What do headstone symbols mean?
May 31st, 2010
07:14 AM ET

What headstones say about the living

Cemeteries are known for telling the stories of the people buried there. But the symbols on headstones and monuments can tell a different story: how our view of death has changed over time.

“Historic cemeteries really function as outdoor museums,” says Steve Estroff, education manager at Green-Wood Cemetery in Brooklyn, New York.

A skull with wings, an urn or a tree were popular on headstones in America during the 17th and 18th centuries.

The Puritans “looked upon death as something that caused anxiety because they believed in the idea of predestination – that God has already chosen ahead of time who is going to be saved and who is going to be damned,” says Joy Giguere, chair of membership and development of the Association of Gravestone Studies.

“When you look at the older monuments and symbols you do get a greater sense of community,” Giguere said. “Individuals are part of a whole earlier in America. In a given cemetery, most of the people buried there adhere to same belief powers, same social hierarchical structure."

But attitudes toward religion and death softened in the mid-19th century – and gravestones began to reflect that change. Sentimental symbols of death – doves, crosses, angels, flowers and hands, to name a few – started to appear.

In the early 20th century, a transition from large monuments to relatively small headstones uniform in style began to appear.

World War I “was a very traumatic experience for Americans, and it made Americans start to rethink the whole idea of our attitude toward death and this is the point we start to see cemeteries be unified,” Giguere said.

Today, how people remember the death of loved ones can be as individualized as the person. Laser-etched photographs of the person or their pet can be placed on headstones. Images of activities the person enjoyed – like tennis, reading or NASCAR – are displayed on markers.

Some families chose to plant a bush or tree instead. Outside of cemeteries, drivers place “In Loving Memory Of” bumper stickers on their cars. And others will opt for a tattoo to honor someone.

“I think we live in a society (today) where we focus on the individual," Giguere said. "Our desires, our individuality is what defines us, and that individuality gets transferred onto the gravestones of the dead.”

- Associate Producer

Filed under: Art • Culture & Science • Traditions

soundoff (119 Responses)
  1. Hill Bright

    To know about headstone in detail, this is a too attractive writing.

    April 12, 2013 at 2:26 am |
  2. Olga

    This is a great blog that explains more about headstones and their history. Working in the industry myself, I have found that the more outlets and information that people have, the better off they are. I actually created a very rookie blog myself set to educate people about headstones (we make individual and family memorials for the Midwest cemeteries). I would love your feedback as I just started this blog and it is my goal to educate people, so when it is the right time for them to purchase a headstone, they know exactly what to look for! 🙂 Thank you ~ Olga

    September 1, 2011 at 9:21 am |
  3. nyles Cota

    im gonna be cremated then used as fertilizer in a chronic plant and b smoked

    June 8, 2010 at 5:38 am |
  4. TreeClimber

    Re posting by Evergreen on Jun 1st, above:
    Who is the author of the poem you posted? I've been researching my ancestors since I was 25 (47 years ago), and it's always a great satisfaction to find a tombstone of, e.g., a great-gr-gr-gr-grandma who died in 1855 in Texas, or a Revolutionary War or Civil War stone for an ancestor, etc. Although I'm opting for cremation, I will have a military headstone (am a retired vet) put next to one of my ancestors simply so descendants can find me!
    P.S. My car won't drive by an historical cemetery without turning in and at least driving through!

    June 8, 2010 at 12:15 am |
    • evergreen

      Author unknown. Bet we could talk for hours about the stories we learn researching our ancestors. I have one going back to 1600. How piece of history at a New Jersey library.

      June 9, 2010 at 1:28 pm |
  5. Katie

    Funerals are for the living, not the dead. There is no God and if there was a heaven it would be hell. Supposedly, humans are the chosen ones by God. Only humans go to heaven. I wouldn't want to go where there aren't any trees, grass, plants, birds, bees, dogs or cats.
    Cemetaries are ruining our ground water and causing illnesses the government won't admit. If you want to bury your dead, do so with out all the chemicals. Allow the dead to fertilize the ground and nurish the plants and trees.

    June 7, 2010 at 4:52 am |
    • Gary

      Good points Katie...

      June 7, 2010 at 10:09 am |
  6. Donna Mansker

    When my 44 year old brother died from cancer a few years ago, his widow purchased a nice stone and had a baseball and a cardinal engraved on it. This was because my sister in law was not a christian and so she did not put any Christian symbols on the stone, but instead put the baseball and bird on it as he had been an avid St. Louis Cardinals fan all his life.
    We even buried a piece of the Old Busch Stadium with him. Anyway, WE know what it means. But somtime in the future will someone think he liked baseballs and was a bird watcher, too? He is buried in TN, not in St. Louis.

    June 6, 2010 at 10:32 pm |
    • TreeClimber

      I've been looking for ancestral tombstones for 47 years, and probably would not recognize what was symbolized on your brother's stone because they are not "standard" symbols known by genealogists. Maybe your sister-in-law could get the cemetery office to make a notation in its records. However, you might not have to worry if these things are mentioned in an obituary because if a descendant is an avid genealogist, he or she will track that down.
      Glenda, Nashville, TN
      P.S. Are you descended from the Mansker's Station founder?

      June 8, 2010 at 12:32 am |
  7. wolf

    No picture of monument of a tree shorn of its branches?...
    Look in old cemeteries with markers circa the Flu Pandemic of the Nineteen-teens... they symbolize a life of promise cut short a family tree bereft of its outbranching future. ( They're usually found on the graves of children of that time period.)

