What are cemeteries? What sort of monuments, materials and plants do we find in them? What do their symbols mean?
These pages will endeavour to explain these questions and are taken from my article published in The Ancestral Searcher, The Heraldry & Genealogy Society of Canberra's flagship journal, vol. 27, no.2, June 2004.
I will also be placing my gravestone photographs as examples, from some of the Canberra, Queanbeyan and other cemeteries that I have visited in the past.
Concrete: Easily produced.
Diorite: Igneous rock similar to granite, but with less quartz. Rock contains light-coloured white and pink feldspar and dark biotite and hornblende minerals, giving it a "salt and pepper" appearance.
Granite: Grey or Red. Made hard, durable headstones.
Iron Pickets: Appeared round graves, at the same time as houses.
Marble: Traditionally favoured for memorials due to aesthetic and durable qualities.
Sandstone: Carves beautifully.
Terazzo: Used for gravestones, steps and drainage areas.
Wood: Wooden rails or pickets as enclosures to gravesites, the person's 'home'.
Calvary (Roman Latin): Single crossbar, shorter than the upright. Pedestal has three steps representing the Trinity of Faith, Hope and Charity.
Celtic: Single crossbar, often tall and ornately carved, with a circle or solid wheel at junction of bar and upright.
Circular Latin, or Rustic Latin (a wooden look)
Cornish: arms point away from centre and bend outwards and bend around, circular like the pointed side of an axe.
Eastern/Russian Orthodox: Double bar, horizontal above and slanted below.
Lorraine: similar to the Russian Orthodox, without the angled bar.
Maltese: Equally sized bar and upright with the ends widening in a triangular pattern similar to a medal decoration.
Saxon: arms point away, widening away from circular centre. Centre may have a hole in the middle
Crypts & Vaults: Belowground burials. A crypt is a room, incorporated into the foundations of a building in which coffins are laid up below ground level. A vault is a poor man's crypt, little more than a brick-lined grave. They can be quite large and entered by steps underneath a slab, usually distinguished by ringbolts or handles in the surface. Often a hinged gate is inserted for ease of access.
Headstone: Both head & footstones were used with coffin slabs and ledgers, usually as markers. Most of the footstones disappeared when rails or borders were put round graves, or later, removed by maintenance staff to facilitate grass cutting. The Headstone was popular in the 18th Century, the height varying between 60 cm and 100 cm. In the 19th Century, they were made in a great variety of sizes, and mounted on pedestals. Faces of headstones usually oriented east and west, the deceased placed below the east face of the stone, with their feet extended to the east, so they
will rise facing east when the trumpets sound. The stones are generally cut in one piece with a tongue shaped base to anchor it into the ground.
Mural monument: Often elaborate, of great size and elegance. Exhibit fashionable architectural features of the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. Usually on the outside walls of the church, or the surrounding churchyard walls.
Mural tablet: Relatively plain, bearing an inscription and a minimum of ornament. Built into or fixed on the outside wall of the church, or built into the churchyard wall.
Obelisk: Tapering shaft of stone, square in section, with a pyramidal top, erected to people of some importance. Assumed greater proportions at the end of 18th Century and in Victorian times outrivalled other monuments in height.
Pedestal tomb: Tall tomb which may be square, polygonal or circular in section, topped by a finial. Can also be a chest tomb supporting features such as a pyramid, obelisk, etc. Developed in the 19th Century, the pedestal is surmounted by urns, draped urns, crosses, or figures of maidens in chitons, mourning widows, the Virtues (Hope, Charity), or angels. The monument may be freestanding or placed against a wall for support.
Slab and Desk: A slab joined with an upright slab, sloping like a writing desk. A tablet, open book or scroll is usually placed on the sloping part of the desk.
Surrounds: surround the grave—usually a timber picket fence, an iron picket fence, or wood, stone, bricks or cement. Iron pickets can have motifs such as arrowheads, Fleur-de-Lys, or a floral motif.
Tabletop/Tablestone: A slab placed on pedestals or on flat supports. Popular from c1643 and in the 18th and 19th Centuries. The earlier ones were ornamented with carved emblems. Those of the 19th Century often plain, apart from lengthy inscriptions. The pedestals, sometimes four in number, sometimes six, are wrought in various shapes and may be decorated.
Upright slab: Widely used in the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries, the approx. dates of late Georgian to early and mid Victorian periods. Basic shapes were:
· simple Norman (semi-circular at top), also Georgian
· Gothic (arch); Gothic with shoulders; Gothic with acroteria (upward pointed shoulders)
· ogee (similar to a bracket ‘}’ on the top)
· anthropomorphic (similar to a human form—head and shoulders), and also with peaked shoulders (pointed, curved inwards as if arms raised)
· gabled (s) at top; pediment (gable may be separate from slab and lies across top of slab overhanging on both sides); gabled with shoulders; gabled with peaked shoulders; stepped (gable stepped on either side, above slab)
· cruciform (cross with rounded edges on top of slab); cross surmounted on slab with shoulders;
· circular, or disc on top of slab
· diamond, on top of slab
· double—two semicircular slabs with shoulders, middle shoulder joins the two together
· heart—on top of slab
Anagrams & Monograms: Single letters or groups of letters appearing on memorials.
