I love exploring cemeteries and looking at the different symbols used on tombstones. If you spend a lot of time in cemeteries, especially in Northern Ontario, you will start to notice the repetition of certain symbols and motifs. One of the most common symbols I find, is the lamb.
Lambs represent innocence and sacrifice, as they were often used in sacrificial ceremonies in ancient times1. Most often you will find lambs on the gravestones of infants and children, as Jesus is often depicted as a Shepherd, and also known as the “lamb of God”. Some variations can be found with lamb symbolism. A robed figure with a standing lamb beside it most often represents John the Baptist, who had called Jesus the “lamb of God”1. A lamb with a cross is known to represent the Lamb of God or Agnus Dei2, symbolizing the suffering of Christ as he sacrificed himself for the sins of mankind. Several other symbols may be found with a lamb to symbolize the lamb of God – such as a banner, halo, shepherds crook, and alpha and/or omega symbols2. A single seated lamb symbolizes an innocent soul. A seated lamb can sometimes be found sitting in front of a tree stump, this often symbolizes a life cut short.
Finding lambs is often sad, but they are a beautiful symbol. I have photographed many over the years and wanted to share some of them with you today.
I find it fascinating and love trying to decipher the symbols and iconography I find. Symbolism can be found adorning tombstones and mausoleums. These symbols can range from simple designs to very elaborate ones. The meaning of symbols is a language in itself, and you can tell a lot about a person by what is on their tombstone. Religion, hobbies, clubs, and organizations can all be found represented, among other things, by symbols and icons within a cemetery.
Whenever I spot a symbol I have not seen before, I always turn to my handy reference books. If I can’t find what I am looking for there, the internet is the next best place to look. My go-to reference book is Stories in Stone: A field guide to cemetery symbolism and iconography by Douglas Keister. I have had this book forever, and always go back to it when I see something new. It’s a very in-depth look at what can be found in a cemetery. It covers architecture, sculpture, symbols, as well as acronyms and initials. I highly recommend it!
I recently added another reference book to my library, Understanding Cemetery Symbols: A field guide for historic graveyards by Tui Snider. I have just started getting into this one and I can tell right away it will be a great resource. It has some really in-depth sections on hand symbolism as will as crosses and even statuary.
So what kind of symbols and iconography can you find in your local cemeteries? For the most part religious symbolism is very common. Below are some examples of some common and not-so-common symbols you can find in Canadian cemeteries:
I love finding hands on a tombstone. Hands are shown in many different forms; pointing downward, pointing up, shaking hands, etc. the list goes on! And all of these different positions have different meanings. One of my favorite examples of hands was found in Terrace Lawn Cemetery in North Bay. These stones have weathered beautifully. This hand is pointed downward, with a finger extended which can symbolize God reaching down to collect a soul. The extended finger can mean a sudden or unexpected death. This hand below, is also holding a chain. A broken link in the chain can represent a family or marriage broken by death.
Lambs are a very common sight in cemeteries. These are sometimes accompanied by a tree stump, implying a life cut short. The Lamb itself represents “the lamb of God” and innocence. Sadly, lambs are most often found at the grave of a young child or infant.
Skulls are very rare to come by in my local Canadian cemeteries. I have only found two in all of my local travels, but I am always on the look out for them. They are more commonly found in other places of the world, like the United States and Europe. Most obviously a skull represents death. A skull found at the base of a cross is thought to be symbolic of the skull of Adam.
I have many great examples of symbols and iconography in my photography. If you are interested in seeing more and learning about their meanings, I share them every Friday on Instagram and Facebook.
I would also love to hear about the symbols you have found on your cemetery travels. Do you have a favorite? I would love to read about them in the comments.
Thanks for reading!
Understanding Cemetery Symbols: A field guide to historic cemeteries by Tui Snider
Storie in Stone: A field guide to cemetery symbolism and iconography by Douglas Keister
I have been thinking about road trips a lot lately.
During a normal year, my friends and I would be discussing plans for our next one. I have been itching to research locations and plan travel routes. But alas, just like last year, it looks like it will not be happening this year.
Cemetery road trips are one of my favorite things to do in the summer months. We all would pile into one vehicle, chit-chat, and listen to music while cruising along to our cemetery spots. We usually pick a city or town and stop at all the cemeteries along the way. After visiting the cemeteries within that city’s limits we would also explore the outskirts, sometimes finding hidden cemeteries that we didn’t find in our research. These are great ways to spend time together, make memories and explore our backyard!
The last road trip we did was in 2019. We visited Sault Ste Marie. Normally this trip would only be about a 3-hour drive, but it took us a whopping 6 hours! We made so many stops along the way and took our time exploring. We visited some very old cemeteries, full of the history of the town, as well as some newer ones. Lots of discoveries were made, including one of the largest cemeteries I have ever visited before! We visited 11 cemeteries in total that day. We didn’t beat our record, but it was a very good attempt. Our record so far is 13!
We also took time to do some sightseeing, and visit some of the historic museums there; the Canadian Bushplane Heritage Centre and the Ermatinger Old Stone House. We heard some interesting ghost stories from the staff at the Old Stone house and it prompted some interesting discussion and exploration while we were there. We did not find any ghosts though. It’s a beautiful house with some really interesting history. Getting in some sightseeing was a bonus for that trip.
We have also gotten into the tradition of visiting any Starbucks that we can find, and always end the day at the local Casey’s for supper. A favorite restaurant that we no longer have in our own city. It’s a great cap to the day, followed by a much quicker drive home while we debrief on the fun and experiences of the day.
So for this year, instead of grand travel plans, I will stick close to home and visit my local cemeteries. Re-visit my favorites and take more time to explore those that I have not been to for a while. There is always something new to find and photograph!
Update: After writing this blog post I did just that! I had a mini road trip adventure this weekend. I’ll have a new post coming soon with some new photos.