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Encyclopedia Dubuque


"Encyclopedia Dubuque is the online authority for all things Dubuque, written by the people who know the city best.”
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GRAVESTONE ART. Between 1840 and 1905 symbols used on grave markers were a common language to visitors in cemeteries. The symbols were designed to show ideas about the character and attitudes of the deceased. This language is gradually being lost. The symbols described below are only a few of the many once used.

Alpha and Omega--the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet symbolizing the beginning and end of life

Anchor--a Christian symbol of faith and hope. The idea that the deceased is anchored safely in God’s harbor. Also a Masonic symbol for well-grounded hope

Angel--a guide to heaven

Anvil--symbolizing the creation of the universe

Arch--passage to heaven

Arrow--Christian symbol of the sure salvation of the soul

Artillery--military service

Beehive--often used by the Free masons symbolizing faith, education and domestic values

Bible--indicates the deep Christian belief of the person, often used on graves of clergy

Bird--messenger of God

Boat--voyage, crossing over to the other side

Bones--death, decay

Broken Bud or Branch--symbol of someone who died an untimely death

Broken Chain--loss in the family

Broken Wheel--a break in the cycle of life

Butterfly--short life or resurrection

Century Plant--everlasting life

Chain--a full chain represents a family, a broken chain shows the loss of a person

Circle--eternal life

Clasped Hands--farewell to earthly existence, also unity

Clock--time has run out for this person

Coffin--symbol of mortality and death

Column--with a capital showed that the person had lived to the expected age of 70, a shorter column indicated that the person had died earlier


Cornucopia--symbol of an abundant life

Cross--promise of salvation

Crown--victory of eternal life over death

Daisy--symbol of innocence

Dog--vigilance, watchfulness, loyalty

Dove--represents the Holy Spirit or a messenger of God

Shroud over the stone

Easter Lily--purity

Fern--humility and sincerity

Gates--usually shown open meaning the passage from life to death

Grapes--blood of Christ

Hammer--power of creation

Hand--if it reaches downward it is the hand of God or pointing upward to heaven

Harp--symbol of joy

Hour Glass--indication that time has run out for the dead


Keys--spiritual power on earth and in heaven

Knot--symbol of marriage

Lamb--ordinarily used for the graves of children and means innocence

Lamp--the light of eternal life, wisdom

Leaves. Leaves--Oak [shown](strength of faith), ivy (steadfastness of faith), grape (maturity in years), laurel (victory of life over death)


Lotus--symbol of creation and rebirth

Moon or Star or Sun--a heavenly body meaning that the dead has gone to heaven

Ox--patience and strength

Palm tree or frond--victory over death

Poppy--eternal sleep

Rabbit--humility, self-sacrifice

Rose--an open flower means an adult woman, rose buds are used on the graves of infants and small children, partially open buds would refer to young girls


Scales--represent judgment

Scroll--a record of the good and bad deeds of the dead


Sickle--reaping of life

Soldier on Horse--two or more feet raised--death in battle, one leg raised off the ground--death from wounds in battle, standing with all four legs on the ground--natural death

Sun--soul rising to heaven

Sunflower--devotion to God


Torch--upside down meant death, most were shown lighted showing life after death

Thistle--earthly sorrow

Cut down trees indicated a life cut short.
Tree--symbol of immortality, branches cut off often indicated the birth of girls who could not carry on the family name

Trumpet--symbol of judgment and resurrection

Urn--symbol of death

Vacant chair--death of a child
Small shoes--death of a child
Vine--sign of spiritual life provided through Jesus

Weeping Willow--sign of sadness

Wheel--symbol of old age, often shown broken representing death

Wreath--victory in death