Hidden Meanings of Gravestone Symbols

By Courtney Henderson
Flower symbols engraved in a gravestone.
A gravestone decorated with carvings of flowers and plants. (Getty Images)

A walk through a cemetery when researching ancestors can be a haunting, yet beautiful and reflective experience. Aside from the names, birthdates, and death dates, what other secrets might their tombstones reveal?

Those majestic, weather-worn stone carvings you see (popularized by those cipher-loving Victorians from 1839 to 1920) are more than pure decoration. They mean something; a virtue the person exemplified, a value they held dear, or a nod to how they earned their living.

In the table below, learn the meanings behind twenty popular gravestone symbols. A revelation about your ancestor’s life may just be right in front of you, hidden in plain sight.

Meanings of Gravestone Symbols

Acornprosperity; power; triumph
Anvil and Hammerblacksmith
Basketfertility; maternal bond
Birdflight of the soul
Column/Pillar (Broken)life cut short; sudden death
Evergreenfaithfulness; remembrance
Farmerplow; hoe; rack; stalk of corn; shock of wheat
Fernsincerity; humility; solitude
Fruiteternal plenty
IHSChristian; name of Jesus
Keyknowledge; entrance to heaven
Lampknowledge; spiritual immortality
Lilyinnocence, purity, and the resurrection (Easter); marriage and fidelity (Calla); innocence and humility (Lily of the Valley)
Marineranchor; sextant
Oak Leafstrength; stability; endurance
Olive Treepeace; reconciliation between God and man
Palmlife conquering death
Roselove; beauty; virtue; strong bond (intertwined); youthful death (rosebud)
Sphinxcourage; honor; power
Tree-shapedpossible member of The Modern Woodmen of America or Woodmen of the World fraternal organization member