I absolutely love visiting cemeteries. To me they are the most peaceful places on earth (with the exception of the rare secluded beach). The older they are the better. I can spend hours wandering through the aisles reading headstones and admiring the craftsmanship of the talented masons who created these final monuments. So much love and detail used to go into grave markers before it became required to make them flat so the grounds are easier to mow. The flat versions also hold up better in rough weather and are less prone to vandalism since they can’t be knocked over.
Despite time, weather and vandalism many of these great works of art still stand in cemeteries around the world. Much like tattoos, the symbols on the headstones can tell you far more about the deceased than just their name and the years they spent on earth. There are dozens of these symbols, today we will look at some of the botanicals and their meanings.
Most headstones have flowers, they are symbols of sorrow and the brevity of life. However the type of flower is also important as they each have a story to tell. Lilies, are symbols of resurrection or eternal life. Poppies are signs of sleep and therefore death, also for peaceful rest.
On a happier note some flowers are all about love. Roses are commonly sign at graves. They are flowers of love, hope and beauty. A red rose symbolizes martyrdom and a white rose symbolizes purity and virginity. The phase of the rose coincides with the phase of life in which the person passed. Rose buds are for those who died as a child, partial blooms are for teenagers and full bloom is for a person in the prime of their lives (usually in their 20’s). In the language of flowers tulips tell a story of passionate love and unlike roses do not have any thorns to spoil that love. Sunflowers connote a life fulfilled or a devotion to God.
Some flowers can tell you the nationality of a person. In the case of the thistle the memorialized individual is likely Scottish. Clovers are often on Irish graves (or they can be for gamblers luck).
Broken flowers or branches are typically seen on the graves of younger people to indicate a life cut short or someone who passed prematurely.
The presence of fruit is said to signify eternal plenty. Some fruits, like figs and pineapples mean prosperity and eternal life. Pomegranates are similar stand for immortality, resurrection, and nourishment of the soul.
Grapes are used for Christian graves. There are different opinions about exactly what each representation of the grape can mean. Some say if they are on the vine they refer to the blood of Christ which others believe the vines to represent Christ’s relationship to the church.
The tree is a symbol of life (tree of life) and/or faith. A spouting tree is a sign of eternal life. At time you may find a tree trunk decorated with anchor or lilies or other icons which represent the type of life a person lived.
A tree which is broken or leaning shows mortality and may indicate a premature death like the broken flowers or branches. Similarly a tree stump is a sign of a life interrupted. A stump with ivy is typically found to show the head of household.
More specifically the willow tree is know as the tree of humans sorrow and is a sign of grief. Willows are carried at masonic funerals and may indicate the grave of a free mason. The willow is also an ancient Greek symbol of the underworld goddesses, especially Persephone.
A mountain ash or rowan tree is said to keep evil spirits from bothering the dead. Bitch trees were used by the Celts to cover the dead.
Sheaves of Wheat
A sheaf of wheat is typically found on the headstones of the aged. It represents the divine harvest. It calls to mind the connection between a farmer harvesting wheat and the grim reaper harvesting lives.
A wreath alone indicates victory in death. The type of wreath can tell you more about the person. A laurel wreath is used to show a person who attained distinction in the arts, literature, athletics or the military. Ivy wreaths are for joy.
When a wreath is found on a skull it is a sign of the victory or death over life.
As with most symbols these are all open to interpretation. Some cultures may have different meanings behind the same flower or fruit or the placement may have to do with the deceased’s preferences.
This is only a partial list, you can find more listings here.