Taking a walk in a cemetery can be a contemplative and thought-provoking experience. Reading gravestones and reflecting on the lives of those who have died puts us in touch with our mortality and the general fragility of life, and can also prompt our own internal life review as we consider how we would like to be remembered. Even when cremation is chosen, a person can express themselves through specialized urns or small decorations visible in some crematory niches or messages carved outside their vaults in columbarium. There's something moving about walking through a cemetery and considering the symbolism shared among some tombstones and the individual messages that some leave behind as clues to who they were during their lives and how they want to be remembered.

Common Gravestone Symbolism

Gravestone styles and symbols, especially in America, have changed over the centuries. In the 17th and into the early 18th centuries, gravestones were hand carved and very individual; although there was some common symbolism (such as the skull with wings, an early Puritan gravestone symbol), most stone imagery was designed to remind the viewer that life was short, rather than offer clues to the individual buried beneath. As the nation evolved and began to value individuality over conformity, so did gravestone design. As cemeteries became recreational spaces in the mid to late 19th century, gravestones became more elaborate and beautiful.

Lamb, Orb, Urn - Stroudsburg Cemetery, Stroudsburg, PA

There are commonly used symbols on gravestones. They include:

  • Lambs, Cherubs, or Teddy Bears: Used on the graves of children
  • Weeping Angels, Tree Stump or Broken Candle: A life gone too soon
  • Skull with Wings or Winged Hourglass: Mainly used in early American graves, this symbolizes the fragility of life
  • Wheat: A long life and timely death
  • Cross, Menorah, or Jewish Star: The religion of the deceased
  • Shaking Hands: The deceased welcomed into eternal life
  • Urn Covered With Shroud: This represents the veil between life and death. Some believe an urn fully covered with a drape indicates a long life, while an urn partially covered with a drape means an early death.
  • Grapes and Grape Leaves: Christian symbols, grapes represent wine, which means Christ's blood. Grape leaves represent renewal and the hope of eternal life when the deceased is reunited with God.
  • Finger Pointing Up or Down: A finger pointing up means a soul who has traveled to heaven; a finger pointing down means God is calling the soul to heaven. A downward pointing finger does not mean the deceased has gone to Hell.
  • Dove: Used on both Christian and Jewish gravestones, a dove means resurrection. A dead dove means an early death or a life cut short.
  • Anchor: Indicates a sailor or someone with leadership qualities, such as a steadfast individual.
  • Rose: Used on women's graves, the flower's shape (fully open or bud) indicates the woman's age when she passed. A snapped stem means a life ended early.
  • Obelisk: This popular symbol, which came into use during the 19th-century fascination with Egyptian culture, symbolized patriotism and leadership.
  • Orb On a Pedestal: Symbolizes eternity.

Many headstones face east, symbolizing the rising sun and more easily enabling the deceased to rise to enter eternal life.

Individual, "Bespoke" Gravestones and Epitaphs

Some use their gravestones to depict their lives or what they would like others to know about them. In fashion currently is the use of photographs, frequently of married couples buried together. Epitaphs can also be personalized with messages about the deceased; some are written by the deceased themselves before they die, while others are written by family members and survivors. Some memorable personalized epitaphs include:

Dorothy Parker (American poet and writer): “Excuse My Dust”
Merv Griffin (Talk show and game show host): “I Will Not Be Right Back After This Message”
Jonathan Blake (Private Citizen, Uniontown, PA): “Here Lies the Body of Jonathan Blake/Stepped on the Gas, Not on the Brake”
Sir Winston Churchill (Prime Minister, United Kingdom): “I am ready to meet my Maker. Whether my Maker is ready for the great ordeal of meeting me is another matter.”


“The Best Woman That Ever Lived” – Green-Wood Cemetery, Brooklyn, NY

Grave of Dominic Lockwood, Stroudsburg Cemetery, Stroudsburg, PA

Creating Your Own Legacy

Considering what kind of tombstone, columbarium engraving, or niche décor you would like is part of an advance planning process, which will help you shape how you are remembered. Making arrangements in advance – paying for a plot/niche, choosing a headstone or urn, selecting an engraving design – will also remove a significant burden from your survivors, as they will be relieved of having to make substantial choices when they are feeling grief and sadness, and may be preoccupied with other legal or logistical arrangements, such as clearing out your home. Fulfilling your wishes will also help them to feel they are honoring you and your memory in the way you wanted.

As we've seen, you can be as serious or as lighthearted as you wish. Walk around a couple of cemeteries and see what jumps out at you – symbols that resonate, words that stand out. Maybe you will choose a favorite saying or words from a song, a line from a book, or a proverb that you'd like to define your life. This can be a fun exercise and part of a more extensive life review you might undertake as part of an advance plan. Share your thoughts and wishes with your family and ask them for feedback (if you'd like it). No matter what you come up with, it will be a personalized message that will help define your life and legacy for your immediate survivors and any who may pass by your grave or niche.

For more on advance planning, please see our "Good Death" series premiering in September. It is a step-by-step values-based guide to making end-of-life/memorial decisions. For more on the reflective nature of cemeteries, please see The Cemetery as a Place of Reflection.