Gravestone Cheat Sheet

Gravestone Cheat Sheet

These interpretations can help you speculate about what the cemetery's inhabitants were trying to tell you through their gravestone iconography.

If you’re traipsing around old cemeteries looking for ghosts, you might be curious to learn more about the people buried there. In her new book Your Guide to Cemetery Research (Betterway Books), genealogist Sharon DeBartolo Carmack lists a variety of gravestone art, symbols, emblems and attributes and what they mean. Perhaps these interpretations can help you speculate about what the cemetery’s inhabitants were trying to tell you through their gravestone iconography:

ARCHITECTURAL

Archways, doors and gates: passageway into the next life

Benches: places of contemplation for mourners

Pillar or column, broken: life cut short or sudden death

ANIMALS

Bat: death; misfortune

Lamb: meekness, gentleness, innocence; God’s flock; most popular on children’s graves

Phoenix: resurrection

CLOTHING

Shoes, empty, one overturned: loss of a child

FIGURES

Angels, dropping flowers on grave: grief, mourning

Angels, pointing to heaven: rejoicing

Baby or child, naked: new life, innocence, purity

FRUITS, NUTS AND THE HARVEST

Acorn: strength, independence

Fruit: eternal plenty

Pineapple: welcome; perfection

Wheat: harvest, prosperity; deceased of full years

HANDS AND FINGERS

Forefinger pointing up: soul has gone to heaven

Handshake: God’s welcome into heaven and farewell to earthly existence

INITIALS

AAONMS: Ancient Arabic Order of Nobles of the Mystic Shrine (Masonic)

AASR: Ancient and Accepted Scottish Rite (Masonic)

BPOE: Benevolent and Protective Order of Elks

FOE: Fraternal Order of Eagles

IHC, IHS: the first three letters of Jesus’ name in Greek

IOOF: Independent Order of Odd Fellows

K of C: Knights of Columbus

MORTALITY

Bone: death

Candle: life

Clock: the march of time; usually stopped at hour of death

Winged death’s head: mortal remains of the deceased

OCCUPATIONS AND CRAFTS

Church with steeple: minister

Horses, two heads: International Brotherhood of Teamsters, Chauffeurs, Warehousemen and Helpers of America

Scales of justice: lawyer

ORNAMENTAL

Basket: maternal body; fertility

Shield: protection; faith; defense of the spirit

TREES, PLANTS AND FLOWERS

Oak leaves: strength of faith

Olive tree or branch: reconciliation between God and man; peace

Thistle: Scottish heritage

Tree stump: life cut short, often members of Woodmen of the World

From the November 2002 issue of Family Tree Magazine

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