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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. CS

    Come on, really? All the misrepresentation comments. Not everyone has to focus across the board all the time – plus you are talking about VERY small percentages of the United States population with most of those. Including one picture out of 17 would be over-representation. As others have said, some other practices do not even practice burial and/or headstones. Want to see a headstone from another practice? That's what internet image search is for.

    Can't please all the people all the time – although in today's society everyone thinks they should be.

    May 31, 2010 at 3:12 pm |
  2. Dave

    What special meaning does humor have? I've heard about inscriptions on stones that say, "Though my body lies below, my spirit is with you. Just a little to your left" and "If you put your head to the ground, I'll tell you a secret".

    May 31, 2010 at 2:59 pm |
    • Pat

      I'm always a fan of
      "Here lies Dr. Dentist,
      This is the last cavity
      He will ever fill."

      May 31, 2010 at 4:32 pm |
  3. C

    An OK point that only Christian headstones are mentioned. I am a non-Christian and a cemetery enthusiast (sounds creepy! But I enjoy them like quiet parks, and for their art and history). But Christian headstones are what I see most of the time, and then a few Jewish headstones depending on the cemetery. I'm sure there are many atheists, agnostics in my local cemeteries, but they probably are the more simple ones. Or because of assumptions or convention, the headstones my hold Judeo-Christian symbolism. I notice there tends to be less symbolism on newer headstones. I think the time of elaborate and even decadent graves gave way to a simple aesthetic, no matter what the religion is. I'm not well-traveled, but it's been only in larger cities that I have seen anything much different from Judeo-Christian monuments. The only ones I remember well have been Chinese monuments in big cities. I am pretty familiar with symbolism from various Asian, Middle Eastern and Earth religions, too...

    May 31, 2010 at 2:57 pm |
    • Dan

      Modern cemeteries don't allow elaborate stones. They want them nice and flat, lying on the ground so that they caan cut the grass without having to come back and trim around the stones. THAT is why you see fewer stones with a lot of decorations on them.

      May 31, 2010 at 8:36 pm |
  4. Matt

    Cemeteries are what they are. Clamoring for some 21st century concept of diversity in the artifacts of an 18th or 19th century society is missing the point, although I spend a lot of time photographing cemeteries, and in fact at least here in New England, neoclassical and Egyptian motifs are almost as frequently seen as Christian ones.
    The dead are defenseless; thinking like that expressed by some here is why so many amazing and historical cemeteries have been vandalized, neglected, and ultimately destroyed. After all, all those Christian symbols on gravestones are a real annoyance to those out to prove this has never been a Christian civilization..

    May 31, 2010 at 2:39 pm |
    • Dan

      Well said!

      May 31, 2010 at 8:33 pm |
    • Anne

      Couldn't have said it better myself! I especially like, "The dead are defenseless." That sums up why I'm working so hard on a cemetery preservation project. And yes, as a cemetery researcher, I have noticed that Christian symbols on older headstones are very prevalent and I perceive them as a tangible reminder of our nation's heritage.

      June 1, 2010 at 8:08 pm |
    • WideEyed

      Wish everyone was as insightful as you Matt.

      June 7, 2010 at 1:52 am |
  5. Cathy

    I found it Christian-centric as well. Too bad, I'd like to have seen other funeral/burial monuments.

    To Cherie – yeah, let's not think critically about articles, news, books etc. That just leads to "complaining." Let's just soak everything in and take it all at face value without analysis. Sure, that's a great practice.

    May 31, 2010 at 2:30 pm |
  6. Jason

    Interesting how some people forget the focus of this article... which is "historic cemeteries" in the United States. Of course these old ceemteries will present primarily "Christian" symbols. Furthermore, as a certified genealogist and someone that spends much of my summer in cemeteries, I have yet to find a common symbol used in "historic cemeteries" to indicate an "atheists". Yes, there are symbolisms of other religions found however they are limited in older burial grounds and this article is limited on size and coverage. This article speaks of common symbols, widely known among people in my community, found on headstone at the turn of the last century. If your interest requires further information, I would recommend seek out further reading... not a news website. A good article by the way.

    May 31, 2010 at 2:27 pm |
    • evergreen

      Ancestor
      Your tombstone stands among the rest, neglected and along.
      The name and the date are chiseled on polished, marbled stone.
      It reaches out to all who cares. It is too late for us to mourn.
      You did not know that I would exist. You died and I was born.
      Yet each of us is a cell of you, in flesh, in blood and in bone.
      Our blood contracts and beats a pulse, entirely not our own.
      Dear Ancestor, the place you fill one hundred years ago.
      Spreads out among the ones you left, who would have loved you so.
      I wonder if you lived and loved.
      I wonder if you knew that someday I would find this spot.

      And come to visit you.

