A Collection of Obelisks

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.


References:

  1. Understanding Cemetery Symbols: A Field Guide for Historic Graveyards by Tui Snider
  2. Stories in Stone: The Complete Guide to Cemetery Symbolism by Douglas Keister

A Collection of Crosses

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.


References:

A Collection of Books

I love books! I am a big reader and have a large book collection at home, but I love finding stone books among the tombstones while wandering a cemetery. I find them very interesting and love trying to interpret what they mean.

Books can be both decorative or a representation of something. You can sometimes find a book being used as a decorative device to display the name of the deceased along with the birth and death dates. An open book can sometimes represent the human heart, as in it’s emotions are open to the world. An open book may also symbolize a life that has been cut short, before getting to the last page. Another variation of this is an open book with a cloth draped across it. This also represents a life cut short, the veil of death having bookmarked the person’s last chapter before the book is finished being written. A closed book might represent a long life, lived to the last chapter.

Any book found in a cemetery may represent the bible. Sometimes you may even find the words “Holy Bible” engraved on the book.

In my experience, books are not as common as some other funerary symbols, like hands and lambs. I love to photograph them when I do find them. I wanted to share some of my favorites with you today.


References:

  1. Understanding Cemetery Symbols: A Field Guide for Historic Graveyards by Tui Snider
  2. Stories in Stone: The Complete Guide to Cemetery Symbolism by Douglas Keister

A collection of hands

One of my favorite cemetery symbols are hands. They can represent so many things from only how they are positioned. I also find them beautifully detailed, and they have a lot to say. Hands are a very common symbol in funerary art and can be found in almost any cemetery.

I have photographed many over the years, ranging from very simple to very detailed, and wanted to share some of them with you today.

A hand pointing upward often represents going up to heaven. You may also find a hand pointing down, which can look a little odd, but it does not mean what you may have first thought. A hand pointing down usually represents a sudden or unexpected death. Clasped hands or praying hands often represent devotion but can also be seen as a plea for eternal life.

Handshakes are a very common variation and also can have a few different meanings. When the handshake depicts limp fingers held by a firm handshake, this often represents the deceased being welcomed to heaven by loved ones or maybe even God. When one finger is extended, it is a masonic handshake, meaning the deceased was a member of the Freemasons. You may also find a double masonic handshake, where one finger is extended on each of the hands. This is meant to resemble the square & compass, the emblem of the Freemasons. You should also look closely at the wrists of the hands, this can also give more clues. If both hands look masculine, this could represent fraternal brotherhood. If one of the cuffs is more feminine and one more masculine, this is most likely a marital handshake, to indicate the deceased was married.

When you find a hand holding a book, that book is often meant to be the bible. Sometimes it is more obvious, as it may have “holy bible” inscribed on it.


Snider, Tui. Understanding Cemetery Symbols: A Field Guide for Historic Graveyards. 1st ed., Castle Azle Press, 2017. 

Keister, Douglas. Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography. 1st ed., Gibbs Smith, 2004. 

A Collection of Lambs

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. 


  1. Snider, Tui. Understanding Cemetery Symbols: A Field Guide for Historic Graveyards. 1st ed., Castle Azle Press, 2017. 
  2. Keister, Douglas. Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography. 1st ed., Gibbs Smith, 2004. 

Symbolism and Iconography

Cemeteries are full of symbolism.

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!