Tombstone Symbols

cemetery toronto tombstones

Tombstones are a wonderful record of the beliefs and traditions of the culture at the time of burial, allowing us a glimpse into what was important to the deceased and their family.

In high school I made a point of collecting gravestone rubbings. There are some very old cemeteries in the area where my parents retired and I have always been fascinated by the symbols used on the markers over the years and their meanings. Presently I live quite near a cemetery (like any good spooky soul) which is a lovely quiet place for walking. I’ve included some photos from it even though I didn’t find too many interesting stones there (maybe further exploration is needed- or to go to an older cemetery). 🙂

Tombstones developed from the tradition of marking a burial with a field-stone, originally these were left unmarked. Early gravestones were very simple, a name and the age at death were the only inscriptions made. Complex grave markers came into fashion in the 19th century, when attitudes towards death and permanence changed.

cemetery toronto tombstones symbols

Most people can recognize the winged-skull death’s head carving, a popular motif in Gothic artwork even now. This symbol is thought to have originated in the United States in the early 1700’s as a move away from traditional Catholic symbols on grave markers by the Puritans (who weren’t so jazzed about angels and crosses on their tombs). It depicts a more earth-oriented or neutral representation of death and resurrection, a reminds the viewer of the inevitable (memento mori). There are a myriad of variations of this symbol, as each carver had their own style.

The Victorians had some of the most lovely and complex tombstone carvings, each with their own meanings! These symbols were a way to indicate religious dedication, the deceased’s occupation, and many of these are still in use today. Examples include the Caduceus indicating a medical profession, a pallet and brush for an artist, or Masonic symbols like the square and compass.

Floral motifs are still used on gravestones today as well. Olive branches symbolize peace and the Christian story of Noah and the Ark. Thistles can indicate a Scottish heritage or earthly sorrow (especially if carved drooping/wilted). Thorns for the crown of Christ. Sunflowers a strong devotion to God. A sheath or bundle of wheat symbolizes death late in life. Lilies mourning or purity.

cemetery toronto tombstones

In the late 19th century you also see more elaborate inscriptions on grave markers appear, religious quotes, bits of poetry, and other mournful statements began to fill the complex tombs of the time.

As technology developed and our ability to carve ornate things into stone with ease (rather than chiseling it all by hand) grave markers became more and more complex. With photography came tiny oval portraits of the deceased used on stones. Even our interest in traditional tombstones has changed, options for burials and markers are as myriad as the people they represent.

cemetery toronto tombstones


3 thoughts on “Tombstone Symbols

  1. That cemetery is really beautiful and eerie looking. I’ve always loved that people can do gravestone rubbings, they look so nice. The vastly different gravestones and their meanings are really interesting, I didn’t know that much about that. I’ll have to look more closely at gravestones now, haha. Great post. ^.^

    1. I must see if I still have any of the rubbings I did tucked away somewhere. It was a rabid interest for maybe 6 months and then I moved to the city and got distracted. 😛

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