      June 1, 2010 at 1:15 pm |
  7. marie herrera

    foreknowledge vs predestination just because God knows what each of us will ultimately choose is not predestination. all thru the Bible we see where man was given the freedom of free choice or free will. He (Jesus) died giving us freedom of choice . Eve chose to eat the forbidden fruit even knowing the consequences of her actions she chose to disobey... Judas walked daily with Christ, knew who He was and what He was about, even at the table when Christ foretold what was about to take place Judas knew he had the plans in his head and ready to put into play ....he still choose to betray Christ. It is no different with us daily we choose what we will do whether it be for good or bad they are our God given right to choose. If you are my friend and I know you are an addict and I know you are taking high doses of pills or drugs I know you are going to die it does not mean I predestined you to do this it means i had foreknowledge of your abuse but I did not make your choice ...YOU did!

    May 31, 2010 at 2:17 pm |
    • Cyndi

      I think the objection to predestination is the idea of God knowing ahead of time which choice we will make, the right one or wrong one.

      June 1, 2010 at 6:36 am |
    • frantz

      The Bible through divine revelation is very clear what death entails.. Unfortunately, it is not something to romanticize about; as it is a result of our disobedience to God's perfect plans for us. However, there is a second chance at eternal life (see 1 Thess. 4:13-15).

      June 1, 2010 at 8:10 am |
  8. jinx

    if i read this correct, they are refereing to the mid-19th century. in the cemetaries i have visited, there is not a huge amount of diveristy in this time period. and to cover all the different aspects of memorials for all people, that would be a significanly longer article.....even a series of articles.
    take if for what it is and move on.

    May 31, 2010 at 1:46 pm |
  9. Rob

    My mother died of cancer, but chose to donate her body to medical science. Maybe they learned something to help others. Makes me feel better than going to a graveyard..

    May 31, 2010 at 1:37 pm |
  10. chris

    Tombstones is another way of depleting someones wallet. Even after the bill is paid, I'm surprised they still don't charge additional fees per month for the rest of the livings lives for the spot in the ground that most of us will end up one day. Yes, some can be very interesting to look at and some even educational as in finding info on relatives you never knew, but what is the real purpose?

    May 31, 2010 at 1:33 pm |
  11. What about us

    I agree, these are all Christian (except the 1 Jewish) symbol. What about the rest of us Atheists, Taoist, Muslim, Hindus, Wiccans, Buddhists, Satanists and a barage of other religions that I can't possibly list here. If you are going to do a piece about different symbols you should include some diversity. You don't have to like or agree with them, but to deny their existance and meanings to their respective followers is ignorant and moreorless something I'd expect to see on America's al-Jazeera aka Fox News. Please include some diversity!

    May 31, 2010 at 12:57 pm |
    • Thought before offense

      These were also images taken from 19th century cemeteries, presumably in the U.S. or western Europe. At the time, you either were Christian or Jewish (even if in name only) or you kept your mouth shut, or you weren't buried among Christians or Jews. So it's highly unlikely that any other religions are represented in these grave yards. At worst, the writer of this article was not thorough when taking samples. That's hardly something to get up in arms about.

      May 31, 2010 at 1:21 pm |
    • KellyinCA

      Given that this is about the history of American grave monuments from the 18th century onwards, the _vast_ majority of the stones and images extant at the time would have been for Christians. The emergence in America of other faith traditions such those you mentioned is much more recent. However, currently the choices available for imagery on headstones is virtually limitless and tends to honor the individual, not only their faith (or lack thereof.)

      May 31, 2010 at 2:02 pm |
    • coyote123

      As for Buddhists, we cremate and usually scatter the ashes. Sometimes the family has a small stone shrine for all the ashes of the ancestors, but that is northern Buddhist tradition, S.E. Asia..cremate and scatter. Dead bodies are not considered to be the individual and it is rather weird to keep them around but remembering and honoring them in name is practiced.

      May 31, 2010 at 2:26 pm |
    • stanley

      remember that in most cases relatives bury them so they only regard the conversions if entire family surviving converted as well. also keep in mind in some cases other sects have their own exclusive cemeteries for better or worse. sometimes there are neighborhood or parish where faith was predominant.

      May 31, 2010 at 2:28 pm |
    • Dan

      What, exactly are the symbols of atheism? What would you put on your stone? A dove with a circle and a red line through it?

      May 31, 2010 at 8:29 pm |
    • BassOMatic

      Atheists are much less likely to have a headstone. Why pay for some overpriced carved rock to sit in a boneyard when you are no longer in existence?

