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. Tera

    >> This country was not made on the principles of Christianity or such.
    The "Freedom of Religion" extended to everyone and anyone who wanted to ocme to this nation. That included Pagans among many others.
    The large amount of people who came over where Christians, but that doesn't mean this nation was established for that religion.

    June 2, 2010 at 7:55 pm |
  2. Tera

    Personally I don't want to be buried nor placed in any build that has anything religious.
    I really want my body to be cremated and sent to only a certain selected people.
    I don't want my body near anything religion. Not even for a viewing or anything. No religious words are to be spoken at my funeral or anything that involves my death.

    I think that families of a person who dies place those monuments like that. A person could be an atheist or such, but sometimes it is the family that ignores the wishes of the dead and place religious icons and say religious words because they fear for the "soul" of the person who has passed. They don't care that the person didn't want that around their funeral and if they do and they do it anyways, I think that is disrespect. If a person has said that they didn't want anything religious or that they claim a label that is not religious, then don't say anything religious around their funeral.
    If I'm buried and it is done wrong, I'll make sure I haunt every person who let it happen.

    I don't believe in religion and I don't think I ever will.

    June 2, 2010 at 7:51 pm |
  3. Bubba

    When I die, I want them to erect an obelisk. A BIG obelisk, with a knob on top.

    June 2, 2010 at 11:55 am |
  4. Redladyanna

    How about the hundreds of billions who never had any monument to their existence

    June 1, 2010 at 5:51 pm |
    • adrian401

      There was never hundreds of billions of people on this earth dead or alive.

      June 2, 2010 at 7:29 am |
    • J.Crobuzon

      Their names were written in water.

      June 2, 2010 at 11:56 am |
    • Annie

      It doesn't really matter if we have a proper burial with a headstone or not. If doesn't matter if we die in a fire or are lost at sea or aborted by our parents. (Psalm 139:13-16) What matters most is that our Creator has us in His memory and promises to resurrect those who have died. According to John in Acts 24:15, "...there is going to be a resurrection of both the righteous and the unrighteous." I don't know exactly how many people have lived and died in the Earth since the beginning of Man, but there would certainly be enough room for all those resurrected to live again on the Earth. "Nothing is impossible with God." (Luke 1:37) The scripture that I find particularly comforting is John 5:28, 29, "Do not marvel at this, because the hour is coming in which all those in the memorial tombs will hear his voice and come out, those who did good things to a resurrection of life, those who practiced vile things to a resurrection of judgment." Those who are sincerely serving God at the time of their death will initially have an easier time after their resurrection. Those who didn't know God during their lifetime will have more of an adjustment initally because they will be learning about God for the first time and have a crucial decision to make–to serve God or not. Can you imagine greeting your dead loved one who was just resurrected from death? John said "Do not marvel at this" but how can you do anything but MARVEL at the wonderful promises in the not-so-distant future? Jesus said "the meek shall possess the earth." He was quoting from Psalms 37:10, 11 which said, "10 And just a little while longer, and the wicked one will be no more; And you will certainly give attention to his place, and he will not be. But the meek ones themselves will possess the earth, And they will indeed find their exquisite delight in the abundance of peace."

      If you're concerned about all the awful things happening on this planet, please take comfort in what Revelation 11:18 tell us: "But the nations became wrathful, and your own wrath came, and the appointed time for the dead to be judged, and to give [their] reward to your slaves the prophets and to the holy ones and to those fearing your name, the small and the great, and TO BRING TO RUIN THOSE RUINING THE EARTH." Yes, the Earth will soon be cleansed of evil & pollution and once again become a safe, joyful place for mankind to live.

      June 4, 2010 at 11:51 pm |
  5. mel

    Laura & V: the headstone itself is heart-shaped.

    June 1, 2010 at 4:31 pm |
  6. VS

    In the 8th photograph an iris flower is depicted, but the caption reads about hearts. Anybody knows why? Just curious, what am I missing....

    June 1, 2010 at 9:03 am |
  7. Laura

    Number 8 is an orchid, not a human heart. It's disappointing to me that such an obvious mistake was made.

