Cracking the Code on Cemetery Ciphers

Grave markers reveal not only names and dates, but often offer data that in many cases can be found nowhere else; ethnic origins, occupations and affiliations, beliefs and values, manner of death, names of relatives, even personal traits that survivors held dear.
However, not everything is clearly etched in epitaph – gravestones can hold intricately carved hidden clues. Use the following list of common cemetery symbols to decipher your family gravestone ciphers:

Anchors often mark the graves of sailors, but they were also employed as a clever deception by early Christians, used by to guide one another to secret places of worship, or to disguise a cross.
Animals of all kinds are depicted on tombstones, and each has it’s own connotation:
• A Dog signifies the loyalty, or that the deceased was worth loving.
• A Fish indicates faith.
• A Hart (male deer) represents faithfulness or thirsting for God.
• Horses stand for courage or generosity.
• Lion recalls the power of God and guards the tomb.
• Lambs are used to identify the grave of a child, and represents innocence.
• A Squirrel with a nut implies religious meditation or spiritual striving.
Angels symbolize spirituality. Depending upon what they carry, or how they are posed, angels suggest many different ideas.
Birds often represent the flight of the soul to heaven.
• Doves, for Christians, embody the Holy Spirit. On Jewish graves, a dove represents a symbol of peace.
• Eagles (one-headed and two-headed) are often featured on Military and imperial graves as a nationalist symbol. On Native American graves, it can represent a spirit guide.
Bibles may indicate the deceased was a cleric, or a religious lay person.
Books frequently indicate that the deceased was a scholar. Arabic characters signify that the book is the Koran.
A Broken Column can mean an early grief; a life cut short.
Butterfly The three stages of a butterfly’s life – caterpillar, chrysalis, and butterfly – correspond to the three stage of Christ’s life – birth, death and resurrection. A butterfly can also indicate that the deceased lived only a short time.
A Candle carved onto the gravestone stands for the spirit or the soul.
Chains reflect a medieval belief that a golden chain bound the soul to the body. Severing the chain meant the release of the spirit from the body. The International Order of Odd Fellows also uses a chain as their insignia. If the letter IOOF or FLT (Friendship, Love, Truth) is found inside or near the chain, you can be sure of the association.
A Chariot Wheel with six or twelve spokes is an emblem of the Buddhist faith. The U.S. Veterans Administration uses the Wheel of the Law to mark the graves of Buddhists.
Cherubs mark the graves of children.
The Circle is universally known as the symbol of eternity and never-ending existence. Extremely common on grave sites, it is usually depicted surrounding a cross. Two circles, one above the other, represent earth and sky. Three interconnected circles represent the Holy Trinity.
A Cross symbolizes Christianity.
A Crescent indicates that the deceased was a Muslim in life.
Doors and gates are passages into the afterlife.
Drapery over anything indicates sorrow and mourning.
Flame represents eternity.
Hands, whether clasping, praying, pointing, or blessing, show that the deceased’s relationships involve human beings. Clasping hands often symbolize a marriage or other close bond.
Harps may be found on the graves of musicians, and represent the joy to be found in Heaven.
Hearts stand for the affection of the living for the dead. Two joined hearts on a stone mark a marriage. (The Sacred Heart is found only on the graves of Catholics, and represents the suffering of Jesus for our sins.)
An Hour Glass is symbolic of time passing.
Keys stand for spiritual knowledge or, if held in the hands of an angel, the means to enter heaven.
A Lamp stands for knowledge and the immortality of the Spirit.
The Menorah is an emblem of Judaism that predates the Star of David.
A Pitcher is a traditional Jewish (Levite) symbol.
Plants & Trees of numerous species are depicted on headstones, and each has its own meaning. Here are a few of the most popular:
• The Dogwood represents Christianity, divine sacrifice, triumph of eternal life, resurrection.
• Roses can mean many things, including love, beauty, hope, unfailing love.
• Rosebuds are normally reserved for a child under the age of 12.
• A partial bloom normally indicates the grave of a teenager.
• A rose in full bloom normally signifies the death of someone in their early to mid-twenties.
• A broken rosebud represents life cut short, usually found on a young person’s grave.
• Grapes and Leaves indicate Christian faith.
• Lily of the Valley means a return of happiness, purity, humility.
• An Oak tree signifies honor, strength and liberty; often seen on military tombs.
• Shamrocks are a sign that the deceased was most likely from Ireland.
Scallops were a symbol of the Crusades, and a traditional symbol of the Puritans.
A Scroll is a symbol of life and time.
Ship marks the grave of a seafarer.
The Star of David is used as a symbol of Judaism.
Stars represent the spirit, piercing the darkness as an expression of their triumph against the overwhelming odds of oblivion. Five pointed stars represent the spirit rising to heaven.
A Sword signifies a military career. Crossed swords indicate death in battle.
Serpent, when shown swallowing its own tail it, represents Eternity.
A Winged face is an effigy of the soul of the deceased.
Wheat sheaves often represent the aged.
Wreath or Garland is most often a symbol of the victory of the redemption. (A Bridal Wreath may signify the grave of a young bride or groom.)
Woman hanging onto Cross epitomizes faith. Also portrayed as a woman clinging to pillar or anchor. This is a common motif on Masonic grave memorials.

A final word of caution; take these explanations with a grain of salt. While headstone carvings can provide valuable insight into the deceased’s life and death, they should not be taken as incontrovertible evidence. In other words, if your Great-great-grandfather’s tomb is adorned with a pitcher encircled with a wreath of rosebuds and shamrocks, don’t be too quick to assume that, at the time of death, he was a Jewish child from Ireland. That said; good luck cracking the code on your family’s cemetery ciphers!

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Written by Renee Huskey, of Photoloom LLC, creators of Family Photoloom. Family Photoloom is a ground-breaking online family photo-history service that provides the tools you need to organize your photos, stories and other files around your genealogy, and create truly seamless family history. Please visit to learn more.


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