Cemetery Symbolism

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  • 7/31/2019 Cemetery Symbolism



    Cemetery Symbolism

    A Wary Glossaryby Joel GAzis-SAx

    Copyright 1997 by Joel GAzis-SAx

    Read a Warning!Learn the Language of Symbolism

    AnchorEarly Christians devised clever signs so that they could guide one another to

    the secret places where they worshipped. The anchor is a disguised cross whenyou see it in a Christian setting. From its utility, the further meaning of Christas that which prevents us from drifting off and becoming lost comes. Onerarely sees anchors on inland gravestones, so the presence of the symbol on atomb may carry all the above religious overtones or it may just mean that thedeceased was a sailor. An anchor with a broken chain stands for the cessationof life.

    AngelsCreatures made of air or fire according to early Christian pseudepigraphica, orof granite or marble, if a stonecutter makes them. Angels mean spirituality.They guard the tomb, guide the soul, pray for the soul in purgatory, and direct

    the living visitor to think heavenwards. Two angels, saints of the CatholicChurch, can be named as we find them: Michael, who bears a sword, andGabriel, who toots a horn. Angels shown without one or the other of theseartifacts belong to the nameless legions of personal guardian angels and otherdecorations.

    ColorsIf asked to name the color of death and mourning, Europeans will choose

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    black. Chinese, other Asians, and many other groups will pick white. Blacksignifies darkness and the absence of light. It also recalls the silence in themiddle of the night. White recalls the color of the bones and the paleness of thecorpse. The difference is not perfect because Europeans fill their graveyardswith white tombstones. White dovesalso appear as motifs in the European

    sepulchral arts.

    Catholics and High-Church Anglicans recognize purple as the color ofmourning. Priests wear purple or violet robes at funeral masses for the dead,recalling Christ's passion, crucifixion, and resurrection.

    See also red lettering.

    Broken ColumnWhat we see today of ancient Greek and Roman civilization. Because the menand women who built monuments such as the Parthenon are dead, this imagerepresents the eventual ruin or decomposition of us all.

    CrescentDenotes that the deceased was a Muslim in life.


    Christians behold the hope of resurrection in the cross. The cross can alsostand for nationalist divisions, especially between the Western Church and theEastern. Orders of crusading knights often devised their own crosses as theyset forth to pillage infidels and fellow Christians. The cross also appears inJapanese heraldry where it stands for the four quarters of the earth or the fourcardinal directions. Or it merely pleases the eye.

    Seeanchor,SIGNS OF THE CROSS.Crown

    The crown atop the head of many saints and a few worldly devils attests to thesoul's achievement. Early crowns were made out ofplants and derived theirmeaning from those herbs. As men fashioned crowns out of more enduringsubstances like gold, they added little spikes to call to mind the power andauthority of the sun.


    Dogs often appear at the feet of medieval women, signifying the loyalty andinferior place of each in the chivalric order. Modern dogs only imply that themaster was worth loving.

    DoveThe little bird appears in both Christian (usually Catholic) and Jewishcemeteries, representing some of the same things and some different things ineach. Catholics usually see the dove (which makes its first Biblical appearancein Genesis carrying an olive branch for Noah) as the Holy Spirit. Jews interpretthe dove as a peace symbol. The biblical allusion to the dove also suggests aconnectedness with the earth and its color, white, represents for Europeans,

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    purity and spirituality.

    See also colors.

    DragonFor the Chinese, the dragon is an emblem of Imperial Power, which has

    brought the universe into its thrall. It also stands for the Universe itself, achaotic force which none of us can truly master.

    Europeans rarely depict dragons on their gravestones. When they appear, SaintGeorge rides out to kill them. This symbolizes triumph over sin. And when onetriumphs over Sin, one has also won relief from the most stinging qualities ofDeath: the punishments for our sins.

    Foo DogGuardian beings found at the gates of many Chinese cemeteries. Foo dogs arewhat resulted when Indian Buddhist missionaries describedlions to Chineseartists (who had no such creature lurking in their woods.) One male and onefemale foo dog guard each assigned entryway. The male, sitting on the right asyou enter the gate, holds down a ball, sometimes painted gold. This signifiesthe authority of the man over the family's worldly affairs. The female, sittingon the left, holds down a kitten. She rules the domestic life, including theraising of the children and the management of the household. Theserelationships, like all familial ties, persist into death.

    See also sphinx.

    HandsThe hand may be the most distinctly human appendage. We spend our lives

    with our hands right in front of us, reaching, touching, fingering, scratching,and doing much of the work our lives require. Early man blew paint around hishand, leaving a clear mark that he'd visited certain of the caves of SouthernFrance.

    Cemetery hands tend to be shown doing one of four things: clasping, praying,pointing, and blessing. All these signs show that the deceased's relationshipsinvolve human beings. The hand says "Here I lived". From the fact of this life,the hand directs us to spiritual matters (e.g. the presence of God) or to theendurance of human feelings (clasping hands often symbolize a marriage orother close bond).

    HeartStylized hearts stand for the affection of the living for the dead. Two joinedhearts on a stone mark a marriage.

    Heart, SacredA grisly image unique to Catholic memorial parks. The Sacred Heart depictsthe torn and dripping cardiac muscle of Jesus, surrounded, for good measure,with the crown of thorns. The heart represents the suffering of Jesus for our

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    sins. Prayers to the Sacred Heart are said to be efficacious for the release ofsouls from Purgatory.

    Hour GlassThe classic symbol for Time. So far neither analog nor digital clocks haveappeared on tombstones, perhaps because these represent time which is

    renewable while the sands of an hour glass run out. Hour glasses sometimestake flight. Some hold that this signifies the resurrection of the dead. Or it maybe the realization of the adage "Time flies."

    KeysNewspapers sometimes write of the key to more knowledge that some scientisthas discovered. This recalls modern science's ties to the medieval era, whenalchemists held that there were three keys which, if discovered, would allowthem to turn lead into gold. Cemetery keys stand for spiritual knowledge or, ifheld in the hands of an angel or saint (especially Peter), the means to enterheaven.

    Lamb Usually marks the grave of a child, especially in a Catholic cemetery. Thelamb always stands for innocence. Christians go a little further and associate itwith the Lamb of God, meaning Jesus. Children have had little time toaccumulate a roster of sins. For this reason, Catholics hold, once they havebeen baptized they possess the purest souls among us. (George Orwell oncesaid: "One cannot really be a Catholic and grown up." The awe accorded thesouls of children suggests that many Catholics feel that the only nearly perfectbeings among us are our children.) Most lambs appear crouching. Somemonuments show lambs with other symbols such as the cross, palm branches,crowns, chalices, etc. These lambs represent Jesus and those, such as bishops

    and other clergy, who serve Him.Lamp

    Like other light sources, lamps stand for knowledge and the immortality of theSpirit.

    See also sun,torch.


    The lion recalls the power of God and guards the tomb against impious visitorsand evil spirits. Like other guardians, the lion's watch is as eternal as the stoneor bronze in which it is depicted. These felines also recall the courage anddetermination of the souls w