Church Monuments Society


Symbolism on monuments

Carvings on tombs can be strange and puzzling. This guide explains the meanings of many of the symbols used on post-medieval gravestones.

Whereas some people in the 17th and 18th centuries had little education, they were certainly well grounded in the scriptures and the catechism. Village schools had been set up from the times of the Reformation, so there were many people from humble homes who could read and knew the scriptures. The emblems of mortality and immortality were seldom used after the 18th century,but many other forms of symbolism were the stock-in-trade of 19th century monumental masons.

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ACACIA Immortality of the soul.
ACANTHUS Heavenly garden; one of the oldest cemetery motifs, acanthus is associated with the rocky ground where the most ancient Greek cemeteries were placed.
AMORINI See Putti.
ANCHOR Hope, security, or ‘At Rest’ See: Hebrews 6, 19. If heldby a female figure, Hope. One of the seven Christian Virtues of Wisdom,Fortitude, Temperance, Justice, Faith,
Hope and Charity.
ANGEL The messenger of God, often depicted pointing heavenward: also guardian of the living and the dead. If shown with a trumpet, indicative of the approach of God.
ANGEL OF DEATH Rare, and shown as a putto (qv), with dart and/or hour-glass,and/or scales. It may have wings
ANGEL OF THE RESURRECTION Clad in loose robes, standing trumpet in hand, or flying through the air, feet bare, knees bent.
ANGEL’S HEAD Usually winged, symbolises resurrection and the metamorphosis of the soul
ANKH Eternal life, peace and truth
ARCH Victory in death, being joined with partner in heaven
ARK Symbolic of the Church, since in the Ark all living things find refuge.
ARROW The ‘dart of death’
AXE Weapon of death.
AZALEA Temperance


BAMBOO The emblem of Buddha. The seven-knotted bamboo denotes the seven degrees of initiation and invocation in Buddhism. On Japanese memorials, symbolic of devotion and truthfulness.
BAYLEAVES Victory over death.
BED A deathbed, sometimes depicted as merely a pillow.
BEEHIVE Symbolic of industry, for a community of those whose work is beneficial to all. Also of domestic virtues, education, faith, abundance in the Promised Land.
BELL The Dead Bell was rung to give notice of funerals, and at the funeral itself. Depicted as a small hand bell, it was a favourite emblem in Northern England and Scotland.
BELL & BRAZIER A bell founder.
BIBLICAL SCENES A number of Biblical scenes appear as low reliefs on tombstones, the more frequent being those of the Resurrection, the Day of Judgment, the Sacrifice of Isaac, the Good Samaritan, Christ and the Samarian Woman, Noli Me Tangere, the Agony on the Garden and the Flight into Egypt.
BIRD Eternal Life; a ‘winged soul’.
BOOK The ‘Book of Life’,i.e.the Bible; a cross lying upon it symbolises Faith. See:Philippians 4, 3 and Revelation 3,5.If heldby a female figure, Wisdom. One of the seven Christian Virtues of Wisdom, Fortitude, Temperance, Justice, Faith, Hope and Charity.
BONES In the 17th century the death’s head was often accompanied by crossed bones. However, by the 18th century there were many more variations, including such items as jaw bones. The bones were sometimes shown as trophies or suspended on ribbons.
BOW & ARROWS Weapon of death.
BROKEN COLUMN See Column, broken.
BUTTERCUP Cheerfulness.
BUTTERFLY Resurrection; as the butterfly emerges from the pupae so too will our souls emerge from our bodies and soar upwards towards Heaven.


