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Grave Secrets - What graveyard statues reveal about your ancestors

Published on 8 Oct 2013 11:26 : 12 comments : 40778 views

“Let's talk of graves, of worms, and epitaphs;

Make dust our paper and with rainy eyes

Write sorrow on the bosom of the earth,

Let's choose executors and talk of wills”

- Shakespeare, Richard II


Graveyards are full of secrets and symbolism which can especially be seen on the grave statues and epitaphs on tombs. Have you ever wondered what an angel with a sword means or what a rose represents about the deceased? Here’s a guide to what certain symbols in the graveyard signify and what they reveal about your relatives from the past.

There’s a rise in the number of people going on cemetery tours. This growing trend sounds morbid to some but it’s not just teen goths, ghost hunters and vampire wannabes walking through the graveyards. For those interested in the architectural beauty of the gravestones and tombs, local historians, collectors of epitaph or indeed people doing some research in genealogy, the graveyard is a fascinating place. 

A headstone, tombstone or gravestone is a marker placed over a grave. The stone normally inscribes the name, birth date and death date of the deceased. In some circumstances the stone is inscribed with a symbol. These symbols sometimes offer clues about the deceased’s religion, the level of mourning, and their family’s hopes for them in the afterlife. They can also reveal certain characteristics of the deceased’s life when they were living - offering perfect clues to the lives of your ancestors.


Here’s a guide on some of the most common symbols found in cemeteries and what they reveal about the deceased. 



Lambs: Children

A lamb or hummingbird on a graveyard denotes a child whilst a vacant chair depicts the loss of a child. Hummingbirds and empty chairs also signifies the death of a child.

Owl: Wisdom and watchfulness

In ancient Greece, the Owl was often associated with Athena, goddess of wisdom and it’s become a symbol of status, intelligence and wealth. 

Rabbit: Humility, gentleness and self-sacrifice

Rabbits tend to be seen as gentle and not self-assertive. The symbol of the rabbit is strongly tied to the cycle of life, fertility, death, and resurrection. 

Ox: Patience and strength 

In ancient times the ox was a sacrificial animal and it has become a symbol of patience and strength. In early Christian writings the ox is accepted as a symbol of Christ, the true sacrifice and is often seen on gravestones to represent this religious meaning. 

Lion: Strength

As well as strength the lion is seen as an icon of self-control, nobility, fairness, courage and patience. Lions tend to be charismatic, prideful, protective, and peaceful creatures so one marked on a grave is a true compliment to the deceased.

Dog: Loyalty, fidelity, watchfulness and vigilance

The dog has long been known as man’s best friend and the animal denotes companionship, loyalty and protection. 

Butterfly: Short life

The butterfly symbolises the soul leaving the body and also represents a short life. 


Flowers & Plants

Easter Lily: Purity and chastity 

The white lilies have been a fitting representation for the greater meaning of Easter as they carry the message of joy, hope and life. 

Calla Lily: Beauty

Calla lillies are known for their attractiveness. They often feature in wedding bouquets as a sign of purity but also represent resurrection; hence why they are often planted on graves or featured on gravestones. 

Rose: Beauty

Roses are heavily symbolic, often used in heraldry, badges, and coats of arms. The rose is a flower of great beauty and mesmerizing fragrance. Roses act as a metaphor for life; after overcoming much hardship, one will find inner harmony, union, and happiness.

Daisy: Innocence

In Victorian times, young women woeful about love began a custom using the daisy. Girls would pluck a daisy's petals, one by one, and sing, "He loves me, he loves me not," with each pull of the petal. This game represents innocent childhood and purity. 

Oak Leaf: Longevity

The oak tree embodies towering strength, supernatural power and eternity. Its attraction for lightning, its size and longevity (oaks are known to easily surpass 200 years of age) all make the oak a powerful, life-affirming symbol.

Sheaf of wheat: Harvest, reaping of life

The wheat motif on a gravestone celebrates a long life lived in abundance. The sheaf of wheat is usually found on older peoples' gravestones.



Weeping Angel: grief 

Also known as the angel of grief a weeping angel symbolizes grief, especially mourning an untimely death.

Angel with trumpet: Call to resurrection

An angel statue with one (sometimes two) trumpets are symbolic to the day of judgement. It’s long been used throughout the years as a memorial sculpture. An angel with a horn is a representation of the archangel Gabriel. 

Angel carrying a departed soul: Protection

Often depicted with a child in its arms or as a guardian embracing the dead the angel carrying the deceased in their arms is a sign of an escort to heaven. The messengers of God are often shown as escorting the deceased to heaven.

Flying angel: rebirth

An angel with open wings is thought to represent the flight of the soul to heaven.

Angel with a sword: Justice

The angel with the sword depicts the angel Michael. The sword is double edged, representing truth and justice. 



Anvil: creation of the universe

An Anvil indicates the creation or forging of the universe. Anvils can most often be found on the graves of blacksmiths.

Broken chain link or wheel: loss in the family and life

The wheel has long been a symbol of life, with the belief that life revolves in a circular motion, where one life ends the other begins. However, a break in the wheel of life symbolizes the end of life. A break in the chain denotes a loss in the family ties with the person represented as a link.

Urn: death

Recognized as an ancient symbol for death, the urn represents the return of the body back to ashes and dust, leading to the soul’s rebirth into the next realm. When shown draped with a cloth, the cloth is representative of death, the final partition separating the living world from that of the dead.

Anchor: hope and eternal life

An anchor on a gravestone is often found on the graves of sailors, and symbolizes steadfast hope life that goes on beyond death. 

