Secrets of Gravesite Symbols

One of the things Jodi Thomas, sister-filly Linda Broday, and I like to do when traveling is visiting cemeteries.  My son-in-law and I also love cemetery visits. What stories tombstones of all ages can tell.

With the help of the Old Farmer’s Almanac, founded in 1792, I learned a lot about the meaning of grave symbols.  Our encounters have told us that a walk through a cemetery can be a beautiful experience cyphering the names, dates, and symbols on tombstones.

My favorite is the old cemetery in Menard, Texas.  In Texas, the grave of a deceased Texas Ranger is designated with sturdy metal Ranger markers and are set on a cross symbolic of a Texas Ranger badge.

One thing I learned, the majestic, weather worn stone carvings you see from the cipher-loving Victorians from 1839 to 1920, are more than plain Jane decorations.  They mean something; a virtue the person exemplified, a value they held dear, or a nod to how they earned their living.

I found numerous sites explaining symbols online, but of course for this blog had to limit the ones I selected, so here goes my choices from back many centuries.

  • Anchor – a symbol of hope, or the deceased was a seaman or mariner.             
  • Angel – a guide to Heaven
  • Acorn – Prosperity; power; triumph
  • Anvil and Hammer – Blacksmith
  • Bell – a symbol of religious faith or religion
  • Bird – Flight of the soul
  • Candle – Life
  • Column/Pillar (broken) – Life cut short; sudden death
  • Evergreen – Faithfulness; remembrance
  • Fruit – Eternal plenty
  • Key –  Knowledge; entrance into Heaven
  • Lily – Innocence, purity
  • Olive Tree – Peace
  • Palm – Life conquering death
  • Plow; Hoe; Rack; Stalk of Corn or Wheat – Farmer; modern day is a symbol of old age, a fruitful life
  • Rose – Love, beauty strong bond; Rosebud, youthful death
  • Sphinx – Courage and Power
  • Tree-Shaped – Possible member of the Modern Woodmen of American or member of the Woodmen of the World fraternal organization order.

Do you ever go to old cemeteries and wonder about the lives of the people with certain symbols on their stones?


To one lucky reader, I will send you a copy of Texas High Plains Writers 2021 Anthology With Words We Weave … Challenges.  Both Linda Broday and I have short stories in the book.  Mine is the first story I wrote as an assignment in my first Writing Class two decades ago.

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A native Texan, New York Times and USA Today bestselling author Phyliss Miranda still believes in the Code of the Old West and loves to share her love for antiques, the lost art of quilting, and the Wild West.

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36 thoughts on “ Secrets of Gravesite Symbols”

    • Hi Laura. Glad to hear from you. Frankly, I never thought about the meaning of the engraving on markers, except for the Texas Rangers. Have a great day, sister Filly. Hugs, P

    • Hi Debra. Glad to hear from you. I think the majority of people really haven’t given the meanings much thought unless they go to the old cemeteries or the older parts of today’s sites. I found it so interest and know I had to share. Thanks for reading my blog and hope you have a great day. Hugs, Phyliss

  1. I love visiting old cemeteries. I haven’t really paid much attention to the symbols on the grave markers. I will have to be on the lookout for them next time I visit one.

  2. I do like to visit old Cemeteries, and one of my favorites is located in New York City, by an old church. Both the Cemetery and church survived the falling of the towers on 9/11. When I used to look down from the top of the towers, that Cemetery was the only place in the area that had green grass. I found it to be a peaceful place.
    Thank you for listing what some of the symbols on Graves mean, most I didn’t know the meaning.

    • Hi Veda, so good to hear from you. I’ve been in NYC several times and think, but I’m not sure I’ve been in the church and cemetery you’re referring to, if it’s in Manhattan. As I recall, the church is big, but the cemetery is small, but then it might not even be the same one. Obviously, it’s near there since you referred to 911. That’s really something that they weren’t taken down with the Towers. What a wonderful miracle. I know I’ll give more thought to the symbols on markers, other than crosses and Texas Rangers, the next old cemetery I visit. I hope this finds you and yours well. Take care, Phyliss

  3. I use to walk through old cemeteries there is one near my house. I haven’t been over there in years. I need to go back and look again. A lot of stones you couldn’t even read what was on them.

    • Hi Quilt Lady, good to hear from you. Cemeteries are relaxing and makes your mind wander for sure. I’ve seen tons of markers you couldn’t even read, but if I’d known the symbols, I might have been able to know more about the person. I hope you have a good day and see you next month when my next blog comes around. Hugs, Phyliss

  4. Welcome. My sister and I started to do this when I was in high school. Such interesting grave yards in and around Barrington, IL We have kept it up through our child rearing years and our kids have done papers on it. fascinating.

