I am in the midst of working on a blog post about my adventures searching for the grave of Tom Thomson in Algonquin Park. I’m hoping to have it up in the next week or two. In the meantime, I thought I would take a look at some Egyptian revival architecture that can sometimes be found in cemeteries, more specifically—obelisks.
Obelisks are Egyptian in origin, but became a popular Christian funerary symbol. They are now a common sight in most cemeteries. I have found quite a few in my cemetery travels and wanted to share some of them with you today.
In Understanding Cemetery Symbols, Tui Snider notes that obelisks became popular symbols after Napoleon invaded Egypt in the late 1700s. An obelisk is thought to represent a ray of light, but it can also symbolize focused spiritual goals, with the wide base narrowing to a point, symbolizing the deceased reuniting with God at death, and the two becoming one.
Different variations of obelisks can be found throughout a cemetery. For example, Truncated obelisks do not come to a sharp point at the top, but are flat or topped with another symbol like a cross, urn or an orb.
Obelisks can sometimes be found at the center of a family plot, representing the family’s connection to God. They are particularly well suited for this, as there is generally a lot of room on all four sides of the stone to inscribe the names of family members.
You might also find vaulted obelisks. These stones have points on all four sides at the top instead of coming to one point.
Understanding Cemetery Symbols: A Field Guide for Historic Graveyards by Tui Snider
Stories in Stone: The Complete Guide to Cemetery Symbolism by Douglas Keister
Crosses have to be the most easily recognizable and common symbol found in cemeteries and funerary art. There are so many variations of this Christian religious symbol. Since crosses are so common, you may think if you have seen one, you’ve seen them all—but I would beg to differ!
Today I wanted to take a closer look at this funerary symbol and share some of the many crosses I have photographed over the years.
First off, let’s look at the difference between a cross and a crucifix, as they are not the same thing. A crucifix shows the body of Jesus nailed to it, while a cross does not.
A Latin cross is probably the most common cross found in cemeteries. This cross has no embellishments. It is sometimes called a Protestant cross, because it can represent Jesus as risen, instead of focusing on his suffering on the cross.
A Botonee cross has a trefoil, three lobes, at each end that symbolizes the holy trinity.
A Celtic cross is easily recognizable. It usually has a Celtic knot pattern engraved on it and also includes a nimbus, a distinctive circle that represents the union of heaven and earth. These crosses are often found at the graves of those with Irish heritage.
In the example below you can also see the letters IHS in the center. This is sometimes called a Christogram. There are a couple of different theories about what the letters IHS stand for. One theory is that it is an abbreviation of the Latin phrase “in hoc signs vines” (In this sign you will conquer), another line of thought is that it’s an abbreviation of the Latin phrase “Jesus Hominum Salvator” (Jesus, Saviour of Men). According to Doug Keister’s book Stories in Stone: A field guide to cemetery symbolism and iconography, these letters are the first three letters of Jesus’ name using the Greek alphabet.
A Congé cross is a variation of the Latin cross, where the ends of the arms flare out slightly.
A Glory cross, sometimes called a Rayed cross, has rays emanating from its center that symbolize the glory of God.
Below is an example of an Eastern crucifix on a white Latin cross. The Eastern cross is easily recognizable by its two horizontal cross bars, and one slanted one. This cross is a symbol of Eastern Orthodox religions. This one would be considered a crucifix, as it has the tortured body of Jesus nailed to it.
An Agony cross has sharp points at the end of each arm. This is said to represent the suffering or agony, that Jesus endured. This cross is sometimes called a pointed cross or a cross of suffering.
A Portate cross is a cross that is angled diagonally. It’s angled the way someone would carry it over their shoulder to drag it.
Stories in Stone: A field guide to cemetery symbolism and iconography by Doug Keister
Understanding Cemetery Symbols A field Guide for Historic Graveyards by Tui Snider