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 symbology 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 symbology is very common. Below are some examples of more 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 sudden or unexpected death. This hand is also holding a chain. A broken link in the chain can represent a family or marriage broken by death.

Terrace Lawn Cemetery, North Bay ©2019

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 almost always found at the grave of a young child or infant.

Whitefish Public Cemetery ©2021

Skulls are very rare to come by in my local Canadian cemeteries. I have only found 2 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.

St. Thomas Cemetery, Warren ©2009

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. Please share in the comments!