Graveyard symbols: architectural markers of life and death

photograph of graves in a cemetery

Visiting a cemetery is not always a sad and sombre occasion. Graveyards are filled with stories of historical people and their lives. Tombs and gravestones are small pieces of architecture, with symbolic meaning.

Let’s explore the meaning behind some motifs found in cemeteries across Europe.

Veils and drapery

Drapery on a grave is a veil that separates the world of the living from that of the dead. Often used in conjunction with other motifs (urns, columns, Death’s heads, flowers), they symbolise the soul passing into the afterlife.

Funerary shrouds were used since prehistory to clothe and therefore protect the deceased on their afterlife journey. It’s this association with protection that is also present in Christian graves, an allusion to God’s protection until Resurrection.

Weeping willows

Weeping willows are symbols of mourning and remembrance due to the forlorn drooping of the branches. Willows were associated with numerous feminine deities and the moon by pre-Christian religions in the Mediterranean and Central Asia.

The plant is also associated with immortality and rebirth given the hardiness of the family and re-emergence every spring of the fuzzy leaf buds. This motif is often used in conjunction with a female figure in mourning.

Obelisks

Obelisks became popular gravestone motifs in 19th-century Britain due to the discovery of the Rosetta Stone in 1801 and the English occupation of Egypt. To ancient Egyptians, obelisks were petrified rays of sunlight where the sun god Ra lived. In graveyards they symbolise ancient godliness, greatness.

Broken columns

Broken columns signify lives cut short: those who died young or in the prime of their life. Often these symbols have been used when the living died suddenly. The columns range from classical to modern designs, often combined with other symbols and decorative elements like wreaths, doves, urns, lilies.

Urns

Urns became a popular funerary motif in the 19th century. They represent immortality: containing the earthly remains of a body whilst the soul has ascended to the afterlife. Many urns are draped with shrouds, festooned with garlands, inspired by ancient Grecian and Egyptian designs.

EXPLORE MORE: Stone in religion and faiths

Ivy

Ivy on a gravestone symbolises immortality. The hardiness of the plants – the near impossibility of ridding your garden of the vines – makes them motifs for regeneration and endless life.

Skulls

Skulls or death’s heads are memento mori, reminders of our mortality. They were popular funerary ornaments in the 16th and 17th centuries, but fell out of fashion by the 1800s. Their use as gravestone motifs waned as they were considered morbid and the stuff of Gothic novels.

IHS

IHS is the Latin phrase ‘Iesus Hominum Salvator’ which means ‘Jesus saviour of mankind’. On a gravestone, it symbolises resurrection and the afterlife. The letters can be written in a number of ways, sometimes resembling $.

Chi-Rho

Chi-Rho (XP) are the first letters in the Greek word for Christ, Khristos. The symbol comes from Emperor Constantine’s vision instructing him to inscribe a ‘heavenly divine symbol’ on the his soldiers’ shields. On a tombstone, it signifies the resurrection.

Scrolls

Scrolls symbolise a person’s life: the past rolled up, the present (moment of death) on display, the future in the afterlife yet to be revealed. Scrolls also signify honour and a memorial – and often represent the Bible and other sacred and ancient texts. Their use as gravestone motifs also reflect neoclassical and Egyptian revival trends during the 18th and 19th centuries.

Sunbursts

The sunburst is a very ancient symbol simultaneously linked with death (sunset) and resurrection (sunrise). It speaks to the passing over from this life into the next.

Before the 19th century, most graveyards in the West were designed facing the east in view of the rising sun. The sunburst motif is depicted in numerous ways: as arrows and rays of light, in geometric patterns resembling many-pointed stars, flowers, and orange slices.

EXPLORE MORE: Archaeological remains showing death and burial rituals

Guest blog by Eric Huang

This blog is part of Europeana’s Discovering Europe season featuring cultural jewels and hidden gems from across the continent.

Feature image: Graves at Daalseweg cemetery, Nico van Hoorn, Regionaal Archief Nijmegen, CC0

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