AO: Alpha and Omega, the beginning and the end. Often appear with a Book of Life.
IHS: In Latin, ‘in hoc signo (vinces)’=in this sign you will conquer, the first three letters of the name Jesus. Superimposed they look like a $ sign. In Greek, iota, epsilon and sigma. In modern times they now represent Jesus Hominum Salvator, or Jesus the Saviour of Men.
T: Greek. T or Tau. The initial of Theos (God) and also the Egyptian hieroglyphic for life.
TNZBH: Hebrew for ‘may their soul be bound up in the bond of eternal life’.
XP: or Chi-Rho, the first two Green letters for Christos. Refer to being buried under Christ. If reversed, PX means pax or peace.
Anchor: Symbol of hope and steadfastness. Early Christians used this as a disguised cross and as a marker to guide the way to secret meeting places. The seaman’s symbol. An anchor with a broken chain means the cessation of life.
Angels: The Agent of God, usually have their right hands, the right finger, pointing to heaven. Often hold a scroll, or the anchor of faith, the trumpet of resurrection, or the palm fronds of peace. Georgian angels have altar-boy surplices or skirts. Victorian angels are heavily robed to the feet in a 'nightgown'. Two angels are identified by the objects they carry, e.g. Michael, bearing a sword and Gabriel, portrayed with a horn.
Animals: see: Lamb, Serpent, Doves.
Books: Book of life or the Bible. Arabic characters identify the book as the Koran. May be surmounted by a crown and quill pen or held in the right hand of God or an angel. Represents education, knowledge, prayer, person's occupation if a writer or bookseller.
Books-open/closed: As above. Open: a kind of biography. Closed: the story of the dead person is over.
Broken chains: Links of love with a family broken in death. Grief and loss. Usually around the top of a headstone.
Broken columns: Symbol of life left unfinished--cut off by death. Can be decorated with laurel or ivy wreaths.
Broken columns--tree form: As above, but with branches cut off, or a tree stump, or a tree trunk with an axe embedded.
Butterfly: The soul, the resurrection of God. Taken from the three stages of the life of a butterfly, the caterpillar, the chrysalis, and the butterfly, i.e. the life, death and resurrection.
Candle: The spirit of the soul, can symbolize Jesus Christ, the Light of the World. Left on the grave to show that prayers have been said for the deceased.
Chains: A golden chain bound the soul to the body. Broken links on a headstone symbolise the separation and release of the spirit from the body.
Chalice: The white circle representing the consecrated Eucharist. Signify the Catholic rite of Holy Communion.
Cherubs: Flight of the soul.
Clasped hands: Always a pair. One hand male, the other female. Sometimes connected with a ribbon. Signify love, friendship, farewell, or a welcome to a new state of existence. Handshake, farewell on departure of the welcome of reunions (or both!).
Cross: Christian faith. Usually mounted on three steps signifying the Trinity: faith, hope and charity.
Crowns: Honour and glory. The crown of Christ's righteousness.
Daisy: The innocence of a child, Jesus the infant, youth, the Son of righteousness, gentleness, purity of thought.
Dog: Signifies loyalty. Often placed at the feet of their master or mistress. Also signifies the inferior place in the chivalric order.
Death: A scythe, an archer, a skeleton/skull with crossbones.
Dogwood: Divine sacrifice, the triumph of eternal life, and the resurrection.
Doves: Symbol of the Holy Spirit and of love, or of peace, promise or hope with olive sprigs, or of the renewal of life if with an eagle. Purity and spirituality.
Dragon: For the Chinese, an emblem of Imperial Power that brought the universe into its thrall. Symbolizes the universe, a chaotic force that none can truly master.
Draperies/Curtains: Draperies allow the expression of mourning to linger long after the body is deceased. Curtains set the stage. When parted, they reveal an excerpt. The display is the main actor, or the central object of the stone.
Eggs and darts: Resurrection following death. The egg is the symbol of life and birth, the arrow the symbol of death. Found on the edges of tombstones, or as a frieze.
Ex-Service badges: War service
Ivy: is evergreen and stands for loyalty, patience, immortality and bonding.
Ferns: grow in the shade, represent humility.
Holly: protected tombs and other monuments from lightning strikes.
Lily: chastity, innocence and purity. The traditional flower of Victorian death and mourning. The first lily sprang forth from the repentant tears of Eve as she went forth from Paradise. At funerals, lilies symbolize restored innocence of the soul at death.
Marigold: decorate the grave in the form of crosses and arches, form trails to lead the souls of the dead home.
