A stroll through the cemetery will reveal a multitude of symbols on graves.  You may come upon angels, skulls, hands, or more.  But what do they all mean?  Atlas Obscura has put together a collection of the most interesting you may find…

Cemetery Symbolism

Winged Skull:

Popular especially in the 17th and 18th centuries, the flying skull signifies the fleetingness of life and the soul carrying into the afterlife.

Flying Hourglass:

Similar to the winged skull, the hourglass indicates the swiftness of time’s passage – something literally flying with wings.

Clasping Hands:

Hands are common on graves, whether in prayer, pointing up as an indication of heaven, or down as a divine message to those below.  Often, two hands are clasped together in a final farewell, especially on the tombs of a married couple, where on person is leaving, and one left behind.

Inverted Torch:

A torch turned upside down shows that the soul is still burning in the afterlife.


Usually found on the graves of women who died young, a dove represents purity.  Sometimes it is shown ascending into heaven or lying dead if a person perished suddenly.

Snapped Rose:

The bloom of the rose symbolizes the age of a lady when she died, whether as a rosebud or in full bloom, and its thorny stem snapped if she died too soon.

Tree Stump:

Tree stump tombs often memorialize a life cut off short and suddenly.


Wheat, along with other symbols like oak leaves, symbolizes a long life, one that was harvested by the reaper when it was time.


Usually found on the tombs of children, a lamb symbolizes innocence and can also reference Jesus Christ – the Lamb of God.

Open Book:

Representing the book of life, a person’s love of literature, or a reference to the Bible, the open book is a symbol fora human heart open to God, as well as the deeds of a person’s life being recorded.

Draped Urn:

Incredibly common in Victorian cemeteries, the draped urn is a visual of the separation between the living and the dead and a protective shroud for the soul, as well as a classically-inspired symbol of death.

Open Gates:

Doors and open gates are symbols for the passage into heaven, the leaving of the land of the living for the great beyond…