Gravestone Symbolism

Today’s guestpost was written by Luann Sewell Waters.

Gravestone Symbolism

Gravestone Symbolism written by Luann Sewell Waters

Since 2011, I’ve been doing programs and classes on gravestone graphics—what the symbols on tombstones mean. I’m often asked what got me interested in this topic.

I’ve always been interested in history—but gravestones are more than just history. They are also art, architecture and encyclopedias of symbolism. They can give clues to a person’s religion, ethnicity, social memberships, occupation and thoughts on an afterlife.

But I think my interest began in junior high when some girlfriends and I would ride our horses all over the area around Hugo, OK. While doing this, some of the places we’d go were cemeteries.

One stone I’ve always remembered was in Hugo’s city cemetery, Mt. Olivet. The stone was bright white then and really stood out from the more ‘traditional’ grey stones. This marker was on a little girl’s grave and  was a statue of a child angel at a cross.

Cynda Ann Huffstetler, August 15, 1954; February 1, 1963.

“Budded on earth to bloom in heaven.”

I was recently back in the area so went to the cemetery to take a photo of the grave. What I hadn’t remembered until I was there to take the photo were the birth and death dates of the girl. Born in 1954, Cynda was born two years after me, but died the year before my family moved to Hugo.

Finally noting the dates, I had to wonder, was the fact she would have been close to my age what sparked my interest in gravestones? Not that I recall; I think it was more the beauty of the marker and the loss her parents must have felt. But her gravestone does present questions–did she have any siblings, what caused her death?

Since I’ve been learning more about the symbolism on gravestones, I looked at Cynda’s stone with more understanding of what it can tell me. The angel is a guide to heaven and is writing in the Book of Life the epitaph, “Budded on earth to bloom in heaven.” The cross can be an emblem of faith but also is for resurrection or salvation. Flowers in general are both for remembrance of the departed and a reminder of the brevity of life while the lily specifically is a symbol for purity and innocence.

This interest has taken me to cemeteries in over 14 states and two other countries. I’ve joined the Association for Gravestone Studies and continue to do more research and take more photos of stones.


I find all graveyards fascinating. As I walk around I read the engraved names and look at the dates. I might notice an especially ornate or interesting symbol-but I’ve never given much thought to the symbolism behind the graphics used on gravestones. After reading Luann’s post I plant to pay closer attention to the symbols next time.

If you’re interested in learning more about gravestone symbols go here.

I hope you enjoyed Luann’s guestpost as much as I did!


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  • Reply
    Suzi Phillips
    October 29, 2013 at 9:20 pm

    Riding the backroads of Webster County, WV earlier this month, Mitchell and I came upon a sign pointing to Life Cemetery. Of course we went! It was a lovely old graveyard dating back to the early1880s, but left us with no clue to the fabulous name. Do any WV readers know?

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    October 29, 2013 at 2:32 pm

    My Mother always took a jar of soapy water and rinse water before decoration day to the cemetery where her parents are buried in Madison County. She brought her supplies in a box all the way from Tennessee. Sometimes she would also take her flowers (usually artifical) to place in front of the stone! She brushed out the incised letters and washed and dried the stone. I tried to help her but most of the time she wanted to do it herself. My Mother worried over this so much that the stone would be dirty when Decoration Day would arrive, that people would see an unkempt stone! Her Mother did the same thing instilling that thought in my Moms mind from a child on!
    Her Mother did the same thing when she got a chance to go to the cemetery (since she didn’t drive)cleaning the stone of my Grandfather with the empty spot on the side where her name would be when she passed. I wonder if that was an Appalachian thing done before Decoration Days before the church crowd or relatives of the deceased, passed through after services.
    A lot of folks that are buried at old church yard graveyards have long since moved to other states and do not attend the original church of Great, Great Grandparents, etc. I have not been to my Fathers side Grandparents graveyard in many years…I was very young when they died. I am not sure I could find it. My Daddy when he was alive would take us there sometimes but my mind was elsewhere when this would happen. Why are we not interested in this sort of thing when we are young people? Does death seem that far away from us?
    Thanks Tipper and Luann….
    PS…Vera, you didn’t give her husband any secrets in the diary did you? I think I will dump my journals before I croak! I would hate for my better half to read or hear my thoughts (of him) after I’m gone. Especially if I had had one of those nit-pickin’, critical, football or golfin’ days of his! LOL

  • Reply
    October 29, 2013 at 2:02 pm

    I never thought about the symbolism that a gravestone might create. However, this writing made me realize that there just might be a sort of symbolism with a fancy stone with some sort of picture to remember the person who was buried in a particular plot. Very interesting!

  • Reply
    Susie Swanson
    October 29, 2013 at 1:45 pm

    I too love visiting old cemeteries and old graves. I love to look at the engraving and it makes me more interested in their stories. There’s so many that doesn’t have any engraving on them. Many people made their own stones back in the day.. Very interesting post Tipper.

  • Reply
    Ken Roper
    October 29, 2013 at 11:41 am

    I had a friend who moved to Texas
    just a few miles from Mexico. His
    name was Robert Huffstetler and he
    had family in Oklahoma. I talked
    with him often right up till his
    death by phone. His wife Judy is
    still there.
    After seeing the Tombstone at the beginning, I wondered if Luann
    might be a relative…Ken

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    October 29, 2013 at 11:00 am

    I was afraid my time had run out, (no pun intended) so I mashed the button on this thing!
    I wanted to thank you and Luann for this post. Very interesting!
    Also, the name on the stone, is not too common!
    We have friends by that name. I might ask if they had relatives in or around Hugo,OK!
    Sorry the devil made me do it!
    One more for the oldtimers that watched TV in the fifties.
    Jackie Gleasons stone said,
    And Away We Go!
    I always try to remember that the spirit is gone and only the bones remain!
    Thanks Tipper, and Luann for all your research and info!

