The Meaning of Stones & Monuments

Cemetery monuments have a multi purpose function. First and foremost they mark burial sites so that no one walks over them. Secondly, they preserve the living memory of the dead and protect the remains from deliberate or accidental disturbance.

But their design and symbolism is as individual and personal as the epitaphs written on them. Monument design ranges from simple stones to complicated funerary architecture and art, which evokes the strength, character and status of the individual or family era they mark. The following are examples of just that. So the next time you stroll through an old cemetery, hopefully you will see much more than just a name and date.


Mementi-Morti from the 1700's

Commonly found in 18th century cemeteries on the east cost, the death head or mementi-morti, carry a message to the viewer that life however long or short ends in death. The mementi-morti is usually accompanied with crossed thighbones, an oblique reference to the ancient removal of bare bones from their original burial place and stacking them in ossuaries or bone houses. A common practice in Europe and with some native tribes in North America.

Later death heads were depicted with wings in the place of the cross thighbones, symbolizing the victory over death, the Resurrection. The skull was later replaced with a more subtle image, called a soul effigy. This symbolism was usually found on the Puritan graves in Nova Scotia and New England.

Another frequent accompaniment to the skull and cross bones was an hour glass, a reminder that our time is finite. The metaphorical sands measuring the hours of our lives, which will surely run out.

Early funerary art was basic and to the point, its message, death is immanent and its after you too.


Taken from the latin word "urna" meaning a vase whose form is a rounded or ovoid body on a circular base. The noun is derived from the verb "urere" to burn. The urns special use among the Romans and Greeks was to contain and preserve the ashes of the dead.

Neoclassical Urn Sculpture
on top of Obelisk Monument

The neoclassical version of the urn is very prominent in cemeteries where cremation was not generally practiced or even shunned. Its presence is purely symbolic, whether it is a two dimensional relief on a flat tablet or a solid sculpture it is not meant to be a real urn. The urn stands for concealment of the natural changes to the body after death and also represents the barrier of ignorance about the changes to the life of the spirit after death.

Draped Urn

Many sculptured urns on monuments are draped with sculpted veils, further emblems of what is hidden to the world.

Urn with Flame Atop

Another feature is to crown the urn with frinrals of flames. This is also sometimes depicted as a burning lamp. The images of a burning urn and lamp are interchangeable. The lamp or burning urn has a religious significance in both Christian and Jewish beliefs. The word lamp is sometimes translated as "a candle", but not in the traditional sense of a tallow and wick, but as an earthenware oil lamp.  The imaginary flame and earthenware lamp are symbols of the spirit within the body, which is made from earth and must return to earth.


The weeping willow has a form suggesting that its branches are bowed in grief and since it  usually grows beside a river or stream it gives the impression of tears flowing in sympathy.

The willow represents the ancient belief that the natural world is affected by strong human emotions and that it shares our emotions. Willow headstones are often seen in combination with other symbols, such as urns and hour glasses.

The willow has no significant religious meaning, but may also depict the sorrow of a love lost not just to death but lost in life.


Hands are usually recognized as a kind of metaphor, hands on a gravestone evoke the presence of the whole person.  Hands were common symbols on graves in the 19th century and appear either as two clasped hands or one hand either pointing upwards or down wards grasping earthly objects as it rose up.

The hand clasp as seen above are usually depicted as male and female.  The ancient betrothal of woman and a man was the clasping of hands, hence the saying to take "her hand in marriage".  This symbolic gesture is usually found on the grave where both the husband and wife are buried, or on the grave of a single spouse.  The clasped hands indicate a farewell, but also implies a future reunion.

The above gravestone has an interesting interpretation, the clasped hands are not of a man and woman, but of two men.  The gravestone is for two brothers who died ten years apart. A symbolic gesture of reunion, not only in death but also in spirit.  The older brother was buried at another location at the time of his younger brothers death.  His body removed from its original burial place and buried with his brother ten years later.

The single hand may have several interpretations, a hand with the index finger pointing up wards usually to a line of script saying "Gone Home" forces the reader to focus on the world to come and the promise of resurrection, for the "Blessed who live in the Lord." 

A single hand reaching from the heavens to pluck a flower in full bloom or to grasp an earthbound broken chain is commonly found on the graves of young adults. It symbolizes the life cut short in its prime, the flower is usually found on the graves of young women, taken at the full bloom of life, while the broken chain on that of young men, symbolizing the broken the chain of life.


When you visit a 19th century burial ground you can not help noticing the high incidence of mortality among infants and young children.  The suffering of these children and the grief of their surviving parents and siblings is frequently expressed in the form of a resting lamb, meek, gentle and weak.  The figure of a recumbent lamb is not only that of a victim, but also one who has been taken into safe keeping of eternal love.