The hidden meaning of gravestone symbols

In a guest blog post, Fergus Wessel, letter cutter at Stoneletters Studio, explains how gravestone symbols remain an important part of our history and our future.

Next time you wander through a churchyard, take a closer look at the gravestones and you might notice some wonderful carvings of symbols.  What do these symbols mean and what is the history of gravestone symbolism in the UK?

The earliest gravestones you might encounter are likely to have originated in the mid 17th century. Earlier ones had been largely destroyed during the Reformation, especially those with Catholic symbols such as the cross.  During this century, there was a morbid fascination with life and death which is reflected in the symbols often found on these early stones.  Common symbols include skulls and crossbones, hourglasses, angels and winged cherubs.  These are all symbols of death, resurrection and mortality, the hourglass representing the passage of time and the winged cherub representing the flight of the soul from the body upward to Heaven and the hope of the resurrection.

Towards the late 18th century, these earlier symbols began to be replaced with symbols of salvation and hope such as the dove, which, carrying a twig in its mouth, could mean hope or purity.  The urn, representing the soul was also common.  Early carvings of the figure of Hope and her anchor appeared, which were later simplified to just an anchor.

symbol dove

 

Victorian gravestone symbolism

By the Victorian period, more compact images became common often depicting flowers, foliage or the cross.  The cross did not become common until the 19th century due to fear of Popery.  As the primary symbol of salvation, it became prominent during this time, appearing in plain, decorative or Celtic forms. Trees also became popular, representing life when shown upright, or death when cut down.  The poppy represented sleep and palm leaves represented victory over death.

symbol celtic cross 1

Celtic cross

symbol poppy-w800-h600

Poppy

symbol tree-

Tree

Tools or symbols of trade also became common as well as crops on memorials to farmers.  Mourning figures such as angels can be found from all periods.  Other symbols might represent accidents that occurred, or a biblical scene.  Books can represent the Bible, but can also mean wisdom and knowledge.

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Bespoke gravestones

As a letter cutter myself, I am often asked by clients to carve a symbol onto a gravestone.  Quite often the symbol chosen represents something very personal; it might not have a universal meaning but means something to the person who commissioned it.  On the other hand, there is still an enduring popularity in symbols of love, peace and hope such as a heart, the cross and a dove. Symbols of eternity in the form of a circle, whether it be a sunken disc or a hole in the stone are also popular, as are symbols from nature.  Here are more examples of gravestone symbols, many of which I have carved in recent years.

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Stoneletters Studio specialises in hand carved gravestones, opening plaques and heraldry. Find out more about Stoneletters Studio in our Professional Trades Directory. Or you can contact them directly on 01993 220405.

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