This is the second in a two-part series on tombstones and monuments, including the secret meanings behind the symbols and language used on memorial markers.
We will begin with an examination of the decorations frequently found on monuments, along with the inscriptions, exploring some of the motifs and commonly held interpretations of their symbolism. It is important to remember that the meaning of most of these symbols would have been crystal clear to our ancestors.
An angel flying or trumpeting is usually a reference to rebirth or resurrection. If the angel is weeping, then it is a symbol of grief and mourning.
The arch is a symbol of ‘Victory in Death’ and an arrow often represents mortality.
You will often see birds on a monument. A simple bird represents eternal life, while a flying bird may represent resurrection.
A carving of a book usually represents the Holy Book, perhaps the Bible. Fruits such as gourds or pomegranates represent the nourishment of the soul or the church.
As mentioned in the first article, columns and doors often represent a heavenly entrance. If the stone has a carving of a crown, then it is referring to glory of life after death.
A cup or chalice refers to the sacraments. Doves are very common on stones. The dove represents purity or devotion, while a flying dove is a nod to resurrection.
In a Richmond Hill cemetery, I found a carving of drapes, which represent mourning or mortality. It seems one of my Grandpa’s favourite symbols was the flame or torch that represents eternal life or resurrection. It was carved on the stone of my mother and father as a tribute to them. My Grandpa came out of retirement at the age of 88 to carve his iconic torch .
Flowers are another common motif found on stones. A flower by itself represents the fragility of life, while a flower with a severed stem is a reminder of a shortened life. You may also see a garland or wreath, which usually indicates victory in death (a symbol I never understood as I saw death as the ultimate loss).
You may encounter a grim reaper figure, which of course refers to death personified.
Hands are another popular symbol on monuments. If the hand is pointing up, it is said to represent the pathway to heaven or a heavenly reward. If the hands are clasped, then it refers to the final goodbyes said at death.
A heart represents love; love of God; abode of the Soul; or mortality. A monument with an hourglass refers to the passing of time. Two other common symbols are a lamb representing innocence or the lion representing courage, ‘The Lion of Judah’.
A pall represents mortality, a pick or shovel death or mortality. If you see a rod or staff, its meaning is referring to comfort for the bereaved.
The oddest symbol I ever saw was a rooster, which I was told referred to an awakening or resurrection. I also spotted a scythe on a stone in St. James cemetery intended to invoke death or the Divine Harvest.
A beautiful carved image seashells represents resurrection, everlasting life or life's pilgrimage.
An eerie symbol to encounter is that of the skull representing mortality. If you see a skull and crossed bones it represents death eternal. A skeleton is meant to convey life's brevity. A winged skull represents the flight of the soul from mortal man.
Associated with the depiction of a skull you may find a wreath on a skull that is said to represent the victory of life over death.
An interesting symbol is the snake with its tail in its mouth. This symbol is a representation of the eternity symbol representing everlasting life in heaven.
I have seen quite a few suns depicted. If it is rising, it irepresents renewed life; if it is shining, it represents life everlasting; and lastly, a sun setting symbolizes death.
A common symbol on the monuments on my father’s side of the family is the thistle, a proud indication of Scottish descent.
Most of us have seen the symbol of the tree, a reference to life. If the tree is sprouting, then it represents life everlasting. Another tree reference is the severed branch that refers to mortality, the tree stump representing life interrupted, the tree trunk representing the brevity of life and the tree trunk leaning indicating a short, interrupted life. A weeping willow tree is said to refer to mourning, grief; ‘Nature's Lament’.
An urn represents immortality as the ancient Egyptians believed that life would be restored in the future through their vital organs being placed in the eternity urn.
If there is a carving of wheat strands or sheaves, it is meant to represent the divine harvest.
Individual organizations and religious orders have specific symbols that they have embraced. We are all aware of the Christian Cross but there are symbols of crosses for almost every religious affiliation. Those who follow the Muslim or Jewish faiths have their own religious symbols.
Organizations and clubs have specific symbols that are carved on member’s monuments, organizations such as the Independent Order of Odd Fellows (I.O.O.F.), the Masonic (the free and accepted masons - F.& A.M.), the Memento Mori (Dark Memento) and trade unions that represent specific guilds.
There are an endless variety of angel symbols; some are playful, while some appear quite saintly or are a representation of the angel of death.
Some people want a portrait of their loved one on the tombstone. Some are actual photos encased in plastic, however my grandfather used to specialize in carving a representative bust or an embedded portrait of the deceased into the stone.
You will notice, particularly on children’s tombstones, carvings of teddy bears and fire engines, anything that represented something special in their short lives.
There are sometimes diamond-shaped panels or escutcheons bearing the coat of arms of a deceased person. If the person is a veteran, he may have a representation of his service on his stone, whether it be his regiment or his service information. You will often find representations of a flag carved into the monument. This is particularly true for ex-service personnel.
It is important to remember that that essentially any structure placed over a grave should be considered a monument, whether it be a large elaborate tomb or a small wooden marker. There are literally thousands of memorial symbols, representing every thought and belief connected to the life and death of humans.
While we often pass right by these embedded symbols today, our ancestors would look for those symbols on the stones and in many cases knew exactly what they represented. We do not visit cemeteries very often these days and so we have less and less opportunity to see this incredible artwork and ponder on the meaning behind it.
I urge all of you to take a walk through your local cemetery, these two articles in hand, and explore the magical and often mystical world contained within its grounds.
I want to thank my Grandpa and Uncle Jack Luesby for all those days and days of carting this young rascal around from cemetery to cemetery and regaling him with all this background information on the profession they so loved.
Who knew that someday I would find myself sharing all of this with all of you? I hope that you found it interesting and that you will get out and investigate your local cemetery and everything it has to offer. A sense of local history, of peace and of continuance will surely engulf you once you are there.
Sources: Tombstones: Signposts to the Past by Richard MacLeod Newmarket Historical Society March 17, 2004, and The Scarborough Historical Society January 24, 2005; Written in Stone: Research Booklet by Richard MacLeod Newmarket Historical Society March 17, 2004; Oral History Interviews with George Luesby Senior and John (Jack) Luesby from Luesby Memorials by Richard MacLeod
Newmarket resident Richard MacLeod — the History Hound — has been a local historian for more than 40 years. He writes a weekly feature about our town's history in partnership with Newmarket Today, conducts heritage lectures and walking tours of local interest, and leads local oral history interviews