When you can’t say it in words: the meaning of headstone symbols

Photo: Shutterstock
Photo: Shutterstock

Beyond paying respect for our loved ones, cemeteries are rich in religious symbolism and meaning. Walking through the cemetery will reveal individual stories of the past but also show the importance of religious faith.

With such small space on a headstone, delivering a departing message can be challenging. Some things can’t be explained in words. But symbols have the power to fill these gaps, capturing the essence of a person’s life and faith.

Whether you’re designing a memorial or just curious about their meaning, keep an eye out for these symbols next time you’re in the cemetery. Here are some common Catholic symbols and meanings that are frequently seen on headstones.

The Cross

Probably the most common and recognised symbol, the cross or crucifix is a standard symbol used on headstones. For the departed, the crucifix is a symbol of their faith and love for God. For those left behind, the cross represents love and sacrifice. “Greater love has no man, than that he lay down his life for his friends” (John 15:13).

Angels

Normally appearing through an ornament placed on a monument, angels are guardians of the dead, who are messengers between God and the living. Looking around the cemetery, you may see a few types of angels in different poses. Angels depicted blowing a trumpet represents the day of judgement and the call to resurrection, while flying angels symbolise rebirth of the deceased. Crying angels are used for a particularly sad or unexpected death, such as the death of a child.

Sacred Heart Of Jesus

Another powerful symbol among Catholics, the sacred heart represents the love and compassion Jesus has for all of humanity. His love is eternal and unconditional, both in life and death. For a monument, the symbol can be accompanied by a quote like “May the sacred heart of Jesus have mercy on his soul”.

Alpha and Omega

The first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, these symbols represent the beginning and end of life. This reference appears in the Book of Revelation, where Jesus describes himself as the Alpha and Omega. “The first and the last, the beginning and the end, the one who was, who is, and who is to come.”

Anchor

Although rare, you might be able to see the anchor symbol on a few headstones in the cemetery. At a time when Christians were facing persecution from the Romans, the anchor symbol was used as a disguised cross. The anchor symbolises hope and steadfastness, while a broken chain represents the end of life.

The Dove

Representing the Holy Spirit, the dove is a symbol that can be seen around the cemetery. It’s origins date back to Genesis, where a dove is carrying an olive branch for Noah. Also during the Baptism of Christ by St John, there is another reference to the dove symbol. “He saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove and coming to rest on him”. (Matthew 3:16; and Mark 1:10)

Adam Binstock is marketing manager at Binstock and Sons Memorials and the founder of AtPeace, which provides end of life guides for Australians.