Folklore, History & the Study of Myth

The Writings of Gary R. Varner




erhaps some of our most mysterious, impressive and artistic symbolism can be found in our cemeteries. Ancient pagan, classical Greek and Roman, and the eternal symbols of hope, love and despair appear in many of our older places of rest. Unfortunately, with the gradual demise of the hand carved headstone, which has been replaced by the flat, two-dimensional and plain metal plate, these ancient and mystical representations are becoming harder to find. 

Researcher Douglas Keister noted that the majority of American cemetery architectural motifs can be divided into six categories:

1. Ancient pagan architecture

2. Egyptian architecture

3. Classical architecture

4. Gothic architecture

5. Late nineteenth and early twentieth century architecture, and

6. “Uniquely funerary architecture.” [1]

Late nineteenth and early twentieth century architectural styles include Art Nouveau, Art Deco and modern classicism.

Many of the symbols we find in cemeteries are representative of the many secret societies that exist in the United States, such as the Freemasons. The Freemasons utilized many of the pagan symbols for their rituals and iconography. These were freely left as well on headstones and tombs.

Humankind has marked the graves of its loved ones for hundreds of thousands of years. In many examples they were marked by upright stones, stone circles or complex burial chambers. In others, images of beasts and monsters or the symbols of metaphor adorned the stone markers—and these have carried over into contemporary times. That is until very recently. Today it is more common to find flat slabs of unadorned granite or metal with only the name, birth date and date of death engraved to mark the final resting place of the body. It would appear that money and the lack of the stonemason’s talent has reduced our markers to a purpose that is more utilitarian than as a loving piece of art hand carved for the mourning family.

Like those anonymous sculptures of the gargoyle and grotesque, the craftsmen that created these exquisite carvings on old headstones utilized both approved religious themes and those of an ancient pagan past. “Much of the sculpture’s work,” wrote Potok, “is startling in its mastery; some of it goes beyond craft into the subtler realm of art. Variation and  prodigality of symbolism and decoration abound, as if they were entirely without fear of condemnation for idolatry.” [2]

However, what about those strange carvings of dragons and other mythical beasts that are found on tombstones around the world and among diverse cultures of differing religions? “Dragons, monkeys and griffins,” writes Chaim Potok on images found in Jewish cemeteries, “seemed to emanate from some primal apocalyptic beastiary.” [3] Dragons have long been equated with the Devil in Christian lore, the supreme leader of the enemies of God. In other lands, however, the dragon “represents the highest spiritual power, strength, and supernatural wisdom.” [4] It is not uncommon for various symbolic representations to have the most opposite of meanings between cultures. Christianity is expected to find evil and the Devil in symbols that were, and still are, important among cultures of other faiths and ages as positive images.

St. John used the dragon, as a representation of Satan, in the New Testament chapter of Revelation: “And the great dragon was cast out, that old serpent, called the Devil, and Satan, which deceiveth the whole world: he was cast out into the earth, and his angles were cast out with him.” [5]

Griffins too suffer from this duality of meaning. Griffins have appeared in ancient art from Babylon to Greece, Rome and the Orient as a symbol of the sun and the guardian of treasures. The griffin symbolized dominion over the land and the sky and was used symbolically as a sign of power. In the East, the Griffin was symbolic of wisdom and enlightenment—just as the dragon. But, alas, in Christian tradition the griffin depicts evil. The image was used as a symbol of Satan flying away with the souls of those who persecute Christians, or, as Evans relates, demons that “flew aloft on the pinions of pride and fell from heaven into the abyss of hell for their misdeeds.” [6]

Sometime in the 14th century, the griffin became a symbol of the dual nature of Christ rather than the evil of Satan. As is often the case with Christian symbolism, the griffin in its aspect as master of the heavens and the earth was absorbed in Christian iconography and eventually symbolized the Pope as head of spiritual and temporal power.