    June 1, 2010 at 8:37 am |
    • mel

      That is an iris not an orchid. The larger stone is in the shape of a heart...

      June 2, 2010 at 1:29 pm |
  8. Stiff

    For an interesting read try Stiff by Mary Roach. I used to be opposed to donating my body to research but after reading this I believe it's the best use of my shell. Interest in any particular grave will only last a generation or two. Most are forgotten after that or the stones are no longer legible. At least through donation you might actually save another life or improve the world in some way. Put your body to work in after life. I've heard some medical colleges will return the bodies after they are through to the families for cremation or memorials.

    Also remember that having a christian symbol on a grave does not mean that individual was a practicing christian. It could mean that the people who made the decisions about burial wanted it. I have expressed my wishes but in the end I won't really have much say.

    June 1, 2010 at 8:09 am |
    • J.Crobuzon

      When I die, I'm donating my body to science fiction.

      June 2, 2010 at 12:04 pm |
    • sjc64ca

      I've read 'Stiff' and it's an excellent survey of what can be done with a body and how time and culture affect the various choices For example, it's only in relatively recent times that the Roman Catholic Church has approved of cremation. That being said, it's not as easy as you may think to donate a body to science, and there may be hidden costs involved. Even if my alma mater were to accept my body for use in the dissection lab my family would be on the hook years later for the costs of disposal. As well, most regional and municipal governments have regulations about the disposal of remains, so that limits personal choice. It also occurs to me, that like the ornamentation in the bibles and hymn books of the middle ages, symbols on tombstones were often meant for those that were not literate.

      June 2, 2010 at 9:15 pm |
  9. rob

    I was at a funeral in New York and noticed a headstone that read (SEE! I TOLD YOU I WAS SICK). Great since of humor, I loved it.

    June 1, 2010 at 5:16 am |
    • eileen

      Parisian cemeteries are incredible, Roman catacombs are awesome, Woodlawn in the Bronx is beautiful, New Orleans has the greatest crypts, Manhattan has a few small Jewish cemeteries in the most unlikely places but the best of all for inscriptions are some of the headstones on Key West. For me, nothing can top “At least I know where he’s sleeping tonight”

      June 4, 2010 at 8:06 am |
  10. KMB

    I love Pere Lachaise Cemetery...been there twice. I think is it the most beautiful outdoor museum and very historical. Many famous people are buried there. I love walking through old cemeteries where ever I travel. This article provided information I did not know and will pay more attention to the next time I visit an old cemetery. Strolling through several cemeteries at Placerville, Ca in the '70's got me hooked. Many people died during the 1849 Gold Rush.

    June 1, 2010 at 1:21 am |
  11. Richard

    Everyone is destined to die once and then face God in judgement. Jesus died for those who choose to trust in Him so they may have eternal life. People used to understand this and that's why "death had lost its sting" for those who were followers of Jesus Christ. For those who do not follow Jesus, death will be a terrifying separation from the influence of God. We all die, know where you are going.

    June 1, 2010 at 12:40 am |
    • Sally

      This is why many faiths are losing followers in droves. I will not follow a religion out of fear. Such dogmatic drivel has caused too much suffering already.

      June 1, 2010 at 9:26 am |
  12. Medelegant

    If you want to see a really interesting cemetery, with a tremendous range of diversity, I suggest Père Lachaise Cemetery – fascinating place to wander around for a few hours.

    May 31, 2010 at 8:30 pm |
    • Twanda

      Where is this cemetary?

      June 8, 2010 at 7:27 am |
  13. LAN

    I always wanted to be mulched into the garden but it seems that protein does not compost well. I have decided to donate my skeleton to a college I am connected with along with a medical history. This way the anthropology students can test their research against the facts. I think this is a good way to give back. My family will always know where to find me. Some people disapprove but they don't know me and have no say.

    May 31, 2010 at 8:27 pm |
  14. Medelegant

    All the talk about predestination and reincarnation and some all seeing, all knowing God reminds me of an old George Carlin gag.

    If God is all powerful, can he make a rock so big He Himself can't lift it?