      June 1, 2010 at 8:50 am |
    • Dennis Pence

      You provide a nice list. Unfortunately for these religions, this nation was founded on Judeau Christian principles. That is the main reason for what you see on headstones. Atheists, Hindus, Satanists and others can choose to do what they wish. The only reason they exist here is that America offers "Freedom of Religion". I can almost assure you that if the Founding Fathers thought Witches and Satanists would hijack the term religion – they would have dealt with it then. Never agreed with burning people at the stake, but gives you an idea of how radical religion can be. Christianity appears to offet the most loving, caring form of religion (in its true sense) and does not demand that conform to their religion or die as the Koran suggests. Satan, Buddah, Mohammed – none of these gave their live for the salvation of man – and none claimed to he the Son of God. If you have true faith in God, no explanation is necessary, if you do not – no explanation is possible.

      June 1, 2010 at 6:09 pm |
    • Mat

      Well said Dennis.

      June 4, 2010 at 11:19 am |
    • Sid

      Wha, wha, wha. It's all about you isn't it? The vocal minority using the megaphone of the internet to say your little piece about "me, me, me". One thing you'll need to understand is that Christians are not second class citizens. It's your boat to sail through life how you like – it's called free will – Have a nice trip. 🙂

      June 5, 2010 at 12:02 am |
    • jojo

      Here's a possible suggestion for a headstone epitaph that could be altered for persons of other or no religions. I can't take credit for it; I read it on a headstone somewhere...

      "Here lies an aetheist. All dressed up and no where to go".

      June 6, 2010 at 12:07 pm |
  12. Modern Realists

    There seems to have be widespread confusion in the Western world, that the limited understanding of complex systems which are held by an extremely limited number of people can somehow be used to override the moral, religious and philosophical beliefs of those that came before them.

    As unhealthy as some people have claimed religion or determinism to be, it is far less healthy to dismiss meaningful concepts outright. Exiting the theatre of self introspection on the grounds that its results cannot be empirically weighted is at best cowardly, and at worst self destructive.

    May 31, 2010 at 12:37 pm |
  13. Lydia

    We etched an Eastern dragon on my brother's headstone after he passed away. We would have liked to do a tiger as well, since he enjoyed both of those things, but it wasn't an option for us at the time.

    May 31, 2010 at 12:33 pm |
  14. stanley

    it's nice when stones carry a verse
    meter matters not nor the time
    it doesn't have cost a family purse
    it matters not that even has a rhyme

    May 31, 2010 at 12:28 pm |
  15. Cemetery Seeker

    To Christian: I'm not sure how often you visit cemeteries, but the monuments are predominately Christian, with a smattering of star of davids here or there... I have only very rarely found a muslim grave in any run-of-the-mill cemetery. As far as atheist, neopagan or any other sort of school-of-thought being represented in a cemetery? I've never seen it yet! And I visit a LOT of cemeteries. Not to say they're not out there, but it's certainly very location/population specific. Remember, up until the last couple generations nearly everyone was raised christian, for better or worse.

    May 31, 2010 at 12:21 pm |
  16. spirit

    doves represent Jesus, not the holy ghost. Roses represent the Holy spirit.

    May 31, 2010 at 11:41 am |
    • mm

      What denomination are you? I'm not familiar with the Holy Spirit being represented by a rose. It's typically a dove or a flame. Roses are sometimes a Marian symbol.

      May 31, 2010 at 4:15 pm |
    • Dan

      Umm, the Holy Spirit descended ay Christ's baptism and alit upon Christ in the form of a dove, hence the symbol.

      The rose represents the Catholic church. Mary holding a rose means she is the Queen of the Church.

      May 31, 2010 at 8:24 pm |
  17. derni

    Seems times have changed..40 some of people are now opting for cremation..saving on land and the funeral homes that take advantage of families at a time when they might be most vulnerable. Save the earth and the environment...have a green funeral

    May 31, 2010 at 11:36 am |
    • Ben

      So.... Funeral homes are expensive and take advantage of people when most vulnerable ? Who do you you suppose is going to help with that "green funeral" Do you know the true meaning of a green funeral ? Are you going to load your dead mother, brother, child into the back of the family mini van.....drive 'em down to the local "green" cemetery, plop 'em in the grave ? Of course you will !!!!! And you'll remember and have the knowledge and ability to complete and file the death certificate, burial permit, transit permit and oh don't forget filing social security paperwork, verterans death benefits, and possibly life insurance/pension paperwork. Yep !!!! I'm sure you won't need any help at all. No need for that funeral director that's on call 24 hours a day, every day of the year; no need for someone who's job in life is to help take care of the dead and those greaving a loss. Good luck with your funeral.

      May 31, 2010 at 4:07 pm |
    • Pat

      It takes fuel and a high temperature to cremate bodies. Those that truly want to help mankind should think about donating their bodies to science to help further our understanding of the human body and possibly help those who are suffering from disease and disability.