Many of the symbols found on burial markers have even more obscure meanings and origins. Hands are one of the most common images found in pre-twentieth century cemeteries.

The hand pointing up acts as a road sign, telling visitors to this grave that the occupant no longer resides on the earth but has gone onward to heaven. In Christian symbolism, hands appearing in the midst of clouds represent the power and presence of God. 

Hand images appear in graveyards from California to Virginia. While hand images are common elsewhere, a hand pointing up appears only in Christian cemeteries. Hands carved on Jewish headstones are shown with the fingers separated “to form openings through which the blessed Shekhinah (radiance of God) streams down upon the congregants.” [7]

Other hand motifs include hands that appear to be shaking. This normally represents matrimony if the sleeves shown appear to be masculine and feminine. If the sleeves are gender neutral the image may be that of a heavenly welcome or an earthly farewell. In Chinese symbolism, clasped hands represent friendliness and allegiance.

The dove is another common figure that has been used to decorate headstones. Perhaps the most common animal figure used in cemeteries, the dove is most frequently depicted as holding an olive branch in its beak.  The meaning, of course, refers to the flood myth and the dove that Noah released which returned with an olive branch signifying that the flood waters had receded from the earth. The dove also signifies purity and peace. The symbol of the dove with an olive branch is universally representative of peace.

In Christian symbolism, hands appearing in the midst of clouds represent the power and presence of God.

The dove is an appropriate symbol for burial markers as it also represents “the passing from one state or world to another.” [8]

Across time, the sacred dove has been associated with funerary cults and was sacred to all Mother Goddesses, depicting femininity and maternity.  

A double-headed dove, much like the double-headed eagle, signifies the dual nature of unity. The double-headed dove shown below appears to be part of an older Masonic emblem which time has effectively erased. This symbol represents the dual nature of unity and is also an imperial emblem of power and protection. According to the Association for Gravetsone Studies, it also symbolizes a 32nd or 33rd degree Mason. [9]

Other common symbolic motifs on grave markers include various forms of vegetation—both mythical forms and common species. As unlikely as it may seem, a sheaf of wheat is a popular Masonic symbol and is used on grave markers to indicate “someone who has lived a long and fruitful life of more than seventy years.” [10] Other interpretations include the “divine harvest at life’s end” and a life fulfilled. [11]

Wheat is symbolic of immortality and resurrection. Being a staple of life, wheat has been thought of as being a gift from God.  Like other cereal crops such as corn and barley, wheat symbolizes the fertility of the earth, renewal, rebirth and abundance. In Christian symbolism, wheat represents the body of Christ, the righteous and the godly.

Flowers are often found in cemeteries not only as fresh offerings to departed members of the family or to friends but as carved images on headstones. Flowers are important symbols in many cultures, representing gods and goddesses, the soul and the spiritual flowering of the spirit, immortality and the brevity of life, and of course, rebirth. During the Festival of Rosalia in ancient Rome, roses were scattered over graves.

The rose has, as many symbols do, a dual nature. It has represented “heavily perfection as well as earthly  passion.” [12] It also symbolizes both life and death, immortality and the limits of Time. As used in association with funeral traditions, the rose symbolizes eternal life and resurrection. In Christian lore, the rose grows on the Tree of Life, signifying regeneration and eternal life.

The more unusual graveyard decorations include the shell—normally the scallop shell. Symbolically, the shell represents a pilgrimage or journey, however it has also been used to symbolize baptism and fertility. According to Jack Tresidder, the shell is a symbol of the vulva, “linked with conception, regeneration, baptism and, in many traditions, prosperity—probably through its association with fecundity.” [13] 

During the Victorian age, and its associated neo-pagan revivalist era, other interesting pieces of symbolic art found themselves incorporated in cemeteries as well as on secular architecture. 

