Symbols in the Cemetery

Memorials to the dead, in whatever form they have taken, have contained symbols of many kinds over thousands of years. Many are complex; some are still being interpreted and others have been created (and are still being created) by relatives as their particular and personal way of commemorating the memory of their loved ones.

During the nineteenth century the use of floral symbols became very popular. So much so that the Victorians became particularly fond of this style of symbol and almost every common flower had a symbolic meaning attached to it. Other forms of adornment were also adopted. We hope you will find the following interesting, particularly if you have been wondering what a symbol on a memorial to one of your loved ones meant.

We are grateful to Metro Publishers for kindly giving their permission to use the text which is an extract from their publication "London's Cemeteries" (ISBN 978-1-902910-40-6). Their website is Examples from the Wembdon Road have been inserted by the Friends.


Anchor - This can indicate the sea-faring occupation of the deceased or more generally represent hope and steadfastness.
Angels - They are an obvious religious symbol. Individual angels can be Identified by the objects they carry. Michael bears a sword; Gabriel carries a horn. An angel blowing a trumpet represents the day of judgment. Angels are frequently depicted escorting the deceased to heaven.

This is a particularly sad memorial, number 275, remembers Ellen Jane Phillips, who died in 1871 aged only 3 years and 2 months. The carving shows her on the back of an angel, ascending to heaven.

Arch or gate - The victory of life or victory in death.
Arrow - This represents the arrow of time or mortality
Broken column - Usually represents a life cut short or the loss of the head of the Family. It also symbolises decay and the inevitability of death.
Broken or severed flower - This is a sign of early or sudden death. A severed bud denotes the death of a child.
Candle with a flame - This symbolises life.
Celtic cross - The main circle around the crosspiece represents eternity. It originates from the British Celtic cultures.

This larger cross, memorial 828 for the Parminter family, carries the IHS (see below). Sometimes these impressive crosses were chosen by families for their pleasing forms, although it can sometimes refer to a family's Celtic origins, be they Scottish, Welsh, Cornish or Irish.
A variation on the Celtic cross, this memorial 122 for the Foster-Barhams, is a Cornish Cross, made from Cornish granite. This is a reference to the Cornish ancestry of Thomas Foster-Barham.

Cherub's Head - A symbol for the soul
Circle - Eternity and life everlasting.
Doors and gates - Represent the gates of Heaven and the passage into the afterlife.
Drapery - This indicates sorrow and mourning.
Hands clasped - Representative of marriage or a close bond which lasts even after death. The first to die holds the other's hand, guiding the spouse to heaven. Clasped hands also mean a farewell or a last good-bye.

This memorial, number 218 is a wonderfully elaborate one and its inscription reads 'In Memory of Oliver Bridges who died 15th February 1904 aged 62 years. For 20 years the respected secretary of the Bridgwater District. I.O. Odd fellows M.U. This stone was erected by the brethren of the district...[illegible]... friendship love and truth...[illegible]... Also Mary Ann widow of the above who died 26th March 1917 aged 79 years. In death not divided.'

MU means mutual union. The hands clasped at the top of the memorial are a symbol of the final farewell between loved ones, but also how they are always united, reinforced by 'in death not divided'.

Hand pointing upward A symbol of life after death and ascension to heaven for the righteous.
Hand pointing downward Represents mortality or sudden death.
Heart - Love, encouragement and intelligence
Hourglass - Representing the passage of time and transcience of life. On its side means that time has stopped for the deceased.
IHS - An abbreviation of the word for Jesus in Greek, known as the 'sacred monogram.'

Although memorial 551 for the Letherby family seems quite simple at first glance there are layers of symbolism here. Although the two simple crosses are obvious reference to the family's Christianity, this is further reinforced by the letters IHS are what is called a Christogram and usually refers to the Latin Iesus Hominum Salvator (Jesus, Saviour of men), but can also be read 'I have suffered' or 'in his service'. The three steps for this sort of memorial are also symbolic, representing the trinity, the Father, the Son and the Holy Spirit.