    June 5, 2010 at 7:04 pm |
  8. jmarm

    Abou Ben Adhem (may his tribe increase)
    Awoke one night from a deep dream of peace
    And saw, within the moonlight in his room
    ....An Angel writing in a book of gold///
    "What writest thou?"
    The angel answered, "The names of those who love the Lord."
    "And is mine one?" said Abou
    "Nay, not so." replied the angel.
    "I pray thee then, write me as one that loves his fellow-men."
    The Angel wrote and vanished. The next night
    It came again with a great wakening light,
    And showed the names whom love of God had blessed,
    And,lo! Ben Adhem's name led all the rest!

    June 5, 2010 at 4:39 pm |
  9. Dee

    donating your body to science is a great idea. helps find causes and cures for all sorts of things. just remember that most universities or whoever the body goes to does their research and when finished the family is still responsible for doing a burial, cremation or whatever their beliefs are. so it's still not free.

    June 5, 2010 at 11:30 am |
  10. Steve

    Most of my dad's family headstones are name/birth/death fomat. Simple rememerances of loved ones passed on. Whether or not they are existent past the grave is nothing I can change. When my mother died in 2007 from an accidental fall I was heartbroken. At her funeral I cried because I missed her, but did not grieve from seeing her in a coffin. The body I saw was empty. My "mother" believed as a Christian and has gone to her reward.
    My siblings and I picked a nice Headstone for her. I can hear her saying " Its too expensive, don't spend so much on something I can't use."

    I love you Mom and will always remember you. You can't come too see me anymore but I will see you again.

    June 4, 2010 at 1:14 pm |
  11. Margaret

    Lail: Don't you mean "satanism"? That's not the first time I've seen someone post about "satin worship"!

    June 4, 2010 at 12:21 pm |
  12. Coltfourfive

    @Nitrogen, Physics disproves religion? I think not, I have taken a lot of physics classes and none of them ever even attempted to "get the God out of me". I think that the minds of Robert Boyle, Michael Faraday, James Clerk Maxwell, Lord Kelvin, J.J. Thompson, more recently, Nobel Prize winners in physics Arthur Schawlow, Charles Townes, Bill Phillips who have all spoken publicly about their faith would also disagree with you. But hey, they probably are not logical thinkers anyway...

    June 4, 2010 at 7:34 am |
    • Gary

      Physics and all sciences do not disprove a God. However physics and science proves earth is billions of years old. Also proves systematic steps of evolution and many things religion dosnt adhere to.

      June 4, 2010 at 12:09 pm |
    • macbaldy

      Science does not, cannot, is not interested in proving or disproving the existence of God. Logic and Faith are not definable on mutual terms, and such is not required. Many secular and religious scientists live entirely productive lives without conflict between the two world views.

      June 5, 2010 at 3:35 pm |
  13. Nitrogen

    I promise that taking physics and logic classes will get the god out of you. Try studying actual facts for a while and see what happens.

    June 4, 2010 at 4:13 am |
    • ann

      I would think it would make God get into you....I hope one day He is....

      June 4, 2010 at 12:04 pm |
  14. Smerlap

    Creation is not only stranger than we know, it is stranger than we can know.

    June 3, 2010 at 6:46 pm |
  15. Tom

    from boot hill:

    Here lie the bones of Lester Moore
    Took four shots from a forty four
    No less, No more.

    June 3, 2010 at 5:45 pm |
  16. Pingpaul

    In one of the cemetaries of New Orleans is a family mausoleum. Mr. Moriarity's wife died. He loved her dearly. So he had a mausoleum built with four female statues. Legend has it that the grieving husband said the figures represented "Faith. Hope, Charity, and Mrs.Moriarity," the four graces.

    June 3, 2010 at 4:05 pm |
  17. Lail

    Since when is Satinism a religion?

    June 3, 2010 at 1:24 pm |
    • Margaret

      Don't you mean "satanism"? This is not the first time I have seen a post about "satin worship"!

      June 4, 2010 at 12:23 pm |
  18. Jonas

    Mine will say: Return to Sender

    June 3, 2010 at 10:07 am |
  19. TexasR

    The best inscription I've seen was on an urn containing a woman's ashes. It said, "I'd rather be here than in Lubbock." Yep, that pretty well sums up life on Earth.

    June 3, 2010 at 9:05 am |
  20. Frank in Pensacola, FL

    At its essence this is an overly simplistic article about religious and burial symbols. It is overly simplistic because the meaning of a symbol can be particular to the individual or collectively recognized, or both. Two hands clasping might mean "welcome to the afterlife" to viewers or family. It also might be that the person buried there was a salesperson, a politician, or well remembered and loved for their hearty handshake. Maybe they ALWAYS shook hands when greeting family... Images and carvings might be on a stone simply because the person buried there like those things, not because they have a deep religious, theoretical, or symbolic meaning.

    Symbolic meaning changes w/time period, culture, religion, in-groups, individuals, family members' wishes and preferences, etc. And, let us not forget that the more elaborate stones – heck, in some cases having a stone at ALL! – result from the family or estate having the money to buy one.

    What one puts on the stone is limited by decisions of cost versus benefit. A plain stone w/DOB-DOD and a name doesn't mean the person was atheistic, for example. However, a mausoleum does represent a certain level of cost. Memorial stones, even today, are expensive. Elaborate, custom designs even more so. For example, a pair of slant markers for two couples, with basic details and simple, standard, stock designs sandblasted into them, can cost upwards of $5,000 when license fees and burial plot footings are included. I know – I just costed them out for four of my family. The bereaved are often being fleeced because of their fragile emotional state at the time of major purchases. However, even if little Jo should have had a headstone w/a lamb doesn't mean the family can afford one.

    June 3, 2010 at 8:09 am |
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The CNN Belief Blog covers the faith angles of the day's biggest stories, from breaking news to politics to entertainment, fostering a global conversation about the role of religion and belief in readers' lives. It's edited by CNN's Daniel Burke with contributions from Eric Marrapodi and CNN's worldwide news gathering team.