  • Reply
    Gina S
    October 29, 2013 at 10:56 am

    I’ve always believed my fascination for gravestones and old cemeteries came from wandering while Mama visited family plots. Wandering burying grounds from here to Florida often I have more questions than answers. Symbolism never crossed my mind, but I’ll be more aware from now on.

  • Reply
    Eva Nell Mull Wike, Ph.D.
    October 29, 2013 at 10:41 am

    Tipper: There was a time when I could walk through an old cemetery. I found the stones and epitaphs interesting. But now that our sweet Joey has been laid to rest high on a hill looking toward the Great Smokey Mountains, I can not take a stroll through any grave yard.
    Eva Nell

  • Reply
    b. Ruth
    October 29, 2013 at 10:24 am

    Ahh, I feel terrible at making light of the sayin’s and inscriptions on stones. It was more of a Halloween thing, for me!
    I enjoyed the post, and wish I too could stroll thru the cemetaries of old. Today you don’t see that many elaborate or ornate stones. So many cementaries have restrictions. Where my parents are buried and the better half there are restrictions. Most of the small stones are in the ground flat with a place for an urn to place flowere. Wire or baskets to display a rememberence or frowned on. In fact if the flowers in the urn are left very long the mowers will remove them and the attached urn is dropped back into it’s holder in the stone. For a while there was stealing of brass flower urns in that cemetary as well as flowers. Not Me! I don’t need nuthin’ from no cementary that bad!
    What shocked me somewhat was the look of the stone in this post! It looks to be from the twenties or earlier! The stone seems to be wearing away to be this new, 1950’s! I have seen this type of stone in the cementaries of my grandparents and greatgrandparents in NC. The only symbolism I thought about was the sweet angel for the child!
    The saddest thing I ever saw, was a row of five small stones in my Grandparents cemetary. There was two larger stones, parents. I thought the children died at the same time. But on investigation of the stones, only two dates were the same the other dates were spaced by a few years…Sad!
    I always try to remember the sayin’ on the stones of old. Most of the time it is put on by the relative of the passed. Unless of course, the will said what was supposed to be put on the stone.

  • Reply
    Ed Ammons
    October 29, 2013 at 10:16 am

    I looked up the death certificate of little Howard Mease. He died of “Membranous croup.” The secondary cause was “Delay in treatment” According to the death certificate he was exactly one year old. The date on his stone shows he was four days short of his first birthday.

  • Reply
    October 29, 2013 at 10:01 am

    Cave Hill Cemetery in Louisville, KY is one of the most interesting places I have ever visited. If Luann hasn’t been there, she should go. I’ve heard of people spending the whole day there while driving through acres and acres of well maintained grounds. Many headstones are images of the deceased, while some images are a hundred times larger than life. Colonel Sanders and a famous basketball player (can’t remember his name) are a few of the stones I recognized. I wonder how some of the old stones have survived years of weather, especially the tall ones.

  • Reply
    Mike McLain
    October 29, 2013 at 9:58 am

    I spend a fair amount of time looking for graves of ancestors and see other markers in the course of the search. I have found ancestors as far back as my great-great-great-great-grandparents in Western North Carolina. I never met them while they were living, but I enjoy visiting their remains to make a small connection with them.

  • Reply
    Sue Crane
    October 29, 2013 at 9:23 am

    I, too, walk around and read grave stones and wonder at the stories. I have pictures of graves in Ireland that were completely covered with blooming flowers. Also, Benny Watt Terry — what a respectful, kind service you are doing.

  • Reply
    Vera Guthrie
    October 29, 2013 at 8:25 am

    Recently I was walking in the graveyard where Mama is buried and cam across a very ornate grave. It has a little brick border about 3 bricks high and a massive stone, the area was filled with gravel. I looked at the foot stone and realized I had came upon the grave of a man referred to in an old diary I have first entry date 01/01/1927, it was his wife’s diary that was in a box of books purchased at an auction. I sat down on the little brick wall and introduced myself and talked to him.

  • Reply
    Jane Bolden
    October 29, 2013 at 8:18 am

    I find old tombstones fascinating also. When I see an elaborate one, I always think the family must have been prosperous to be able to afford to erect such an ornate one.

  • Reply
    Miss Cindy
    October 29, 2013 at 8:11 am

    The stone is no longer white it has a lovely patina. When I see a grave marker for a child I always wonder what happened. My dad had brother that died at just a few years of age. I’ve seen his small grave marker. His name was Howard. Probably died of flu of some kind from the description my dad gave me.
    I was recently at a cemetery and noticed there was one very tall slender marker. It was odd to me because all the others were of a similar height and there was the one tall straight one that seemed out of place. I was there for a funeral so didn’t have opportunity to see it up close and read the inscreption.

  • Reply
    benny watt terry
    October 29, 2013 at 7:45 am

    Gravestones are interesting and can be beautiful. They help us trace our family history and can bring us closer to our ancestors. Belonging to the Sons of Confederate Veterans I have been involved in many memorial services. Sometimes we are there to memorialize the installation of a new gravestone and sometimes we are there to hold a memorial service with one already there for many years. The ones that have been there for years have mold and mildew on them and look less that beautiful. We work with our cemetery dept. and clean them; they use a product called D-2. It does a fantastic job and the families appreciate taking care of their ancestors gravestones.

  • Reply
    Sheryl Paul
    October 29, 2013 at 7:20 am

    Yes, I enjoyed it very much. I too find gravestones facinating, from the words engraved on them to the stories of the their lives.

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