Types of old headstones & what they mean

Written by jennifer holik
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Types of old headstones & what they mean
Headstones and tombstones tell stories about the person buried below. (Jupiterimages/Photos.com/Getty Images)

Cemeteries tell stories through headstones. Stories of the people who are buried there, stories of the occupation, religion, organizational membership of the deceased---all can be heard from the headstone. Images, abbreviations and words on headstones provide a lot of details about the deceased. These details can be extremely helpful for those researching their family history if they listen to the story being told.

Religious Symbols

A deceased's religion may be added to a headstone by directly carving something into the stone or by placing a piece of art on or next to the stone. A stone with a crucifix indicates the person was Catholic. A stone with a plain cross indicates the person was a Christian. The Star of David shows the deceased to be Jewish. A torch on a stone that is lit signifies eternal life, while an unlit torch signifies death.

Occupations and Organizations

Headstones tell of jobs the deceased held and of organisations to which the deceased belonged. A church with a steeple engraved on a stone signifies the deceased was a minister. A fireman's helmet would be carved onto a fireman's stone. Stones with clothing lying over them, guns or swords standing next to them, or military helmets signify a soldier. An anchor on or next to a headstone may signify either the job of a sailor, or one who served in the Navy. An attorney is identified by the scales of justice.

Headstones carved in the shape of trees indicate the deceased was a member of the Woodsmen of the World. The letters I.O.O.F mean the deceased was a member of the Independent Organization of Odd Fellows. A compass and ruler signify the Freemasons. Women of the Daughters of the American Revolution are represented by a carving of a spinning wheel with thirteen stars.

Floral and Fauna

Plants represent many things when carved into a headstone or added as a piece of art. A weeping willow represents sorrow and grief. Thistles and rosemary represent remembrance. Ivy signifies friendship and immortality, while holly protects tombs and headstones from lightning strikes. Fruit signifies eternal plenty. Roses represent motherhood or beauty, and in some cases, the brevity of life.


Animals play a large role in funerary art. Dogs appear near the stone or at the feet of a carved person to represent loyalty. Dragons represent Imperial power. A bird signifies resurrection. Butterflies indicate a short-lived life. Doves represent the Holy Spirit to Catholics, while they are seen as a peace symbol by Jews. Lambs represent innocence lost, and are usually seen next to a child's grave. Lions guard and watch over the tomb or grave site and protect against evil spirits.

Other Symbols

There are other symbols seen on headstones, such as a skull and cross bones, which indicates death. Women who are shrouded or weeping represent someone in mourning. An urn and a tree sprouting signify immortality. The end of the family line is represented by an inverted torch. Obelisks represent eternal life. Portals carved into stones signify the passageway to the deceased's eternal journey.

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