On this month's Morbidly Fascinating Page:

What do the symbols mean on tombstones?

In the Morbidly Fascinating Archives

Early Mental Institutions
Victorian Post-mortem Photography
Photographs of Ghosts
Mob Hits
Spontaneous Human Combustion

In cemeteries, there are many different symbols on tombstones and markers. How many times have you wondered what those symbols specifically mean? This month, we will answer many of your questions.

Have you ever wandered through a cemetery or graveyard and wondered about the meanings of the designs carved on old gravestones? Thousands of different religious and secular symbols and emblems have adorned tombstones and markers through the ages, indicating attitudes towards death and the hereafter, membership in a fraternal or social organization, or an individual's trade, occupation or even ethnic identity. While many of these tombstone symbols have fairly simple interpretations, it is not always easy to determine their meaning and significance. We were not present when these symbols were carved into the stone and can't claim to know our ancestors' intentions. They may have included a particular symbol for no other reason than because they thought it was pretty.

While we can only speculate what our ancestors were trying to tell us through their choice of tombstone art, these symbols and their interpretations are commonly agreed upon by gravestone scholars.


The entwined letters D and R, the crescent moon, the dove and the three-link chain are all common symbols of the Daughters of Rebekah.

The Daughters of Rebekah is the female auxiliary or ladies branch of the Independent Order of Odd Fellows. The Rebekah Branch was established in America in 1851 after much controversy regarding the inclusion of women as Odd Fellow members in the Order. The branch was named after the Rebekah from the bible whose unselfishness at the well represents the virtues of the society.


A broken branch means a very young adult, child, or infant has died.


In contrast, the symbol of longevity is wheat--a life that was harvested by the Reaper when it was due time, placed on the graves of the elderly.

eastern star

No, this is not an upside down pentagram nor any form of Satanism. This is the symbol of the Order of the Eastern Star, which is a Masonic appendant body open to both men and women.


Clasped hands signifies a married couple. The woman's hand is always on the left, the man's on the right.


Chi and Rho are the first two letters (ΧΡ) of "Christ" in Greek ΧΡΙΣΤΟΣ. It is one of the earliest symbols of Christianity.



These two are grouped together on this page because they are both symbols of the Freemasons. Freemasons belong to the oldest fraternal organization in the world, a group begun during the Middle Ages in Europe as a guild of skilled builders. With the decline of cathedral building, the focus of the society shifted. Today, “Freemasons are a social and philanthropic organization meant to make its members lead more virtuous and socially oriented lives,” says Margaret Jacob, professor of history at University of California, Los Angeles.

The beehive is the symbol of productivity, often used by the Freemasons. Another Masonic symbol is called a “compass and square” with a 'G' in the middle. The G stands for God.



Represents membership in the Benevolent and Protective Order of the Elks, one of the largest and most active fraternal organizations in the United States, with over one million members.


This decedant was a member of the Shriners, an organization which has founded many hospitals for children.


An eagle suggests courage and probably a United States military career.


The first and the last letters of the greek alphabet, the alpha and the omega, is a biblical reference to Christ in Revelation, being "the beginning and the end."



A Tudor Rose usually signifies someone of English descent.



Two different versions of the same symbol, meaning the Ancient Order of United Workmen. They began by providing financial support after the American Civil War. The National Fraternal Congress is still in existence today with 121 member societies.


A hand pointing up means this person is ascending into Heaven. A hand pointing down is not the opposite and does not have any meaning about Hell. A hand pointing down means that Heaven is coming for this soul.


Sometimes an unmarked tombstone means that no one knows who is buried there. However, a deliberately unmarked grave signifies disdain and contempt, perhaps for a crime committed or some other reason for ostracization while the person was alive.


This could be the most interesting tombstone of all.

The Eye of Providence (or the all-seeing eye of God) is a symbol showing an eye often surrounded by rays of light or a glory and usually enclosed by a triangle. It represents the eye of God watching over humanity.

The snake can be interpreted in one of two ways.

First, it could symbolize the original sin of mankind, or of evil in general. This is the most likely explanation for this tombstone considering the layout of the serpent. Perhaps together both symbols represents good versus evil.

The other interpretation could be that the serpent represents everlasting life, because the snake cheats death by shedding its skin. It is an unlikely explanation for this tombstone, however, since everlasting life is always portrayed as a snake in ‘ouroboros’ form, in that it creates the shape of a circle with its own tail in its mouth. This tombstone does not show a snake in a circle.