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The Symbols on Headstones

Once you have viewed, photographed and made a rubbing of an ancestor’s headstone, you need to study very carefully the symbols and designs placed by the family to represent that person’s life. Dates and words tell the family researcher a good deal, but those symbols can open new prospects of understanding one’s ancestor.

The engraving of hand is very common on gravestones. There are praying hands which refer to religious devotion by the person. There can be one hand pointing up or down meaning the hand of God. If down it can refer to a sudden death. If pointing upwards a belief in life after death. If it appears as a handshake, it can mean the departed was a friend to all or even farewell to those on Earth. Holding hands can be for a married couple, devoted to each other, even after death.

Angels refer to a link between the person and God. A circle refers to eternity and a crown is for immortality. A sea shell is for a journey, a poppy flower for eternal rest, a wreath for eternal love, a moon for life after death, a heart for love, a brunch of flowers represent the cycle of life and a dove that the soul is at peace.

The anchor on a gravestone can imply the decease was connected to the sea or it also means a strong faith of a person. A drawing of a Bible or a cross are also very popular symbols which symbolize the person‘s strong faith. A harp is found to denote earthly and heavenly music. Ivy is placed many times around the outer edge of the headstone, meaning a remembrance and undying affection of the person. Lambs and Morning Glories were placed for the headstone of a child who died, the innocence lost. Placed on headstones for men were the oak tree showing their strength physically and in character. If just a tree trunk is engraved it means that their life had been cut short.

Another common drawing around the edges of a headstone are weeping willows expressing great sorrow by the family. If wheat is on the gravestone it referred to the person being very productive in life. With a pineapple the person was a generous. The design of a rose represents great love and heavenly joy.

Fraternal groups had their own symbols to decorate a member’s headstone. One of the most common ones was the Woodmen of the World with an ax, a wedge, a tree stump and a mallet. If three links of a chain appear it is the emblem for the Odd Fellow fraternal organization. For the Masonic Lodge member might be a beehive, compass, an anchor, Masonic star, clasping hands or a double-headed eagle.

Military veterans have the American Legion symbol of a star and a flag. There could be a cannon, rifle, an airplane or a tank also.v

Making a record of everything on a headstone and then learning what each engraving means can provide new clues about your ancestor.

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