Symbols on headstones, and their meanings

Symbols on headstones, and their meanings

Angels

Symbols on innocence, images of angels on headstones, or sculpted figurines on top, are usually found on the graves of children. Because they are agents of God, angels are often shown pointing towards heaven, or in gestures of compassion.

Adult angels who can be identified are Michael who carries a sword, or Gabriel, who carries a horn.

There are no surviving sculptures of angels as headstones in the Symonds Street cemetery. There may have been some that were lost with the building of the motorways. Angels as headstones can be found in many other Auckland cemetereies.

Angels

Anchors

Early Christians used the anchor as a disguised cross, and as a marker to guide the way to secret meeting places. Anchors are also Christian symbols of hope, often shown set among rocks.

An anchor on a grave can also represent a life as a sailor. Saint Nicholas the patron saint of seamen, symbolised hope and steadfastness.

An anchor shown with a broken chain stands for a life ended, perhaps prematurely.

Broken column

This signifies a life cut short; and a break in existence from earthly to heavenly life.

Broken column

Clasped Hands

Farewell to an earthly existence. Also symbolizes unity (perhaps with God, or with the spouse who had gone before). Used also as a symbol for members of the Masonic movement and Independent Order of Oddfellows.

Clasped hands

Cornucopia

A horn-shaped device, overflowing with fruit represents a rich and fruitful life. Also a symbol of the harvest, which in turn indicates the end of a natural cycle.

Covered column

A cloth draped over a column (or an urn) represents the pall – the covering for a coffin in a funeral procession. This is where the expressions "pallbearers" and "cast a pall over…" come from.

Covered column

Crown

A symbol of triumph over death.

Daisy

Symbolising innocence, and usually found on the graves of young children.

Doves

Traditional Christian symbols of love and peace. Doves also have a place in the Biblical account (Genesis 8:11) – Noah released a bird from the Ark when he thought the flood may be subsiding. The dove returned carrying an olive branch, showing it had found land. So the dove can also be seen as a symbol of hope.

A dove with a cross in its beak symbolizes the Holy Ghost.

Fern fronds

These refer to a person's humility and sincerity.

Since the First World War, the war graves of New Zealand soldiers have also carried a fern motif.

Fern fronds

Grapes

Symbolise the blood of Christ.

Hand pointing up/down

A hand pointing up refers to the ascent to heaven. A hand pointing down is the hand of God descending from Heaven.

Hand pointing up/down

Hands reaching

The hand of God reaching down to take the hand of the dead person to guide him/her to heaven.

Handshake

A welcome to the heavenly world.

Here lies

Hebrew lettering for 'peh nun', and abbreviation of 'poh nitman' which means 'here lies'.

IHS

The first three letters of Jesus' name in the Greek alphabet. It can also be interpreted to stand for 'In hoc signo' which is Latin for 'by this sign we conquer' – referring to the cross of Christianity.

IHS intertwined

Ivy

A symbol of friendship

Ivy

Knot

Marriage and unity.

Laurel leaves

An evergreen plant. The laurel leaves represent the evergreen memory those left behind may have of the deceased.

Lily of the valley

Purity, innocence, virginity

Palm tree or frond

Symbolises victory over death. Also a reference to the Biblical story of Palm Sunday where Jesus made a triumphal entry to Jerusalem.

Passion flower

Symbolising the passion of Christ.

Seal of Solomon

The five-pointed star is known as the Seal of Solomon, and is a symbol of the Jewish faith.

Star of David

The six pointed star made of two triangles is also a symbol of the Jewish faith, but more associated with Zionism and the creation of the state of Israel.

Sunflower

Devotion to God.

Urn

A symbol of the soul.

Urn

Weeping willow

The drooping branches of the tree are a visual representation of sorrow, or mourning. There were willows planted in the Symonds Street cemetery.

Weeping willow

XP overlapped

The first two letters of the Greek word for Christ.

Vermiculation

A stylized representation of worm tracks, used in diverse ways at Symonds Street cemetery, usually on the bottom plinths of monuments. Vermiculation is a reference to earthly decay.

Vermiculation (worm tracks)

Rose

The Rose symbolises love, which is linked to its fragrance and beauty.

Roses are found on many children's graves as a rose bud that has not opened, and with a broken stem. The fuller the rose bloom is depicted, the longer the person has lived.

Cross

The most common and powerful symbol of Christianity, crosses are often carved into headstones, or make up the entire grave marker.

There are different versions of the Christian cross represented on cemetery headstones:

Latin Cross - One of the oldest and simplest symbols of Christianity and the most commonly-used. It has also been called 'God's mark.'

Calvary Cross - A Latin cross standing on three steps or blocks, it signifies faith, hope and charity (or love).

Botonee Cross- So named because of its modified trefoil (three-lobed) ends, represents the trinity.
Celtic Cross- The circle around the crosspiece symbolizes eternity. Its origin can be traced to the Celtic cultures of the British Isles.
Eastern Cross- Used in Orthodox (Russian/ Greek) Christian Religions, this cross' upper horizontal shoulder represents the inscription over the head of Jesus on the actual cross of the crucifiction. The lower slanting shoulder represents the footrest of the crucified Jesus.
Flueree Cross/Gothic Cross - This flowered cross symbolizes the adult Christian by its more opened flared out ends.
Ionic Cross - Similar to the Celtic Cross, with outward-flaring ends. The ionic cross signifies everlasting salvation, love and glory. The circle around the crosspiece symbolizes eternity.