letters you transcribed are actually a little out of sync. They are masonic and were used rarely but given to only females of Mason members. A degree conferred in US on wives, daughters, sisters or mothers of Masons. Sometimes the middle of the circle will also contain secret signs. The saying is John 12:15.
      Fear Not Daughters Of Zion Behold The King Cometh
      Best regards. Robert Sizelove

      Comment by Robert | 2 June 2009 | Reply

    • James,

      Out of curiosity, where is your GreatX3 grandmother buried? My greatX3 grandmother has the same symbol. She is buried in LaGrange, Texas and is the mother of Dr. David G. Gregory who was a Mason.


      Comment by Alana Morris | 24 July 2010 | Reply

  4. Does anyone know what the following symbols mean:

    3 link connected chain with a letter in each link. The first letter is unreadable but the next 2 chain links have the letters “L” and “T”

    A circle with stars inside along the right side and in the center a bird. On the left side of the circle is the letter “R” with 3 chain links attached to it

    Comment by Peggy Underwood | 15 June 2010 | Reply

    • Peggy, I have researched your second question and feel fairly sure the symbol you found next to the headstone is the sign of “Daughters of Rebekah Assembly” It is associated with the Independent Order Odd Fellows, female auxiliary of IOOF, but now has botn female and male members. Hope this helps. Robert

      Comment by Robert Sizelove | 25 July 2010 | Reply

  5. Peggy, the three chains are the symbol of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows.
    The three letters found inside the links are: F,L & T, meaning Friendship, Love & Truth. This is a very old well established society, found all over the world.
    Not sure about your second description. A women’s organization called Order of Eastern Star, has a circle and star in center. Also the SAR (Sons of American Revolution has a circle with stars, but it also have rifle and sword in center. So not sure if I can help you with the second one.
    Robert Sizelove

    Comment by Robert | 15 June 2010 | Reply

  6. […] posted a long list of some meanings of tombstone symbols in an earlier posting. The list seems to be far from complete.  Additional lists have been sent that should be added to […]

    Pingback by Tombstone Symbols – Continued | 13 April 2011 | Reply

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