Lamp - Representing the light of knowledge and truth.
Moon - Rebirth.
Mourning figure - An early 20th century funerary image
Obelisk - The obelisk was the Egyptian symbol for the sun god Ra who held the power to recreate. It represents eternal life and health.
Pyramid - It was thought a pyramid-shaped tombstone prevented the devil from reclining on a grave. The pyramid also symbolises eternity.
Rocks - Representing St. Peter and the rock of faith.

This large memorial for the Best family, number 310, is in the form of a clump of rocks with a scroll. The scroll was a popular symbol, along with a book, representing the holy scriptures and the book of life.

Set square and compasses - This is a Masonic symbol but was also used to denote an architect.

This memorial, number 128, commemorates Edwin Murrant, master of the Bridgwater Union Workhouse. At the centre of the complicated design is the square and compass design, which denotes that he was a Freemason. Edwin died in 1864 and his son, the infamous Australian poet and soldier (Harry 'Breaker' Morant), who was born that year, was educated in a Masonic school in London.

Sextant - Used to indicate a navigator or explorer.
Torch - A Greek symbol of mourning and the body as a vessel of the soul. Draped, it represents death often of an older person.
Woman clinging to cross, pillar or anchor. This represents faith as does a woman with or without a Bible pointing upward.


Daisy - Innocence
Fleur-de-Lis - Flame, passion, ardour and mother
Forget-me-Not - Remembrance
Hawthorn - Hope, merriness and springtime
Holly - Foresight
Honeysuckle - Bonds of love, generosity and devoted attention
Ivy - Friendship, fidelity, faithfulness, evergreen memories

This simple cross, memorial 634, for the Smith family of Binford House is made to resemble two wooden logs covered in ivy. The logs represent the cutting off of life, while the ivy represents eternal life, so this can be interpreted as the victory of life over death.

Laurel branch, laves - Represents special achievement, distinction, heroism and the triumph of worldly accomplishment.
Lily - Representing the Virgin Mary, purity and resurrection. Often used on women's graves to represent the restored innocence of the soul in death.

This memorial, 605, commemorates Arabella Shepherd and the lilies represent purity.

Lily of the Valley - Purity and humility
Oak tree - Representing stability, strength, honour, eternity and endurance. Oak as thought to be the tree from which Jesus Christ's cross was made.
Palm - The triumph of life over death through resurrection.
Pansy - Remembrance and humility.
Passion Flower - The passion of Christ. The corona represents the crown of thorns, the three stigmas stand for for the three nails, the five anthers the five wounds and the five petals and the five sepals symbolise the ten Apostles.
Poppy - Eternal sleep, rest
Rose - Representing love, beauty, hope and goodness and associated with the Virgin Mary and the 'rose without thorns.' A red rose stands for martyrdom and a white rose means purity.
Thistle - Christ's crown of thorns and earthly sorrow.
Tree - The tree of life. A severed branch represents mortality and a sprouting branch means life everlasting.
Willow tree - A symbol of sorrow and mourning.
Wheat gathered - Representing the divine harvest and often used for someone dying in later life.
Wreath or Garland - Meaning victory in death.
Yew tree - Evergreen, life after death

Other Symbols

The descending dove on this memorial, number 748 for the Cull family, is a popular symbol representing the Holy Spirit, as well as purity.
This great memorial for the Lott family, number 364, is topped with an urn. In the Ancient Greek and Roman civilisations the urn symbolised the vessel of the soul. The veil which covers it is a sign of mourning and that the soul has departed this vessel.
This pillar, memorial 129 for the Reed family, is supposed to be broken and represents the life cut short by death.
Finally, not all symbols can be easily decoded. This strange design on the memorial for Wesleyan minister John Bird Alexander is really unusual. Our best guess is that it is some sort monogram, being an A for Alexander.

Are there any symbols with which you are familiar and for which you also have the meanings but which are not mentioned here? If so, please let us know and, with your permission, we should like to add them to the above list for the benefit of others.