What Do Those Cemetery Symbols Mean?

Grave marker sculpted to look like an open book
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The thought of visiting a cemetery may make you uneasy, but these hushed places are so much more than the final resting place of a multitude of souls.

As you stroll through — reading the names of the deceased, the inscriptions on their tombstones, and the symbols displayed on their graves — you may be surprised by a growing sense of calm as you learn the stories a cemetery can tell. Gravestone symbols offer a tiny glimpse into someone's former life — a way to share what they stood for long after they were gone.

In fact, cemetery symbolism isn’t scary at all — it’s a beautiful, compelling part of these quiet green spaces. Here's what some of that symbolism means.

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Wheat symbolizes a long life. Gathered wheat represents being harvested into a new life after dying, according to the nonprofit International Association of Cemetery Preservationists.

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The butterfly symbol is somewhat rare, and it's seen here on a very old gravestone. The butterfly's three stages of life — the caterpillar, the chrysalis and the butterfly — represent life, death and resurrection.

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The anchor symbol dates back to early Christianity, when it was used to disguise the symbol of the cross. It became a symbol for Christ and his anchoring influence on Christians. It's also a Masonic symbol for well-grounded hope.

More literally, anchors may mark the graves of dedicated seamen, who use the anchor to honor Saint Nicholas, patron saint of seamen, and to symbolize steadfastness.

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A heart symbol may mean many things — love being the most obvious, whether it's love of God or love of another person. It symbolizes devotion and represents mortality and the essence of life, according to the Indiana Department of Natural Resources (DNR).

A flaming heart, like the one pictured, means extreme religious devotion, the International Association of Cemetery Preservationists says. And when it's paired with an anchor and cross like this, the grouped symbols represents faith, hope and charity.

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Tree trunk

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Gravestones shaped like tree stumps symbolize a life cut short. Some can be fancy with squirrels or birds resting on a sawed-off branch. Others, like this one, are more simple.

In American cemeteries, you may see trees with axes or with the acronym W.O.W. on the plaque. This means the stone came from Woodmen of the World, a 19th and 20th century fraternal organization that provided the stones to its members, according to the Association for Gravestone Studies.

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Doves are the most common birds displayed on gravestones, but pigeons, hummingbirds and eagles often are depicted, too. Birds in flight represent the soul launching into the afterlife, the Indiana DNR says, while doves embody peace and eagles represent military service or patriotism.

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Lions embody courage, majesty, strength and valor, according to Oakland Cemetery in Atlanta. They are said to represent the courage of the person buried below, and their job is to guard the tomb against evil spirits.

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The hourglass has been used for centuries to calculate the passage of time, but how it's pictured on the gravestone can mean different things. For example, a winged hourglass means time flies, and the hourglass on its side means time has stopped for the deceased, says the Association for Gravestone Studies.

(And of course, "Like sands through the hourglass, so are the days of our lives” was the famous opening line to the long-running soap opera "Days of Our Lives.")

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Clasped hands

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Hands are a popular gravestone carving, whether portrayed as the hand of God reaching down, praying hands pointing up in devotion, or a hand clasping another hand.

Handshakes are about leaving — saying goodbye to earthly existence or a couple who hope to be reunited in death. The latter is the case in this photo, as you can see by the shirt cuffs: One is a man's hand and the other is a woman's. The person who dies first guides the other to heaven, according to the International Association of Cemetery Preservationists.

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A book on a tombstone usually represents the Bible or the Book of Life, and it symbolizes faithfulness, the Indiana DNR says. Some ministers and academics decorated their graves with books to represent scholarly achievements.

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A crown on a tombstone, whether an engraving or the whole stone, represents the glory of life after death and the deceased's ascension into heaven. It also may mean immortality, victory and righteousness.

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Roses symbolize beauty, love, perfection and hope, and often are associated with female figures like the Virgin Mary or Venus.

On a tombstone, the size of the bloom may indicate the stage of life in which the person passed away; a bud could mean a child, and a full-bloom rose could mean an adult.

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Lambs often are found on the tombs of children, as they symbolize innocence and purity. In Christianity, the lamb references Jesus Christ's role as the sacrificial lamb, the Lamb of God.

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Upside-down torch

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An inverted torch, like the ones pictured on either side of this gravestone, symbolize death or a life extinguished. It means your "soul is still burning in the afterlife," as Atlas Obscura reports.

Urns represent mourning; the draped urn, seen in the center of this stone and common in Victorian cemeteries, is a "visual separation between the living and the dead and a protected shroud for the soul."

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Alpha Omega

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The alpha and the omega are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, signifying the beginning and the end of a life.

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A lyre, harp or other stringed instrument is an indication of musical talents and symbolizes heavenly music. For example, the tomb of famed conductor and composer John Philip Sousa in Washington, D.C., is marked with a lyre, the instrument of Apollo.

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A chain with a broken link, like the one pictured here, can symbolize the death of a family member. It also may refer to the soul being chained to the human body, and with death, that chain is broken. The hand of God reaching down to pluck a chain link means God is taking a soul for himself up to heaven.