The cross -- the symbol of the crucifixion of Jesus Christ -- is a perennial motif for Christian headstones. And yet while the basic symbol is very common, it has been interpreted in many different ways in different cultures, denominations and historical eras. While the variations on the cross are innumerable, there are a few patterns that recur most frequently in modern cemeteries.
The Latin cross is the simplest and most familiar cross design, with a straight upright and a slightly shorter crosspiece about one-third of the way down from the top. Because this ascetic design is easy to execute in stone, metal or wood, it is very common for headstones and other grave markers, particularly in Protestant and military cemeteries.
While some people use the terms "cross" and "crucifix" interchangably, they are not the same. A crucifix is a cross that bears the image of Jesus. This cross design is most frequently used in Catholic cemeteries, where it appears both on headstones and in statuary.
The budded cross, also known as the apostles' cross, has a pattern at the top and on both ends of the crosspiece that is formed by three interlinked circles; sometimes this pattern is repeated on the bottom of the upright as well. The three-circle pattern is symbolic of the Trinity.
The Celtic Cross is a cross with a circle centred at the point where the crosspiece joins the upright. It may also be decorated with intricate knotwork designs. Often thought of as an Irish design, it is also associated with other Celtic cultures, such as the Welsh, the Picts and the Scots. The circle is said to represent a halo.
Russian Orthodox Cross
The Russian Orthodox Cross features two additional cross pieces. A short one at the top represents the "titulum," the sign posted over Jesus' head during the Crucifixion. A lower, diagonal cross piece is also featured, although its symbolism is not as clear. It may represent the X-shaped Cross of St. Andrew, the saint said to have introduced Christianity to Russia.
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