Birds in flight – These symbolise the ‘winged soul’ ascending to heaven. The use of birds to represent the soul goes back as far as ancient Egypt.
Chicken or Rooster – Those that have been woken by the crowing of a cockerel will understand the use of poultry to represent awakening.
Dog – Representing loyalty and the worthiness of the master.
Dove – The dove has long symbolised the Holy Spirit, soul, peace and spirituality. When carrying an olive sprig it represents hope.
Eagle – Representing courage and possibly a military career.
Fish – A long established symbol of faith.
Horse – This represents courage or generosity.
Lamb – A frequently used image on children’s graves, symbolizing Christ’s sacrifice and the qualities of innocence, gentleness and humility.
Lion – Symbolizes strength generally and specifically the power of God. The lion is thought to guard against evil spirits and represents the beauty of the immortal soul.
Owl – Wisdom.
Swallow – This bird symbolizes a child or motherhood.
Serpent – This symbolized life and health in Ancient Egypt. When depicted swallowing its tail it represents Eternity.
Anchor – This can indicate the sea-faring occupation of the deceased or more generally represent hope and steadfastness.
Angels – They are an obvious religious symbol. Individual angels can be identified by the objects they carry: Michael bears a sword, Gabriel carries a horn. An angel blowing a trumpet represents the day of judgment. Angels are frequently depicted escorting the deceased to heaven.
Arch or Gate – The victory of life or victory in death.
Arrow – This represents the arrow of time or mortality.
Broken column – Usually represents a life cut short or the loss of the head of the family. It also symbolizes decay and the inevitability of death.
Broken or severed flower – This is a sign of early or sudden death. A severed bud denotes the death of a child.
Candle with a flame – This symbolizes life.
Celtic Cross – The main circle around the crosspiece represents eternity. It originates from the British Celtic cultures.
Cherub’s Head – A symbol for the soul.
Circle – Eternity and life everlasting.
Doors and gates – Represent the gates of Heaven and the passage into the afterlife.
Drapery – This indicates sorrow and mourning.
Hands clasped – Representative of marriage or a close bond which lasts even after death. The first to die holds the other’s hand, guiding the spouse to heaven. Clasped hands also mean a farewell or last good-bye.
Hand pointing upward – A symbol of life after death and ascension to heaven for the righteous.
Hand pointing downward – Represents mortality or sudden death.
Heart – Love, courage and intelligence.
Hourglass – Representing the passage of time and transience of life. On its side means that time has stopped for the deceased.
IHS – An abbreviation of the word for Jesus in Greek, known as the ‘sacred monogram’.
Lamp – Representing the light of knowledge and truth.
Moon – Rebirth.
Mourning figure – An early 20th century funerary image
Obelisk – The obelisk was the Egyptian symbol for the sun god Ra who held the power to recreate. It represents eternal life and health.
Pyramid – It was thought a pyramid-shaped tombstone prevented the devil from reclining on a grave. The pyramid also symbolizes eternity.
Rocks – Representing St Peter and the rock of faith.
Set square and compasses – This is a Masonic symbol but was also used to denote an architect.
Sextant – Used to indicate a navigator or explorer.
Torch – A Greek symbol of life and truth. An inverted torch represents life’s extinction.
Urn – A Greek symbol of mourning and the body as a vessel of the soul. Draped it represents death, often of an older person.
Woman clinging to cross, pillar or anchor – This represents faith as does a woman with or without a Bible pointing upward.
During the 19th century the use of floral symbols became so popular that almost every common flower had a symbolic meaning attached to it.
Daisy – Innocence.
Fleur-de-lis – Flame, passion, ardour and mother.
Forget-me-not – Remembrance.
Hawthorn – Hope, merriness and springtime.
Holly – Foresight.
Honeysuckle – Bonds of love, generosity and devoted affection.
Ivy – Friendship, fidelity, faithfulness, evergreen memories.
Laurel branch, leaves – Represents special achievement, distinction, heroism and the triumph of worldly accomplishment.
Lily – Representing the Virgin Mary, purity and resurrection. Often used on women’s graves to represent the restored innocence of the soul in death.
Lily of the valley – Purity and humility.
Oak tree – Representing stability, strength, honour, eternity, endurance. Oak was thought to be the tree from which Jesus Christ’s cross was made.
Palm – The triumph of life over death through resurrection.
Pansy – Remembrance and humility.
Passion flower – The passion of Christ. The corona represents the crown of thorns, the three stigmas stand for the three nails, the five anthers the five wounds and the five petals and the five sepals symbolize the ten Apostles.
Poppy – Eternal sleep, rest.
Rose – Representing love, beauty, hope and goodness and associated with the Virgin Mary and the ‘rose without thorns.’ A red rose stands for martyrdom and a white rose means purity.
Thistle – Christ’s crown of thorns and earthly sorrow.
Tree – The tree of life. A severed branch represents mortality and a sprouting branch means life everlasting.
Willow tree – A symbol of sorrow and mourning.
Wheat Gathered – Representing the divine harvest and often used for someone dying in later life.
Wreath or Garland – Meaning victory in Death.
Yew tree – Evergreen, life after death.
This is an extract from the latest edition of London Cemeteries by Darren Beach. London’s cemeteries are places of peace and tranquillity, but they are also a fascinating barometer of the capital’s social history. Intriguing stories of courage, personal triumph and domestic tragedy lie behind the gravestones and mausolea, many of which are masterpieces of commemorative art.
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