Mistletoe: a sacred plant symbolizing immortality. Used in animal sacrifices.
Oak tree: Hospitality, stability, strength, honour, eternity, endurance, liberty. The tree of life in pre-Christian times. The oak, its leaves and acorn symbolize power, authority or victory. Often seen on military tombs.
Palm: A symbol of Christ’s death as associated with Easter. Spirit of victory, success, eternal peace.
Pine: Peace and immortality. The pinecone ensures the perpetuity of life’s renewal.
Poppy: means sleep.
Roses: Love, beauty, hope, unfailing love. If red, martyrdom. If white, purity and virginity. Without thorns, for innocence and paradise. Various bud stages: just a bud = a child under 12; partial bloom – a teenager; full bloom = early to mid twenties, the prime of life; rosebud broken = life cut short.
Apples, the forbidden fruit, are also the fruit of salvation and the fruit of sweetness in love.
Grapes represent Christ's miracles and abundance
Pomegranates for fertility, and traditionally free from worms.
Hands: Always the divine right hand. The left is traditionally the Devil's. It can be outstretched, pointing to a cross, or holding a scroll or book. If it has a heart in the palm it can mean charity. Sometimes appears alone on top of a pillar with the index finger pointing to heaven.
Hearts: Symbol of charity. The Sacred Heart of Christ, or with flames, the Divine heart. Two together symbolise love in marriage. Can be pierced, held in hands, crowned or appear with a cross. Stylised hearts mean the affection of the living for the dead.
Heart, Sacred: Depicts the torn and dripping heart of Jesus, surrounded with the crown of thorns. Represents the suffering of Jesus for our sins. Prayers to the Sacred Heart are said to be effective for the release of souls from Purgatory.
Hourglasses: The time passing by. Emphasised by giving the hourglass wings. Can be represented by a scythe, clock or sundial.
Lamb: The innocence of children, or the sacrificial Lamb of God. Usually marks the grave of a child.
Lion: The power of God. Guards the tomb against evil spirits. Recalls the courage and determination of souls that they guard. The Resurrection. The lion’s watch is eternal and they manifest the spirit of the deceased.
National: Place of origin, e.g. Celtic Harp, Scottish thistle, Jewish National symbols, such as the menorah candlestick, the oil lamp, and star with six points for God's universality or with seven for completeness.
Oil lamp: associated with the Jewish Temple and protection. Menorah=celebration of light. Pair of hands raised in blessing.
Scrolls: The record of life, symbol of life and time. Often appears held by a hand and unrolled vertically by Angels. . Indicates life is unfolding, of uncertain length, the future and past is hidden under the rolled top and bottom. Also suggests honour and commemoration.
Serpent: May be trampled on as a triumph over sin and death. If depicted with tails in mouth, the old Celtic symbol of eternity.
Shells: Symbols of life and resurrection.
Star of David: Six pointed Star of David, also called the Magen David (Hebrew for shield of David). The symbol of Judaism. Star made up of two triangles signifying divine protection.
Torches: The triumphant life, passed from hand to hand in the classical relay race. Extinguished torch, death, resurrection. Sometimes depicted upside down as life being snuffed out in death. Torches provided light when they used to bury the dead at night. It scared off evil spirits and scavengers. It can also symbolize living memory and eternal life (e.g. the eternal flame).
Trees: (see Flowers/Plants) Willows for mourning. Oaks for life and steadfastness, palms for peace. If cut down, they represent death.
Trumpet: Resurrection of dead on the last day.
Urns: Symbol of remembrance. Often draped with shroud cloths. Symbolise the shroud of Christ. Situated on an alter-plinth on elaborately lace-fringed altar cloths.
Wheat: associated with the Egyptian cult of Osiris. An ear of wheat is a symbol of rebirth, the re-sowing and germination of seeds.
Aloe: Bitterness, grief and sorrow. Plant of the lily family
Cypress tree: Death.
Ferns: Represent humility. Grown in the shade.
Geraniums: Sadness, melancholy thoughts or comfort with deep coloured flowers.
Honeysuckle: Love. An evergreen climber.
Ivy: Evergreen, and stands for loyalty, patience, immortality and bonding.
Morning Glory: Attachment, affection.
Pine trees: Evergreen.
Roses: Love. A crown of roses is a reward for virtue. Without thorns, for innocence and paradise
Gilbert, L. A Grave Look at History: Glimpses of a Vanishing Form of Folk Art, John Ferguson, Sydney, 1980.
National Trust of Australia (NSW), Cemeteries: A National Trust Policy Paper, National Trust of Australia (NSW), Sydney, 1985.
Sagazio, C. (ed.), Cemeteries: Our Heritage, National Trust of Australia (Victoria), Melbourne, 1992.
Willsher, B. Understanding Scottish Graveyards, Canongate Books, Edinburgh, 1995.
Everlife Memorials, http://www.everlifememorials.com/headstones/headstones-symbolism.htm