When the Dead Speak: Cemetery Symbolism

When you think of a cemetery, not much comes to mind other than the fact that it is where those we love reside once they pass on to the next life. While some people might believe there is a Heaven, Hell, Limbo or whatever else, one resounding theme is hard to miss. The dead speak. Now, it is not a case of <em>American Horror Story</em> where the dead linger among the living and blend into their daily lives. Rather, the dead speak to us through their epitaphs and stones.

Epitaphs and stones carry a message that portrays a person’s life and sometimes what the family wishes for others to remember about their loved one. Expressive messages such as mother, father, sister and brother allows the living to know who these people were once. It ventures even further to tell us about status, dreams, sadness, joy and even quirky quips and jokes. There is so much symbolism in the soft and deep etches on each stone in forms of flowers, words, animals, and other significant bas relief and fixtures.

One of the curious initials grave explorers may encounter is IHS. Known as a Christogram or a combination of letters, it appears as a dollar sign. But the significance of what it means in Christianity is great. Signifying the first three letters in Greek for the name of Jesus Christ (ΙΗΣΟΥΣ), there are actually several meanings.

Iesus Hominem Salvator: Jesus, Saviour of Mankind

In Hoc Signo (Vinces): In this sign (you will conquer)

In Hoc Sanctis: This place is sacred

Variations and interpretations of what IHS is remains up in the air, but these are the three most common ones. Among those of the Catholic faith, it is quite prevalent for this Christogram to appear on gravestones and it has even been more visible on the graves of those of the Christian faith as well.


Surrogate Mourner
One of the most beautiful visions on a grave is the presence of a Surrogate Mourner. Appearing as a female figure or an angel, these statues wait silently next to the grave as her patron sleeps. “She is there to mourn when the family isn’t able to be there,” Robin Simonton, the Director of Oakwood Cemetery muses. One impressive surrogate mourner is the 10 foot monument made of white marble at Oakwood dedicated to Wade Edwards, the son of former North Carolina senator John Edwards and the late Elizabeth Edwards. Young Edwards passed away in a tragic car accident in 1996 on his way to a family event. After his death, his mother came to his grave often to read to him. The angel lovingly embraces Edwards’ face as one would cradle a child’s softly in her hands while the folds of her robe envelopes her surroundings.


Traveling away from Oakwood Cemetery to the Alter Friedhof Cemetery in Bonn, Germany, a strangely alluring surrogate mourner rests peacefully after a bit of reading. The grave belongs to Caroline Walter who passed away in 1867 due to a bout of tuberculosis at the age of 17. To remember Caroline, her sister Selma commissioned the large monument to be placed on top of the gravestone with the intention that the stone carried the young girl’s image. Many people mourned Caroline because of her sudden, tragic death and the brevity of her youth. In life, she was known for her beauty that was unsurpassed by any other. Naturally, beauty seems to follow her in life as in death and a still stranger story. Selma noticed that after the funerary flowers placed in the stone figure’s hands wilted, new flowers materialized. No one from the family or friends admitted to replacing the floral arrangement. For over 100 years, before the sun rises, fresh flowers lay the sleeping beauty’s awaiting hands.

imageCourtesy of unmyst3.blogspot.com

imageGravestone of Rebecca Etta White

The Arch signifies victory in death or a door leading to Salvation with its lofty height.

Open Book
Presumably the Bible or other religious works, an Open Book represents the Book of Life.

Chi Rho
The Chi is represented by an X and the Rho is represented by a P. These are the first two letters in the Greek word for Christ.

Sleeping Child
Graves of young children usually bears a figure of a child who is in deep slumber. Sometimes, these stone children hold a significant likeness to their resting patron. Although the appearance of the sleeping child equals death, it also takes on a more euphemistic belief that the child whose time was cut too short is only sleeping for now.

Broken Column
The Broken Column signifies death or the loss of someone of high position in the family such as a patriarchal or matriarchal figure.

Courtesy of Robin Simonton

The Obelisk is a prominent symbol whose popularity was at its height from the 1880’s to the 1930’s. Initial appearances goes as far back as ancient Egypt and Rome. Its meaning is rooted in rebirth and the link between Heaven and Earth.

Courtesy of Robin Simonton


Curtains and Drapes
Around Easter, numerous Catholic churches cover the figures of Jesus, Mary and various saints in purple drapes. There is much reverence for their sacrifices as congregations gather to pray, but an air of sadness never fails to linger. The presence of Curtains and Drapes is a call to mourning and that life’s end on Earth.

Courtesy of Robin Simonton

In Christianity, a Dove is the symbol of Innocence and Peace. However, depending on this bird’s position, other meanings come to mind. A flying dove means Resurrection. An ascending dove means that the soul is going to Heaven while a dead dove shows that the person has died prematurely. A descending dove is an indication of guiding  souls into Heaven. A dove with a twig in its mouth in diving formation represents the Holy Ghost.

Popular in French culture, the Fleur-de-Lis can be traced back to early French royalty. Interchangeable between a lily or an iris, these flowers denote faith, wisdom and valor or passion and love. It also means The Trinity.

Many graves bear floral accompaniments and one that remains ever popular is Ivy for its simple message of immortality and friendship.

Bees are the wonderful little creatures who make honey and we are especially thankful to the ones here at Oakwood Cemetery. A Beehive is the symbol of abundance in the Promised Land or Piety. It also means Virtue and Faith.

The Lion is a symbol in literature and life known for its Courage and Strength, just like the one in The Wizard of Oz. It remains true in death as a guardian of those who rest.


A flowering plant with prickles, at first glance it looks like a purple or white flower meant to be placed in a bouquet. This plant means Remembrance.

Memento Mori
Latin for “remember you will die”, this message carries the inexplicability of death. A depiction of bones, a skull and an hourglass represents this grim trinity. It serves as an ever true reminder to all that mortality is a thing of brevity. Oftentimes, this symbol is found on older gravestones existing in the 1800’s. However, this is way before Oakwood’s time and no skulls and crossbones are here.

Not like this…


Courtesy of http://www.gothichorrorstories.com
Death comes upon swift wings in this immortal epitaph


Courtesy of http://www.bobforrestweb.co.uk

These above ground fixtures do not necessarily house remains, but depict Immortality.


Those whose love for the sea will appreciate this small, brilliant gift of nature and simplicity. The shell is a signature of resurrection, everlasting life, the journey of life and the baptism of one’s soul.

imageCourtesy of http://www.bakermuseum.org

imageCourtesy of dougrun365.blogspot.com

While not all of these pictures come from Oakwood Cemetery, the commonalities cannot be denied. Symbols and signs carry an affinity found universally in most cemeteries. Those whose sense of adventure compels them to explore are urged to make their own discoveries of what symbols and monuments are out here. When it comes to explaining gravestones, plenty of meanings exist and no one answer is correct. Take what you will from it or research the endless possibilities of these outlasting epitaphs.

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