CADAVER Mortality. See Corpse.
CADUCEUS Wand entwined with snake sand surmounted by a dove, carried by Mercury. A Familiar emblem on the tombs of those of the medical professions.
CANDLE Either alight or extinguished, symbolises the imminence of death.
CATERPILLAR Metamorphosis to a new life.
CHAIN If of three links, an association with the Odd Fellows.
CHALICE The most familiar symbol for a priest, usually shown with its paten.
CHARITY Shown as a female figure succouring, or with, children.
CHERUB A winged child of indeterminate sex.
CHRISTMAS ROSE Cheerfulness.
CINQUEFOIL Maternal affection; beloved daughter.
CIRCLE Eternity, often incorporated into the Celtic cross or shown as a snake.
CLEMATIS Skillfulness.
CLOCK DIAL The passage of time.
COCKEREL Awakening to a new life, i.e. resurrection.
COFFIN The shape is realistic and is normally recognisable. In the 17th century the device was often placed in a row of emblems or occasionally appeared as a sole emblem.
COLUMN The support of life. If heldby a female figure,Temperance. One of the seven Christian Virtues of Wisdom, Fortitude,Temperance, Justice, Faith, Hope and Charity.
COLUMN, BROKEN The broken column traditionally signifies mortality, the support of life being broken.
Masonic symbols.
CORNUCOPIA Symbolises abundance.
CORPSE The corpse usually appears in a winding-sheet or lying in, or rising from a coffin.
CROCUS Youthful gladness.
CROSS Has several meanings, such as the symbol of The Supreme Sacrifice and of the Christian religion If held by a female figure, Faith. One of the seven Christian Virtues of Wisdom, Fortitude, Temperance, Justice, Faith, Hope and Charity.
CROWN Emblem of the Christian martyr, and of the ‘Crown of Life’,the reward for those who stayed faithful until death. See:1 Corinthians 9:24- 27, James 1, 12 and Revelation 2, 10.
CROWN OF THORNS Symbol of suffering, based on the crown plaited by the soldiers and imposed upon Jesus during his trial before Pontius Pilate.
CROWNED SKULL Triumph of death.
CROZIER See Pastoral Staff.
CYPRESS TREE Mourning and death on account of its dark colour, and because once cut down it will not grow again. Also a symbol of Hope.


DAFFODIL Regard; death of youth; desire; art; grace.
DAISY Innocence of childhood; Jesus the Infant Youth, Son of Righteousness.
DART A weapon of death.
DEAD LEAVES Sadness; melancholy.
DEATH BED SCENE Death bed scenes on headstones are usually simple, the deceased shown in a box-like bed sometimes with curtains.
DOLPHIN Resurrection,salvation, bearer of souls across the water.
DOOR Entrance to Heaven;also, entrance to the heart.
DOVE The Holy Spirit, also for peace, innocence, purity and love.
DRAGON Eternity


EAGLE Strength and endurance. Also the symbol of St John the Evangelist.
EFFIGY The sleep of death.
EYE Humility; also emblematic of the deceased watching over the living.
EYE OF HORUS/RA Life and death (Horus),Sun and Moon (Ra); protection against evil.


FATHER TIME Known in ancient mythology as Chronos. With his scythe, symbolic of gathering in those whose hour to depart has come. Portrayed standing, stalking or seated with elbow on hour-glass. In some scenes he is shown together with the Skeleton, the King of Terrors to two ready for action.
FEMALE FIGURES Other than sculptural representations of Our Lady, see Psyche.
FEMALE FIGURES with CHILDREN Charity. One of the seven Christian Virtues of Wisdom, Fortitude, Temperance, Justice, Faith, Hope and Charity.
FINGER Pointing down: calling the Earth to witness. Pointing up: indicates that the deceased is now in heaven.
FIR CONES Ancient symbol of fertility.
FISH A symbol of Christ used by the early Christians re story of Feeding the 5,000.
FLAG Patriotism or military supremacy.
Our Lady; passion; ardour; mother.
FLOWER Frailty or brevity of life.
FOO DOG Almost entirely restricted to monuments to those of the Chinese community, being one of the four animals of power, energy and bravery.
FROG Worldy pleasure, i.e. sin.


GARBE The heraldic term for the sheaf of corn. Common feature on headstones to farmers. Also associated with the bread of the Last Supper.
GARLAND A wreath of flowers, for remembrance. Also victory over death.
GATES The entry into Heaven.
GLORY OF GOD Depicted by clouds, sun, sunrays, trumpets and more simply by a sunburst.
GRAPES Sacrifice; immortality.


HAMMER If shown with pincers, indicative of a smith.
HAND/S As an admonitory finger a pointer to Heaven, with a heart as an emblem of Charity, when clasped as a symbol of brotherly love, farewell or reunity. On Jewish tombs, two outstretched hands with the thumbs touching symbolises a descendant of Aaron, the High Priest (nearly all named Cohen).
HARP Instrument of the angels; divine/heavenly music.
HEART Divine love and devotion. When flaming, the fire of Divine Love.
HEART, PIERCED When pierced by as word, indicative of the Virgin Mary’s sorrow.
HELMET Military service;also occasionally used on monuments to firemen and policemen.
HOLLY Symbolic of the Crown of Thorns.
HORSE Strength, courage or the swiftness of the passage of time.
HORSESHOE Protection against evil.
HOURGLASS The ‘sands of time’; passage of time, mortality and death;also a symbol of Father Time. Portrayed either in a vertical or horizontal position. Sometimes a flaming hour-glass was carved to represent eternity.
Passage of life/time.
HYACINTH Truth and hope.