      May 31, 2010 at 4:28 pm |
    • Andrea M

      Meh, donate as much of me as possible then give the left-overs to medical science. Once the living are done with me, cremate me and dump me in he ocean.

      After all, I won't be home anymore, it'll just be my shell.

      May 31, 2010 at 8:48 pm |
    • Melissa

      People should request whatever they want done with their own body...so long as they don't stink up the neighborhood.

      June 3, 2010 at 2:47 pm |
  18. Cherie

    Someone somewhere has to complain! Never can please everyone! Enjoy the article...period.

    May 31, 2010 at 11:28 am |
  19. Christian

    These are all Christian or Jewish... How about some diversity?

    May 31, 2010 at 11:11 am |
    • spirit

      Well, concidering we are discussing the ACT OF buring your loved ones with a tombstone representation benieth the earth ...it would be christian or Jewish.. not all religiions believe in doing this for the deceased.

      May 31, 2010 at 11:52 am |
    • Jo

      that's an interesting observation and am interested at how other cultures remember...

      May 31, 2010 at 5:04 pm |
    • Krissy

      I've seen some incredible monuments in Tokyo cemetaries... why the Western focus?

      May 31, 2010 at 7:22 pm |
  20. Reality

    For those who still believe in predestination and reincarnation:

    Christians (et al) must give up a perverse, unhealthy and inhuman doctrine of predestination without in so doing making God the great scapegoat of history."

    "Nothing is determined in advance: in nature there is chance and determinism; in the world of human activity there is possibility of free choices. Therefore the historical future is not known even to God, otherwise we and our history would be merely a puppet show in which God holds the strings.

    For God, too, history is an adventure, an open history for and of men and women." – Schillebeeckx

    May 31, 2010 at 9:59 am |
    • ATX

      Assuming God is bound by time. What if that's not the case? Would knowing the choices we are going to make before we make them be the same as a "puppet show"?

      May 31, 2010 at 12:06 pm |
    • Susan

      All I had to read was the word, "therefore" in your lengthy post. "Therefore" means you are using human rationale and logic. You presume to understand too much. Silly.

      May 31, 2010 at 3:36 pm |
    • walkergw

      What if you are the one who is incorrect? Consider the world in a fourth demensional space time continuum. Everrything that has or will happen already has. In this case, everything may already be predetermined.

      My point is that I hate it when people think that only their ideas could possibly be correct, then insult everyone who doesn't think like they do. Atheists, Theists.... You all have the fundamental same problem. Maybe it is time to think that maybe you are not correct. Listen to others and don't judge. Maybe their ideas are not for you, but that does not mean they are idiots. I will make only one proclamation. Anyone who is not not accepting of others is wrong.

      May 31, 2010 at 5:10 pm |
    • Noble9

      How would you know whether there is predestination or not, do you claim to have 100% understanding of everything in the universe?

      May 31, 2010 at 6:49 pm |
    • Holy Diver

      Clearly he is omniscient... We should listen to everything he has to say, he obviously has much wisdom to impart.

      May 31, 2010 at 11:46 pm |
    • Kaylan

      God gave humans free will, so that says it all.

      June 1, 2010 at 9:24 am |
    • Reality

      Free will is a basic character of the human race endowed either by evolution and/or by some creator. Keep in mind that this also imparts the basic gift of future. i.e. there was and never be any prophesying/fortune telling.

      June 1, 2010 at 9:40 am |
    • john

      So, God has no idea what's going to happen next? That would actually explain a lot. But, of course, that makes God a part of space-time and subject to the uncertainties of time... Maybe He jumped into the 4D universe right after He created it. I guess that means He would have died a really long time ago. And, again, we're on our own.

      June 2, 2010 at 12:20 pm |
    • NOA

      To walkergw: To state unequivocally that "Anyone who is not not accepting of others is wrong." carries its own implications that you may not have considered. Where do you draw the line regarding "accepting others"? Taken to the extreme, should the world have been more accepting of the German ideals that led to WWII? Should the folks in Kosovo have been more accepting of Slobodan Milosevic's views? Not accepting someone's views doesn't make one "wrong". If I present the argument that "not accepting others is right" and you've previously stated that "not accepting others is wrong" are you not accepting me for believing differently? Or rather, are you meant to hold your tongue and reveal no opinion on the matter so as to not appear to be not accepting of my counter view? Just a thought....

      June 2, 2010 at 8:32 pm |
    • ann

      I hope you like the dark.....and for a very, very, long time. Jesus, get to know him.

      June 4, 2010 at 12:01 pm |
    • KMM

      I like the epitaph: I toldja I was sick!

      June 4, 2010 at 1:30 pm |
    • Gregory

      Since the main point of the article was about how headstones and monuments in cemeteries change over time (not about predestination), I'm wondering: what would your headstone look like?

      June 8, 2010 at 8:10 am |
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