Gravely Speaking – What’s it mean? The Messages behind Symbols

Anchor symbol
Anchor symbol

Epitaphs are verses describing the deceased in basic form informing who they were, age, origins and ancestry. However some headstones go a few steps further, giving hidden clues and hints through the use of motifs and symbols. Apart from the obvious motifs denoting the major religions that is, the Christian cross, Jewish Star of David and Muslim Crescent, other symbols can easily be read once the code is known.

The symbol or motif may be inspired by nature or more frequently by the person the stone commemorates. Most occupations can be symbolised by the tools of the trade. In this carving there is chisel, mallet and a strip of wood indicating the person it commemorates was a wood carver or carpenter.

Symbols do not need to be carved in relief: they can be a simple line carving. Thus symbols or motifs may be inspired by the deceased as a way of easily associating them with a recognisable emblem representing the essence of who they were in life.

The anchor is a symbol of hope and steadfastness, and eternal life, and may often found on sailors’ headstones. Masons used it as a symbol of well-grounded hope. Early Christians used it as a disguised symbol of the cross.

Angels are symbolic messengers between God and man whereas a book symbol signifies the Bible and faith as well as also representing knowledge and the Book of Life.

The uses of birds and butterflies are also well known on headstones denoting peace and freedom in the case of birds or birth and resurrection within the natural cycle of life and death in the use of butterflies. Butterflies are used to represent the soul and are often to be found on the graves of children.

Interestingly, circles are meant to convey eternity. They are the alpha and omega but having no beginning or ending may also symbolise resurrection.

These are some examples of symbols used as memorials on headstones, and remain an important feature of modern gravestones too. Although some of the older symbols have fallen out of favour, many classical symbols such as the cross and the dove remain popular.