IHS First three letters (Iota, Heta, Sigma) of the Greek spelling of Jesus. Also In Hoc Salus (‘In this cross, Salvation’) and In Hoc Signo (‘In this Sign[ye shall conquer]’).
IRIS Light and hope.
IVY The evergreen, symbolising immortality, everlasting life or friendship.


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LABYRINTH In popular usage, symbolises eternity; used in esoterictradition to represent the inward path.
LAMB The Agnus Dei, the Lamb of God. Signifies innocence, often used on infants’ and children’s graves. See: John 1, 29 and Revelation 5, 6-14.
LAMP Immortality, knowledge of God. See: 2 Samuel 22, 29 and Psalm 119, 105.
LANCE Weapon of death.
LAUREL Fame or Victory, often of a literary or artistic figure.
LILY Symbol of Our Lady, of the Easter resurrection and of chastity, innocence and purity.
LILY of the VALLEY Rebirth.
LION Courage, strength and the Resurrection (tradition being that the lion’s whelp is born dead and remains so for three days until its father breathes on it). Also the symbol of St Mark.
LOTUS Purity,perfect beauty, spiritual revelation.


MALE FIGURES The commonest male representations – apart from that of Our Lord – are of Eros, carrying or resting of a reversed torch, Thanatos, shown as a young man leaning against a tree trunk and lowering his lighted torch towards a small altar, and Hypnos, the son of Night, often standing next to Thanatos with more gracious mien. If winged, the symbol of St Matthew the Evangelist.
MALLET & CHISEL Symbolic of a joiner.
MENORAH Divine wisdom.
MIRROR Symbolises truth and knowledge, may also possibly refer to 1 Cor. 13:12, ‘For now we see in a mirror, darkly; but then face to face etc.
MISTLETOE Immortality.
MITRE Symbol of episcopal status.
MOON Rebirth.


NEPTUNE With trident, anchor and accompanying puffing-cherub representing Wind, usually found on mariners’ tombstones.


OAK LEAVES Hospitality; strength, honour; eternity; endurance; liberty.
OAK TREE Temporal human strength, and the male head of the family.
OBELISK Eternal life, from the Egyptian sun-worshipping symbol.
OLIVE BRANCH Peace, harmony and healing. If in a dove’s beak, a symbol of refuge.
OPEN GATES Entrance to heaven.
ORB Faith.
OWL Wisdom.


PALM Triumph of a martyr over death.
PANSY Remembrance, meditation.
PASSION FLOWER Christ’s passion, sacrifice and redemption. The five petals and sepals representing the ten Apostles (Peter and Judas are omitted),the five anthers the Wounds of Christ, the tendrils the scourges, hammers,the three stigmas the nails and the filaments within the flower the Crown of Thorns.
PASTORAL STAFF The standard symbol for a bishop.
PEACOCK Early symbol of resurrection; when the peacock sheds its feathers, he grows a more brilliant one than that which he lost.
PELICAN Piety and atonement. The pelican was believed to draw blood from its breast to nourish its young.
PEONY Honour, love or affection.
PHEASANT Beauty and good fortune.
PHOENIX Christ’s resurrection. A mythical bird which at death bursts into flame but rises to immortal life from its own ashes.
PICK The sexton’s tool, symbolising mortality.
PILLOW Symbolising the deathbed.
PINEAPPLE Symbolises fertility.
PINK Genius.
POPPIES Sleep; usually associated with WWI military death, i.e. poppies in Flanders Field.
PLOUGH Symbolic of a farmer.
PUTTI A wingless pot-bellied naked infant, usually male, cherubic in origin.
PYRAMID Eternal life,enlightenment and spiritual attainment.


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RAKE & SPADE A gardener.
RAINBOW Fulfilment of the promise of resurrection.
RIFLE Military service.
ROCKS Solidarity, strength, the Church, or steadfastness of the Christian faith.
ROD or STAFF Comfort to the bereaved.
ROPE Symbolic of betrayal or arrest, after the rope used to bind Jesus following His arrest.
ROSE Sinless, innocence, a paragon, one without peer, usually associated with Our Lady (the Rosa Mystica of the Garden of the Saints) or Paradise.
ROSEBUDS Strong bond between two people, usually children or mother and child.
ROSEMARY Remembrance.


