What The “Strange” Symbols On Your Ancestor’s Grave Mean

By Sharon DeBartolo Carmack Premium
To the modern genealogist, some of the symbols on graves and tombstones can be mysterious and even downright strange. Cemetery transcription is already practically an art form.
“My husband’s great-great-great-grandfather died in 1896 and is buried in Marshall County, Iowa,” one reader wrote us. “The graves for him and his wife are marked by a single large headstone, with a smaller one for each person. Each small stone is adorned with an eagle feather and the outline of a face with an Indian headdress. ‘Father’ is on one and ‘Mother’ on the other. What does this mean?”

The symbols aren’t random, or even that strange at all. 


While it’s certainly possible that this family had American Indian origins, more than likely the symbol showing the profile face with an Indian headdress indicates that your husband’s ancestor belonged to the Improved Order of Red Men. The women’s auxiliary is known as the Degree of Pocahontas. According to the organization’s website:

“The fraternity was founded in 1765 and was originally known as the Sons of Liberty. These patriots concealed their identities and worked ‘underground’ to help establish freedom and liberty in the early Colonies. They patterned themselves after the great Iroquois Confederacy and its democratic governing body. [The Iroquois’] system, with elected representatives to govern tribal councils, had been in existence for several centuries. After the War of 1812 the name was changed to The Improved Order of Red Men. They kept the customs and terminology of Native Americans as a basic part of the fraternity. Some of the words and terms may sound strange, but they soon become a familiar part of the language for every member.”
Other commons tombstone adornments are acorns, anchors and lambs. Use this handy sheet to keep track of the meanings behind symbols you may find on your ancestors’ tombstones:
Learn more about cemetery research and tombstone symbolism in our Cemetery Research 101 Family Tree University Independent Study Course download, available now in Family Tree Shop.