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Published January 10, 2016

The Dead Speak: Symbolism In Cemeteries

Have you ever walked through a cemetery or graveyard and wondered about all the strange and unique symbols depicted on headstones and statues?

While cemeteries and headstones are as different and diverse as the people resting beneath them, one resounding, unified theme is hard to miss: The dead speak.

Now, it is not a case of American Horror Story where the dead linger among the living and blend into their daily lives. Rather, the dead speak to us through their epitaphs and stones. You can learn a lot by listening to their stories and learning the meaning of cemetery symbolism.

Epitaphs and stones carry messages that portray a person’s life–or at least what the family wishes for others to remember about their loved one.

Expressive messages such as Beloved Mother, Devoted Father, Dearest Sister, or Loving Brother allow the living to know who these people once were. Headstones venture even further to share stories of social 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.


RELATED: Oakwood Cemetery’s Origins: Digging Up The Past.



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. Its significance in Christianity is great.

The Dead Speak-- Symbolism In Cemeteries - 1Signifying 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 IHS remain up in the air, but these are the three most common ones. Among those of the Catholic faith, this Christogram is quite prevalent.


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,” explains Robin Simonton, Director of Oakwood Cemetery.

The Dead Speak-- Symbolism In Cemeteries - 2One impressive example of the surrogate mourner is the ten-foot, white marble monument 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.



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 bear 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.

The Dead Speak-- Symbolism In Cemeteries - 5

Courtesy Robin Simonton



The Dead Speak-- Symbolism In Cemeteries - 7The 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.


Curtains and Drapes

The Dead Speak-- Symbolism In Cemeteries - 8Around 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 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.

The Dead Speak-- Symbolism In Cemeteries - 9



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 cut in the 1800’s.



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

The Dead Speak-- Symbolism In Cemeteries - 13


RELATED: Oakwood Cemetery: Stories Behind The Headstones.



The Dead Speak-- Symbolism In Cemeteries - 14Those 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.



To Those Who Love Exploring Cemeteries

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 there. When it comes to explaining gravestones, plenty of meanings exist and no single answer is correct. Take what you will from it, or research the endless possibilities of these outlasting epitaphs.

Published with permission of Historic Oakwood Cemetery.

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  • Sandy


  • Sandy is the Communications/Blogging Intern at the Historic Oakwood Cemetery. She is the Creator of Oakwood Plot Lines, which invites cemetery enthusiasts to learn about the stories and happenings there. In her spare moments, she searches for eccentric poetry and classics to enjoy. Discovering vintage wares and travelling on spontaneous road trips to the beach gives her bliss. All my articles.

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