SCALES Weighing the soul on the day of Judgment. If held by a blindfolded female figure, Justice, being one of the seven Christian Virtues of Wisdom, Fortitude, Temperance, Justice, Faith, Hope and Charity.
SCALLOP SHELL Birth, baptism,everlasting life.
SCARAB Transcendence.
SCEPTRE Fortitude.
SCISSORS & GLOVE Emblematic of a glover.
SCYTHE The passage of time and death. If held by afemale figure, Fortitude, being one of the seven Christian Virtues of Wisdom, Fortitude, Temperance, Justice, Faith, Hope and Charity.
Masonic insignia.
SHAMROCK The Trinity. Also emblematic of Irish descent.
SHEATH of WHEAT Abundant life or final harvest.
SHEARS Symbolic of a lady, or of the wife or daughter of a wool stapler or clothier, or of a sheep farmer.
SHELL Pilgrimage. The badge of those who travelled to Santiago da Compostella.
SHIP The Christian Church, carrying the faithful through the world.
SICKLE See Scythe.
SKELETON Death. Frequently shown carrying a scythe, since death is the cutting of this life, or with an hourglass, the symbol of the passing of time, or with adart/spear. Sometimes depicted as lying down or on a bed or in a hammock like object. When portrayed standing (with the weapons of death, the dart, spear, scythe or lance) it is the personification of death, the King of Terrors. Anatomical details are carved according to the mason’s skill and knowledge.
SKULL Death of mortality. On 17th century monuments, usually portrayed either in partial profile or facing front or above or on crossed bones. The 18th century masons carved the skull in many ways:with or without lower jaw, full face, three quarter or half profile, noses triangular, U-shaped, heart-shaped; eye sockets deep or shallow, large or small.
SKULL, CROWNED Triumph over Death.
SKULL, WINGED Death or mortality; more commonly found on 17th century headstones. Also symbolises flight of the soul from mortal man.
SNAIL Laziness.
SNAKE With its tail in its mouth, symbolises eternity. With apples or with a tress symbolic of the Fall of Man.
SPADE & PICK The sexton’s tools,symbolising mortality.
SPADE & TURF CUTTER The sexton’s tools; the latter has a triangular blade. Very often the two tools are crossed.
SPIDER’S WEB Human frailty.
SQUARE &AXE A stonemason.
STAFF or ROD Comfort to the bereaved.
STAR Divine guidance.
STAR OF DAVID Fraternity; also a Masonic insignia.
Renewed life, i.e. resurrection.
Everlasting life.
SUNDIAL The passage of time.
SWORD Justice, constancy or fortitude. Part of the Armour of God’. See: Ephesians 6, 10-18.
Life (usually a military one) cut short.
Relinquishment of power, i.e. victory.


TETRAGAMMATON Four Hebrew letters – Y, H, W. E – spelling the true name of God.
THISTLE Earthly sorrow. Also indicative of Scottish descent.
TORCH Taken from a Greek emblem. Symbolised immortality; if upturned, symbolises life extinguished.
TOWER Strength.
TREE Regeneration and immortality.
TRIANGLE Holy Trinity. Sometimes also used as a Masonic device.
TRIQUETA Three interlocking circles or triangles: the Holy Trinity, eternity.
TRUMPET Announcement of the soul’s entry into Heaven; resurrection.
TULIP Honour.


URN Draped and empty, symbolises death, derived from classical cinerary urns; if flaming, indicates new life.


VENUS See Psyche
VIRTUES The Seven Christian Virtues (shown as female figures with their attributes) comprising the Four Cardinal Virtues of Wisdom (Book), Fortitude (Scythe), Temperance(Column) and Justice (Blindfolded with Scales); and the Three Theological Virtues of Faith (Cross), Hope (Anchor) and Charity (with children or child).


WATER Symbolises life; a hand pouring water from a flagon may occur on Jewish tombs of the Levites whose duty in the synagogue is to pour water upon the hands of the priests.
WEEPERS Usually shown in full relief on the top slopes of the headstone, and in the form of putti.
WHEAT The Bread of Life; fruitfulness harvested; bounty.
WHEEL The ‘Circle of Life’.
WILLOW Grief and mourning. Folklore held that the willow dispelled evil, purified,and facilitated contact with the spiritual world.
WINGED MAN See: Male Figures.
WINGED OX Symbol of St Luke the Evangelist.
WINGED SOUL Member of the elect, the soul being received straight into heaven.
WINGS Divine mission, thus angels and cherubim are depicted with wings.
WREATH Eternal life, victory.


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YEW Mourning, on account of its dark colour and association with churchyards.


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©Julian W S Litten