    • Hi Lori, so good to hear from you. That’s cool that you and your sister would go to cemeteries in high school. I bet there are tons of old interesting ones in Illinois. I think it’s great research and I bet the teachers didn’t get many others, if any, about cemeteries. Great parenting, in my opinion. Have a great evening. Hugs, Phyliss

  5. I actually go to Cemeteries quite often. I’m part of a group called Find a Grave where we locate Loved ones Graves and put them on the website. I’m a little sad at the condition of some of them. But I love reading the history of the people and where they come from. My dad has a lighthouse on his stone.

    • Oh Charlene, what an interesting response. The group sounds great. I did find some websites that used tombstones for genealogy purposes. “Find a Grave” group sounds fantastic. And, yes, the condition of many of the old graves are horrid. We’re like you, love to read the history of the people. I think that’s so neat to have a lighthouse on your dad’s stone. So cool. Thank for dropping by and I really enjoyed the additional information you provide. Hugs, Phyliss

    • Hi Kathleen, good to hear from you. I’m glad I could provide some additional meanings to those you already have. I think they were most interesting. Thanks for dropping by and reading my blog. I enjoyed writing it. Have a great evening. Hugs, Phyliss

  6. Phyliss, this is so interesting. I never knew what some of these symbols meant. I love that old cemetery in Menard. It’s quite touching seeing all the Texas Ranger crosses. One old cemetery in Thurber, TX had rows and rows of children’s graves with the little lambs on top all dying in the same year. I’ve always been curious about what happened there. They must’ve had some kind of epidemic or something. Most of the people who lived in Thurber were immigrants and worked in the coal mines. But the writer in me wants to know what went on. It’s so sad to see over 60 % of the cemetery children’s graves. Love you.

    • Hi sister-Filly, good to hear from you. I think Manard and the Texas Ranger graves are at the top of our favorites. I just thought about the one grave in Waco across from the Texas Ranger Hall of Fame. If I’m correct, that’s where the one is that has the name of the woman engraved there and beneath it has “cohort” of so-and-so. We had a good laugh at that. It was really old too, as I recall. Oh my gosh, I hadn’t heard about Thurber cemetery. I can feel your brain rolling now thinking back on it. I’m shocked you haven’t done research and already have it in a book. Truly, sad, just to think what could have happened to have so many little ones in one cemetery. Thanks for stopping by and thanks for visiting with me at so many cemeteries. Hugs, Phyliss

  7. In our religion, we don’t just ‘walk through’ cemeteries, because we associate them with the divine darkness from which all things came. They remind us of the gentle night, when creation started. In our literature we believe that when the world was created, it was a peaceful quiet night. Cemeteries are the closest aspect to that gentle night. So walking through them for us is like catching a glimpse of how it was when the world began. All the people that lie there, they are now in that ever gentle night. They are part of the peace of before when the world began. And I think that’s beautiful.

    • Hi Rose, thanks for stopping by and reading my blog. I’m very intrigued in your religion’s beliefs. They are sure close to how I personally feel. I appreciate your sharing your insight. It’s truly thought provoking. Hope you and yours have a fantastic evening. Blessings and hugs, Phyliss

    • Thanks, Colleen, for reading my blog and responding. I really only had my own thoughts about the symbols and never gave much thought to decade old symbols and what they mean. I guess that’s the reason, I enjoyed doing the research and reading up on the various ones out there. Thanks again, and hope you and yours have a great evening. Hugs, Phyliss

  8. I’m fascinated by cemeteries, too, Phyliss! Many members of my family are buried in a Catholic cemetery so there are many symbols of praying hands, crosses, lilies, etc.

    It’s an old cemetery so some of the gravestones are from the late 1800s. It really does make you wonder about their lives, especially the children. But then, some of the those who have passed have lived really long lives – into their 80s and 90s!

