What Do All Those Symbols Mean on Headstones and Grave Markers?

For thousands of years, people have gone to elaborate lengths to commemorate the final resting place of their loved ones and honored leaders.  And while much has changed over millenia, grave markers and monuments are still erected every day in much the same styles and materials.  Stone tombs and monuments, bronze plaques, marble markers, and slate headstones have survived the ages as legacies to those that have gone before us.

Because of the history of grave markings, many symbols and traditions have been passed down throughout time.  The significant of the glyphs and symbols often have multiple meanings which have changed from region to region and time to time.  Let’s take a look at some of the symbols commonly found at grave sites in the United States and their meanings.

Religious Symbols

engraving of a cross and roses on granite
Often a combination of symbols can be found. Here a cross and a rose are combined on a grave marker.

Alpha-Omega: The first and last letters of the Greek alphabet represent God as the beginning and the end.

Celtic Cross: A cross containing a circle was originally a pagan symbol but was later adopted by the Christian Church.

Endless Knot: Reincarnation
Cross and Crown: The Cross represents Christianity and the crown means victory.

The letters “I H S”, usually on a cross signify the first three letters of Jesus in the Greek language.

Six-pointed Star of David: Jewish

XP, Chi-Rho, the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ

Winged Globe: represents the Egyptian sun god Ra, and stands for “creator”

Triangle: An equilateral triangle represents the Christian Trinity


Shepard’s Crook: The staff with three links for Love, Friendship and Truth is the symbol of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows

Double-Headed Bird: Masonic symbol of power. Other Freemason symbols include crowns and multiple geometric shapes.


Butterfly: Resurrection

Bird: Eternal Life

Dove: Peace and purity.  Also represents the Holy Spirit

Lion: Strength

Snake swallowing its tail: A symbol of eternity


Bellflower: Gratitude and constancy

Oak Leaves: Strength and Endurance

Ivy: Everlasting love

Other Symbols

Anchor: Hope

Artist Palette: Painter

Inverted Torch: A life extinguished

Oil Lamp: Wisdom

Book: Knowledge

The Lyre: Musician

Urn and Drapery: Sorrow

Wreath: Symbol of victory

Winged Hourglass: “Time’s swift flight”

Crossed Torch and Sword: Life and Death, respectively.

All of these symbols can be found at the Mount Hope Cemetery in Rochester, NY.  Images courtesy of the Friends of Mount Hope Cemetery.

For more information on tombstone engraving, memorial statues, and custom cemetery plot markers, please visit https://hartmonuments.com/services/ for Hart Monuments in Rochester, NY or https://brigdenmemorials.com/services/ for Brigden Memorials in Albion, NY or https://oakleymonument.com/services/ for Oakley Monument in Batavia, NY.

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