Beehive: Industry, faith, education, domestic virtues

Beehives are symbolic for human industry, faith, education and domestic virtues, and are frequently found on the gravestones of Freemasons and Independent Order of Odd Fellows.


If you’re planning a trip to a graveyard make sure you take the time to appreciate the symbols carved in the gravestones. The language of the symbols will help you to understand your ancestors in a better manner and could provide some interesting insights into who they truly were. 



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by pelo on 19 Oct 2013 04:55 : Report Abuse
As a resident in the southern hemisphere & thus only a bit familiar with the use of gravestone symbols down under, I found this article very interesting & helpful.
As many of our first settlers came from the UK or other Commonwealth countries a number of the symbols are familiar but many have never been explained here as far as I know. A red rose, an urn, a flying angel,a calla lily, an oak leaf, a simple cross, an anchor (the sea features very heavily in New Zealand as many immigrants died from illness, storms at sea, travelling here or young children drowned while playing at the water's edge & of course communicable illnesses ). Over time immigrants & residents have introduced more symbolism associated with their previous homeland. Cemetries in the South Island are badly damaged from our earthquakes & an Increasing number of people are moving to alternative burial styles - eg. natural burial with a tree most appropriate for the deceased planted above the body. Our indigenous tribes have some other forms of symbols for their ancestors & intermarriage between races, immigrants, & the indigenous peoples is starting to demonstrate a blurring of the older style of more clearly understood gravestones.

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by Beryl on 21 Oct 2013 18:22 : Report Abuse
I find it interesting wondering around graveyards - they are so peaceful and also
colourful with the floral offerings on the graves. Normally I am looking for long
lost relatives which is really interesting.

As Pelo said it is interesting to see the ornamental items attached to graves and the history that goes with them in many case.


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by Anne on 21 Oct 2013 19:52 : Report Abuse
Horses have not been mentioned. Horses are often found on the graves of travellers. Whether restricted to gypsies I do not know. Maybe someone can enlighten us? Anne
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by Christine on 21 Oct 2013 22:31 : Report Abuse
My great grandparents grave has clasped hands (like shaking hands) in a circle at the top of the headstone. Is there any particular meaning for this. Christine
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by Marjorie on 22 Oct 2013 00:44 : Report Abuse
My ggggg grandparent's stone in Alloway, Ayr is quite elaborate. It has a blacksmith shoeing a horse, a horseshoe, hammer, what looks like pliers, 2 crossed things which look like femurs, 2 skulls with helmets facing outwards, 2 scrolls with a leaf, and at the top a crown!
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by ausbailey on 22 Oct 2013 07:12 : Report Abuse
Has anyone come across why people put actual sea shells, especially large ones, on graves. Here is Australia I have seen it a lot on very old graves, even in isolated or abandoned cemeteries. Many of these are a great distance from the sea so people would have taken even longer in the days when the person was buried.

I have tried searching for a reason for this, but have not really found anything in particular on it.
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by Geoffrey on 22 Oct 2013 08:43 : Report Abuse
Don't get too carried away by reading hidden meanings into gravestones, as I'm sure people would chose a design that they liked without enquiring as to its exact symbolism. For example, blacksmiths often had the tools of their trade depicted on their headstones, not for any hidden meaning, but to show people what the deceased did in life.

Horses on gravestones are not restricted to travellers and there is an excellent example (which is a grade ii listed building) to the Ginnett family in Woodvale Cemetery, Brighton. See:

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by Gillian on 22 Oct 2013 10:00 : Report Abuse
Skull and crossbones on the headstone means mortality, death. If the skull has wings, it symbolizes the ascension into heaven. Bible - the grave of a very devoted, religious person. Hour glass - passage of time. If the hourglass is lying on it's side it means the person's life has been cut short.
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by Una on 23 Oct 2013 07:52 : Report Abuse
My daughter and I were searching for family graves on one occasion and I had my dog with me. She walked beside me as normal but as we approached the graves and started our search she became quite agitated and was almost dancing on the end of the lead. We had to abandon our search as she became more unsettled and it was difficult to hold her. Once outside the graveyard she settled down and walked back to the car as nothing had happened. Did she feel something in the graveyard that we didn't? Needless to say I haven't repeated the exercise.
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by FrankB on 23 Oct 2013 12:14 : Report Abuse
Now in poor condition in the churchyard of Matlock Parish Church but just legible the following tribute was made to John Ballington who drowned near Matlock in 1770

" Oh Cruel Death, with me why so severe,
To snatch me from my wife and children dear;
Nor suffer me a last farewell to take
But plung'd me deep into a mirey lake.
My flesh must from my bones in time be broke
But still, Oh God, my flesh shall rest in hope.
Death does not always warning give
Therefore, be careful how you live."

by Frank Ballington
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by Penpal on 29 Jan 2014 16:10 : Report Abuse
There was a book called 'Behold the Sign: a book of ancient symbolism' published about 1930 by the Ancient & Mystical Order Rosae Crucis (AMORC). It's probably out of print by now but is one of those interesting volumes that people hold on to.
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by MotownGal on 8 Feb 2014 20:09 : Report Abuse
Highgate Cemeteyr in north London is wonderful to walk around. Unfortunately you can only go around it on a 'Tour'. Depending on the guide, there are different tours.

It is one of the first Necropolis in London. The headstones there are wonderful. There are many famous 'inhabitants' interred therein. The Egyptian circle is topped with a Tree of Lebanon.

Well worth a visit when coming to London. Best to check the website first, as it is not open every day.