    • Thanks, sister-filly, for stopping by. I think most understand the praying hands, lilies, etc. on stones because I believe they are a bit more universal to all religions. I’ve never been asked by a mortician if we wanted anything special on our loved ones’ stones, but I know now if I want something special it’s there for the asking. Okay, we have a very old cemetery here and only an hour or so away is Boot Hill from Old Tascosa, so when you come to town, the Fillies can get together and go on a cemetery daytrip. Take care and hope you have a great evening. Hugs, Phyliss

  9. Phyliss, loved this post. I love old cemeteries. When I was growing up, my mom would take me to visit relatives that lived in the very tiny town (not so tiny when she was growing up there!) of Albany, OK. By that time, there was not a whole lot left of the town, but a few people still lived there–it was home! The cemetery is one of those surreal, movie-set places, with big towering trees that have been there forever, and stories behind every grave marker. My mom knew many of those people and remembered in detail what happened to them, going to their funerals, etc. She would tell their stories as we walked through the cemetery. One was the headstone of a little boy around 2 or 3. There were shells on his grave, marbles, and a couple of old toys. For all those years when we’d go to that cemetery, those things were still there, undisturbed, until the last time or two we went and then some of them were missing. :(((( Growing up, we lived “caddy-cornered” to a park with a cemetery behind it. Us kids would jump the fence and go into the cemetery and walk around reading tombstones and looking at pictures people put on their loved ones’ headstones. I loved doing that even then. This is really interesting–I didn’t know about all the different symbols. Love you, girl! XOXO

    • Hi sweet sister-Filly. So glad you stopped by and left a very interesting comment. I loved your stories of growing up in small town, USA. It’s so interesting. We did learn, and I think it was in Menard, that the stones and shells were put on graves in that particular area because of the rains and animals; otherwise, the dirt would wash away. That could be with lots of cemeteries. Glad I could provide some interesting facts about the symbols. If you go cemetery hunting again, go online and print out a more lengthy list of the symbols. It’d be fun wouldn’t it. Well, if Pam, comes here, you’ll have to travel down to Texas, so we can all do a cemetery day trip. Hope you have a great evening. Love that you shared your memories. Hugs and love, P

  10. To help with genealogy–before the days of the online services–and to help keep history of my family, I went to the cemeteries where my ancestral family is buried in Lancaster County and took photos of the tombstones. Many are deteriorating, so it was a great way to preserve information that may have not been written down or won’t be readable in the future. I did this about 26 years ago. I also got my father to take photos of of the tombstones in the Tennessee cemeteries. Some of those aren’t as easily accessible, though I do have a book which has most of those recorded.

    There is, or at least there was, an online site which encourages people to submit photos for the same reason.


  11. Hi Denise, so good to hear from you. Thanks for sharing your family information. I never put genealogy and searching tombstones together until I wrote this blog. So interesting. I know when we go out we all talk about the history behind the people and wonder about them, but now we have another way of thinking about it. Thanks again, for sharing. I hope you and yours have a great evening. Hugs, Phyliss

  12. Hi Thank you for sharing this, it is so very interesting! Whenever I go to the cemetery where my parents and other loved ones are buried, yes, I like to look at the names on the grave sites and the ages of the deceased , I find it very interesting and yes I wonder what their lives might have been. Have a Great week and stay safe.

  13. The last time I went to my sister’s in NY state I spent over an hour wandering around the cemetery where our parents, grandparents, great grandparents and even our great great grandparents are buried. A lot of other relatives too. It is an old cemetery with death dates dating back to the early 1800’s. Sadly a lot of the old stones are deteriorating. I have seen angels, praying hands, crosses, lambs, and military insignias but now I am curious about some of the symbols you mentioned. I will have to look for them in the cemeteries here as well as back there. Some of the newer stones I have seen here in Central Washington have tractors, motorcycles, wheat (we are a wheat farming area), lariats, and even photos of the deceased. I am always fascinated by the stories tombstones tell about individuals and the community.

  14. I did as a child and young adult. There are a lot of old cemeteries in the mountains of West Virginia. I would wander and look at the markers. That is how I learned the 23rd Psalm. Since I am disabled, I have not been able to roam around anymore.

  15. Visiting old cemeteries is a favorite of ours when we travel. The graves and markers tell much about the area and the people. There are mass graves due to disasters which seldom have names listed. The way names and relationships are listed in Eastern Canada was quite different. A married woman was listed by her maiden name – “Anita Filion wife of Robert Lynch,” even when they were listed on the same grave marker. Which for genealogy purposes would be helpful. While doing some volunteer work at the local VA cemetery, I was surprised to see there are 66 different symbols that can be put on the grave stones. We usually see only the cross or Star of David. Old cemeteries can show who settled the area during which time periods and how the area was segregated, by wealth, religion, race, or ethnicity. Cemeteries are fascinating visit to make.

    • Just read the VA is up to 67 symbols. It approved the Hammer of Thor for any believers of Norse gods out there.

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