One of these items is the stone ball. Keister wrote that stone balls in cemeteries are “almost always purely decorative.” [14] A cluster of three such stone balls, however, connotes a gift or money. However, there are other meanings behind this symbol as well. Cooper notes that balls may represent either the sun or the moon and symbolic of the power of the gods to hurl comets from the heavens. [15] Carved stone balls have appeared in widely diverse areas of the world and apparently represent mystic and archaic meanings. According to the Association for Gravestone Studies, these balls may represent the endlessness of time, or eternity, which would be very appropriate for cemetery symbolism.

In Mesoamerica, where the ballgame was played for ritual reasons and the results were often deadly, the ball itself symbolized the sun that not only journeyed across the sky but also in and out of the underworld. [16]

Victorian influence also was responsible for the introduction of ancient Egyptian motifs into secular architecture and graveyard decoration. The “rebirth” of ancient architectural styles during the neo-pagan revivalist period resulted in some of the more interesting changes to American homes and buildings. The photograph above shows how this style also came to be used on the tombs of our more wealthy citizenry, who, according to some researchers, did not know the ancient symbolic meaning the image but chose the design due to the popularity of anything Egyptian.

Many of the headstones in our cemeteries also commonly show fraternal symbols. The Masons, also known as the Free Masons, have left their symbols throughout American burial grounds. The primary symbol used is that of the square and the compass, normally shown with a “G” inside the symbol. According to Keister, the square, or carpenter’s square, and the compass represents the interaction between mind and matter, or rather “the progression from the material to the intellectual to the spiritual.” [17] Biedermann elaborates on this, stating that the square, as it indicates a right angle, stands for what is right, justice and the true law. [18] The compass symbolizes the ideal circle of “all-embracing love” for humanity. The “G” which is centrally located in the image either stands for Geometry or God—or both. The exact meaning is clouded by the organizations reluctance to define their symbols and their meanings.

Trees are also found in cemetery art—the symbolism is obvious—depending on the tree, they represent the Tree of Life, longevity, resurrection, eternity and incorruptibility. Beautiful carvings in Celtic style may represent a stylized weeping willow which symbolizes grief and sorrow or it may be, in fact, a form of the Tree of Life.

Some markers are eloquent in their simplicity such as one I found carved for a young man who immigrated to California in 1849 to strike it rich in the gold rush. He died a few years later in 1852 of small pox. Perhaps this is the most fitting of them all as it is a story of hope, failed dreams and a promising life cut short.

Tradition has it that iron fences were installed to keep the soul of the deceased from wandering.

[1] Keister, Douglas. Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography. New York: MJF Books 2004, 13.

[2] Potok, Chaim. “Forword” in Graven Images: Graphic Motifs of the Jewish Gravestone by Arnold Schwartzman. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1993, 14

[3] Potok, op cit., 13.

[4] Keister, op cit, 93

[5] Revelation 12:9, King James Version

[6] Evans, E. P. Animal Symbolism in Ecclesiastical Architecture. London: W. Heinemann 1896, 39.

[7] Schwartzman, Arnold. Graven Images: Graphic Motifs of the Jewish Grave Stone. New York: Harry N. Abrams, Inc. 1993, 22.

[8] Cooper, J.C. An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols. London: Thames and Hudson 1978, 54.

[9] AGS Field Guide No. 8: Symbolism in the Carvings on Gravestones. Greenfield: The Association for Gravestone Studies (AGS) 2003, 5.

[10] Keister, op cit., 60.

[11] AGS, op cit., 7.

[12] Cooper, op cit.,141.

[13] Tresidder, Jack. Symbols and Their Meanings. New York: Barnes& Noble 2006, 13.

[14] Keister, op cit., 110.

[15] Cooper, op cit., 17.

[16] Miller, Mary and Karl Taube. An Illustrated Dictionary of the Gods and Symbols of Ancient Mexico and the Maya. London: Thames and Hudson 1993, 43.

[17] Keister, op cit.,191.

[18] Biedermann, Hans. Dictionary of Symbols: Cultural Icons & The Meanings Behind Them. New York: Meridian 1994, 321.