There is substantial evidence to suggest that the very first gravestone ever dates back thousands of years to Roman and Celtic cultures. As modern technology progresses, new discoveries are still being made about the origin of famous and mysterious ruins. Historians have recently come to believe, through new evidence, that Stonehenge was actually a burial site.
While the date of creation of the first gravestone remains shrouded in mystery, what historians have been able to discover is the reasoning behind this now modernised practice.
The practice, while varying greatly worldwide in terms of material used and superstitions, shared a common theme of marking a grave by inscribing the deceased’s name, age and date of death to signify who was buried there. The practice of inscribing a small, sentimental quote was only developed much later on in history as elaborate burial customs gained traction.
The materials used to create gravestones have consistently varied through many social, political and economic factors throughout history. Wood, marble, granite, bronze, and sandstone have all been used as gravestones, depending on the time and place in history. However, granite remains the most popular material used today due to its price and durability.
Throughout history, it was believed that placing heavy objects on graves, such as rocks and sticks, was a way to prevent the dead from rising, a superstition practised by many in 18th century Britain. This created the phrase “grave-stone” and, from this superstition came the original construction of stone coffins. In modern times the terms tombstone, headstone, gravestone or grave markers all refer to the entire monument, including the headstone and base.
Originally a tombstone was the stone lid of a stone coffin, or the coffin itself, and the gravestone was the slab that was laid over the grave. A headstone has always been referred to as a marker of stone at the head of the grave with an inscription on it.
If you visit a cemetery, you will notice a lot of symbols engraved onto many headstones. You may think that these symbols are chosen for headstones at random, but that’s far from true. Each symbol that is etched onto a gravestone has a very specific meaning. Usually, the symbol has some sort of significance to the one who has passed.
In order to understand these symbols, listed below are some popular ones, along with their meanings. These are actually only a handful of monument engravings you will see in a cemetery. Many other popular symbols exist, and they are fascinating to explore.
When a loved one passes, there are many considerations when planning a mural and memorial.
Some Gravestone Symbols and Their Meanings
Arches and gates: Passage into the next life.
Anchor: Navy, hope, safety. If attached to a broken chain, life cut short.
Angels: God’s messengers and guardians; dropping flowers may signify grief, mourning.
Bird: Flight of the soul.
Book: Book of life, Bible, scholar.
Clock: March of time, usually stopped at hour of death.
Clover (3 or 4 leaf): Christian trinity, possible Irish ancestry.
Column and/or Pillar (broken): Life cut short, sudden death.
Column and/or Pillar (unbroken): Complete and full life.
Crown: Reward, glory.
Daisy: Innocence, often children.
Forefinger pointing down: God reaching down for the soul.
Forefinger pointing up: Soul’s passage to Heaven.
Handshake: Welcoming of a soul into Heaven; bond between spouses.
Heart: Romantic Love.
Ivy: Friendship, fidelity, immortality.
Knot (tied): symbolises marriage and unity.
Lamb: Purity, gentleness, innocence (popular on children’s graves).
Mortar and Pestle: medical professional.
Oak leaf: Strength, stability, endurance.
Olive Tree or Branch: Peace, forgiveness, reconciliation between man and god.
Rose: Love, beauty, virtue, motherhood.
Rosebud: Youthful death.
Scales: Justice, law.
Shell: Birth, resurrection.
A Word of Caution: Tombstone scholars still debate the meanings of certain symbols, so you could find varying interpretations. This is especially true across cultures, though you may be surprised at the similarities in meanings throughout the world.
Still, a revelation about your ancestor’s life may just be right in front of you, hidden in plain sight.
Special Note: The speaker at the museum on Saturday, 6th August at 2:00 pm will be a member of the Friends of Rookwood.