Headstone Symbols and Their Meanings

Posted on 01/26/23 | Articles, Featured

If you have ever walked through a cemetery and noticed the variety of symbols carved into the headstones, you’ve probably wondered what those symbols mean. The meaning behind tombstone symbols is rich and interesting. It is essentially a history of humanity and its belief systems.

Whether you have recently lost a loved one or are curious to learn more about headstone symbols and meanings, Patten Monument Company will divulge the meaning behind some of the most popular symbols, as well as some of the more esoteric symbols.

The Importance of Tombstone Symbolism

Tombstone symbolism is important because it teaches current generations about the past. Beyond that, the symbolism included on a tombstone is meant to reflect the proclivities and interests of the person the stone was carved for.

Some of the most common symbols included on gravestones through the ages have been religious and secular symbols. Many of them pertain to humanity’s attitude toward death and the afterlife, though they can also pertain to fraternal organizations or even subjects the individual was interested in throughout their life.

The meaning behind some symbols is immediately visible. However, the significance behind others is more complicated. Without knowing the individual personally, this can be difficult to discern. Despite this, many of these symbols share a commonality that can be traced back through time.

Common Headstone Symbols

While many symbols will undoubtedly have a more personal meaning, some are merely arbitrary symbols that have been included for their cosmetic value. Even still, these symbols are imbued with meaning. Here are some of the most common headstone symbols and a brief description of what they mean.


Angels symbolize spirituality, especially in accordance with Judeo-Christian doctrine. They are seen as guardians of the gravesite they watch over and serve as a messenger between God and the rest of humanity.

Angels are often carved into tombstones in a variety of poses. Unsurprisingly, each pose has a particular meaning. For example, a weeping angel is known as the Angel of Grief and symbolizes the grief the living feel over the deceased person.

Another example is an angel carrying a person, which can literally be interpreted as the angel carrying the soul of the deceased to heaven.


A book on a tombstone can represent an array of different things. On a personal level, perhaps the person was an avid reader or writer. Symbolically, an open book traditionally represents the Bible.

When placed on a gravestone, a book symbolizes scholarly pursuits, religious devotion, and prayer. It can also be seen as a symbol of memory.

Celtic Cross and Irish Cross

Depicted as a cross with a circle through the center of its top half, the Celtic and Irish Cross is a symbol of eternity and life everlasting. This Cross is also associated with pagan sun-worshippers, hence why the sun is intertwined with the cross. There are several Irish legends about how St. Patrick used the Celtic Cross as a tool to guide pagans into the arms of Christianity.


The urn is one of the most common engravings you’ll see in a cemetery. The urn itself is a symbol of immortality and is associated with cremation.

Historically, cremation was much more prevalent than burial. This is especially true of classical times. The word urn itself is derived from the Latin word uro, which means “to burn.” Over the years, as burial became humanity’s preferred practice for the deceased, the urn became a common signifier on tombstones.

Symbolically, an urn on a gravestone represents the materiality of the body. It is intimately bound with the phrase “ashes to ashes, dust to dust,” which signifies that the body will die while the soul remains with God.

Some depictions of urns feature a drape over the urn. This added symbol signifies protection in the sense that the soul has left the shrouded body and is on its way to heaven. The drape also represents the barrier between the realm of the living and the realm of the dead.


The dove is a Jewish and Christian symbol that represents peace and love. It is also a signifier of resurrection.

Doves are typically engraved in an ascending pose, which symbolizes the journey of the soul into heaven. A descending dove signifies safe passage, as it is leaving heaven to guide the soul of the departed. Another common iteration is a dove holding an olive branch, which signifies the divine peace that is reached upon finding heaven.


Laurels are another common symbol found in cemeteries. They are typically depicted in the form of a wreath and signify the victorious sensation of eternity and everlasting life. The wreath itself represents a victory over death due to its association with eternity.


Ivy and vines are often associated with the everlasting nature of true friendship. There is a material basis for this association. The ivy vine itself is notoriously difficult to remove, hence the association with rebirth and regeneration.

Olive Branch

The olive branch is affiliated with the dove, and it bears much of the same meaning in the sense of love and peace. However, the olive branch is also associated with Greek mythology.

In Greek mythology, the goddess Athena gifted an olive tree to the city that would become Athens. Ambassadors of the country would often give an olive branch to their counterparts from other countries to symbolize goodwill.

Other Gravestone Symbols

There are some symbols found on gravestones that may not be as common as those previously listed but bear fascinating meanings.


The Sphinx is a being with the head and torso of a human and the body of a lion. It is thought to serve as a guardian to the tomb it is carved on.

Square and Compass

The square and compass are masonic symbols of faith and rationality. It pertains to an individual’s capacity for self-control and reminds them to conduct themselves in a rational, educated manner. Additionally, it serves as a symbol of geometry and God.

Inverted Torch

An inverted torch symbolizes the extinguishment of life. The flame symbolizes the passage from one realm to the next.

Choose a Headstone Symbol in Honor of Your Loved One

When choosing a headstone symbol, it is important to be mindful of what each engraving means. This will create a meaningful, lasting impression that allows your loved one to be remembered in a manner they would appreciate.  Learn more about monuments and why we build them.