    I always imagine that the rock He couldn't lift would be His headstone.

    May He rest in peace! 🙂

    Yes I am an atheist and do not believe in any supreme being.

    Hey.. at least I am polite and used upper case all those pronouns.. just trying to be respectful of other people's beliefs.

    May 31, 2010 at 8:26 pm |
    • Guinevere

      Hey I'm Catholic and I thought that was funny. Good imagery too. The stone He cannot lift is His tombstone. Thought provoking even if you didn't mean it that way. And thaks for the respect. It means a lot and does a lot for tolerance of each other.

      June 1, 2010 at 8:54 am |
    • Rainking

      He is God, so of course he could create a rock he himself couldn't lift, he can do anything. That said, he can lift a rock he can not lift, he is God and can do anything!

      June 2, 2010 at 3:26 pm |
  15. LEGORE

    For my own tombstone I plan to have a "Fish Symbol" with SCIENCE in the center.

    May 31, 2010 at 7:14 pm |
    • J.Crobuzon

      Cool, have it equipped with a motion detector and a video of you shouting "BOO!" could play when people walked by. Make it solar powered. Me, I plan to be cloned again.

      June 2, 2010 at 12:06 pm |
  16. William

    Personally, I want to be buried at sea.

    May 31, 2010 at 6:55 pm |
  17. AMP

    Please do not forget about the oldest civilization and many other religion such as Hinduism, Buddhism etc.

    May 31, 2010 at 5:52 pm |
  18. Germando Echovarde

    The shell is also representative of the pagan past.... the sea shell has a similar shape to the opening from which human beings come from and from the water..... a sea shell on a grave or on a head stone is symbolic of birth and the return from which we came. I once found a grave in Kansas that was 110 years old- Swedish. On the grave were three sea shells that appear to have been untouched for 110 years. The sea shell can be found on both Mediterranean and Nordic graves. ....... head stones like we see from the past are a rapidly disappearing cultural artifact.... because of cost, many people today opt for cremation or a bronze marker that in 100 years will be covered or stolen for the value of the bronze. Cemeteries also "encourage" the no headstone grave - quicker and easier to mow the grass if the mower can go right over all the graves and grass.

    May 31, 2010 at 4:29 pm |
  19. ProcessualAnthropologist

    Interesting piece to read. I have spent a significant amount of time studying and researching headstone designs and associated practices within the United States. The evolution of headstones, especially those mentioned in the New England area of Puritan design, is actually very amazing. There is easily associations that can be observed with how changes in England trickled down into areas like Boston, and then outwards in to the smaller areas.

    I am disheartened by those that express their distaste for the lack of diversity in headstone design. As many have said, it has not been until the last 20 years that a significant divergence in typical design began to occur. The fact is that headstones ultimately are a form of personal, social, or symbolic memory (depending on a number of factors). They do not serve the deceased, but provide some service to those that affiliate with the deceased (be that kin, group, or culture). Essentially it allows a method for a person to trace their lineage backwards, which when done, frequently is meant to create some validation for events in their present life. This all tends to lead to a change in headstone design that is of an evolving method. It becomes important to maintain headstones of the deceased in a manner that is consistent with cultural values and expectations. This is why change towards a more agency driven design has not arrived until the recent past. For someone to willingly associate themselves, and their history, with that of an "outsider" was likely detrimental. Mind you, our view of what an "outsider" is today is certainly very different than 50, 100, or 400 years ago.

    May 31, 2010 at 3:27 pm |
    • WideEyed

      This is a very good statement Anthropologist

      June 7, 2010 at 1:50 am |
  20. lynnellen

    My grandmother loved to go read all the inscriptions on gravestones in older graveyards. We once went to one that had several generations of her family. Gran recalled family stories about several buried there. It was like a history lesson. Amazing how hard our ancestors worked and only had themselves to depend on for food, shelter etc.. Makes me think what are our descendants going to think of us.. How hard has each of us worked and sacrificed for our own family.. Spend time with your older family members, you will learn more than you think.

    May 31, 2010 at 3:19 pm |
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