Next time you walk into an historic cemetery, take a look at some of the symbols on grave markers. Many of them are typical symbols of mourning, death, faith and the after life. We are going to explore some of the more common funerary symbols, as well as some unique markers that you can find in Denver’s Fairmount Cemetery.
There are several websites that can help you decipher the symbols on graves markers, including the Cemetery Club and Memorials.com. But the most useful can be found at Grave Addiction because they provide photographs of each symbol.
Common Symbols on Grave Markers
“In the days when the body lay in state in the parlor, it was the custom to cover everything in black. Draperies, with their fancy frills and tassels, are more elaborate than a simple shroud. They allow the expression of mourning to linger long after the body has been taken out the front door and the accoutrements have been stowed for the next death in the family.”
This marker at the left is dedicated to Frank C. Walrod, who died in 1895, and his wife Kate, who died in 1903.
Lambs convey innocence and purity. They are a Christian symbol (lamb of God), but apparently lambs have been used as funerary symbols since pre-Christian times. Lambs are almost always used on the graves of children. This grave at the right is dedicated to David Ralston Williams, who died in 1909 at thirteen months of age.
Scrolls, especially scrolls that are rolled on both ends, symbolize the time span of a life, with the past and the future hidden. An alternative interpretation is that scrolls symbolize the scriptures. This grave marker at left dates to 1925.
Palm fronds are a Christian symbol of death and eternal peace. They reference Palm Sunday and symbolize Christ’s victory over death. Palm fronds are often incorporated into other symbols on a grave marker, such as a wreath or a cross.
Oak leaves symbolize strength and longevity. Oak is of great historic importance. It is believed that Jesus’ cross was built out of oak, and the oak tree was the ‘tree of life’ in pre-Christian times. The grave marker for the Fehr family, at left, has oak leaves at the top left and bottom center, as well as a torn scroll. There is also a sprig of ivy at the top left of the Fehr marker. Ivy signifies immortal life, as it is an evergreen. It may also signify friendship or partnership.
Egyptian symbols are often used to signify death and the afterlife. The winged orb at the top of the M. Barth mausoleum, at right, is a symbol of the sun god, Re. It was adopted in the nineteenth century as a symbol of the heavens and God the creator. You often see the winged orb on Egyptian Revival grave markers.
As you become more familiar with some of the typical symbols on grave markers, you will start seeing many symbols used in conjunction on individual markers. This marker at the left is dedicated to Minnie L. Libby, who died in 1896, “aged 28 years and 6 mos.” Based on the symbols used on her grave marker, it is likely that she died in childbirth and was quite beloved. First of all, you can see a mourning woman leaning on a wood cross, which together symbolize loss and faith. The cross is decorated with a garland of flowers, notably roses, held by the mourning woman. Roses symbolize purity and beauty, but the age of the deceased is also conveyed through the age of the rose. Rose buds symbolize the death of a youth, whereas full roses, such as the roses in Minnie’s garland, symbolize someone who died in the prime of their life. Garlands of roses also may symbolize the death of a mother and child. The garland on Minnie Libby’s marker also incorporates ferns, which symbolize sorrow. Finally, there is a sprig of ivy creeping up the stone supporting the cross.
The Hatch memorial, on the right, also incorporates a lot of common symbols. The Hatch name is carved into a scroll, which is placed in front of a palm frond and a cross with a crown. Like palm fronds, the cross with a crown is a symbol of Jesus’ victory over death. The right side of the marker is a classical order of plinth, Ionic column and cornice. The full column symbolizes that the deceased lived a full life. Note the ferns growing around the column shaft, which also connotes the death and decay.
Several grave markers contain symbols of modern fraternal organizations or their sister societies. These include the Masons, the Eastern Star, the International Organization of Odd Fellows (IOOF), and the Elks, amongst others.
One of the most common alternative grave markers found in cemeteries all over the United States is the tree. A tree marker, or tree stump is the symbol of Woodmen of the World, a fraternal organization that also provides life insurance. The Woodmen of the World was founded in 1890 in Omaha, Nebraska, and continues to serve members across the country. According to this interesting history of the Woodmen, between 1890 and 1900 the Woodmen provided free grave markers to its members upon their death. In 1900, they began charging $100 for markers, and by the mid-1920s they discontinued offering markers to its members. As a result, most of the tree markers found in American cemeteries date between 1890 and the mid-1920s.
This tree marker at left is dedicated to Bertha Wolff and dates to 1906. The marker at the right is dedicated to William D. Pyle and dates to 1900. It has a Woodman symbol at the center of the marker, but the marker’s design is similar to more typical headstones. Apparently cylindrical grave markers, such as the one below, are also from Woodmen of the World. They represent logs laid on their side. Note the ivy on the marker, too.
Masons decorated their grave markers with numerous symbols. Masons are most often symbolized by the square and compass, usually with a G in the center. They may also be represented by Masonic keystones. Another prominent Masonic symbol includes an eye surrounded by the sun’s rays (or often inside a triangle). Other Masonic symbols include clasped hands, a trowel, a hand with a heart at its palm, and a double-headed eagle.
The grave marker at the right has a palm wreath surrounding an eye in a sunburst. Below the eye are three linked chains containing the letters F, L and T. This is an Odd Fellows symbol that means Friendship, Love and Truth.
The Snyder marker, at the left, incorporates a scroll, a palm frond, plus an inverted triangle containing the letters F, C and B, surrounded by a knight’s helmet and weapons. These are symbols of the Knights of Pythias, a fraternal organization. The F, C and B stand for Friendship, Charity and Benevolence. There is also a skull at the center of the inverted triangle, which may be a symbol of this particular Knights of Pythias chapter, or it may be a symbol of death. Finally, there is a link of three chains below the inverted triangle, symbolizing the Odd Fellows.
Interesting Cultural Differences
There are a few unique grave markers in Fairmount Cemetery that shed a light on the burial practices of different cultures. Since the invention of photography, Italians have used small photographic portraits of the deceased on their grave markers, such as the marker on the right. Italians traditionally bury their dead in family vaults or in mausoleums to conserve space, but markers typically incorporate photos of the deceased taken while they were living. These Italian-Americans, at right, continued the tradition using photographs on their markers.
This Chinese grave marker, at left, was also found at Fairmount Cemetery. I am not sure if the Chinese also typically use photographs of the deceased on their grave markers, but apparently red words on a Chinese grave marker note that this person is not yet deceased. When this marker’s owner is deceased, the stone cutter will repaint the words in white. Fascinating!
Unique Grave Markers
And now for two really interesting grave markers that I wanted to show you all:
The Ross memorial, at left , is a beautiful pink granite marker. It marks the graves of four women and was erected by one of their male family members, Alex Ross. It’s a pretty marker with an urn at the top, which symbolizes the soul and the departed. My favorite part of this marker, though, is the carved portraits of the three Ross women buried here – Alex’s sisters and mother – and a portrait of Alex, too. (The fourth woman was described on the marker as being “a dead friend”.) Maggie A. Ross’ portrait is shown in the photo above at right.
Another beautiful marker is that of Henry White Warren, who was the Bishop of the Methodist Episcopal Church. I just love the carvings of flowers and foliage flanking his name. The font is beautiful, too. It dates to 1912, when Warren passed.