Symbolism

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alpha omega
angels
animals
anchors
birds
books
chalice
circle
cherub
column
compass
cross
crown
door
dove
dragon
eye
flowers
G
garlands/wreaths
hands
harp
heart
hourglass
htwsstks
ihs
inri
irish
lamb
laurel
lion
M
masonic
obelisk
PX
star of david
phoenix
pyramid
quill
scales
scythe
shell
shamrock
skull
snake
square
sun
torch
tosf
trades
unicorn
urn

 

There are many other symbols than the ones below but I have only included those that I have found in Irish cemeteries. Each symbol is illustrated by at least one photograph so click on the symbol for the accompanying photographs all of which have been taken in Irish cemeteries.

Alpha/Omega: The first and last letters of the Greek alphabet representing the beginning and the end of all things.

Anchor: This is a Christian symbol and is not usually associated with the sea although there are several examples below where the deceased were seamen. The anchor was often used as a symbol for the cross. It is also a sign of hope as illustrated in Hebrews: There is a Hope both strong and steadfast which is the Anchor of my soul. Often there are chains attached, sometimes broken. The use of the anchor can mean that the ship (the body/soul) has come home to port. I have also included one or two images of the sea.

Angels: Angels are everywhere in our cemeteries. They come in all shapes and sizes and doing all sorts of different things. Some angels can be identified - St George slaying the dragon; St Michael with his sword. Others are anonymous but have a specific task. Some weep, some fly with trumpets signifying the resurrection, some escort the soul to heaven, some bring the crown. See also the wonderful angels carved on the stones at Kilbroney

Animals: There is quite a variety of animals engraved on gravestones. The most common is the lamb (see below). Some of the animals belong to family crests; the dog is often seen as a symbol of fidelity, or loyalty to the deceased or that the deceased exhibited such traits; the lion is also seen in that light and can be a symbol for Christ. Dragons and other mythological beasts also appear, particularly in the decorations around Celtic crosses.

Birds: The dove is mentioned below but sometimes there are other birds carved on gravestones. The ones illustrated here are connected with the family name. The heron is on the family plot of the Heron family; the eagle on the Eagleson family plot; and in the same vein the hunting horns are on the Hunter family plot.

Books: It could be that the deceased was an author but usually a book refers to a persons life - all the good and bad being recorded. The book often is the Bible. Sometimes it can be used to denote the deceased was a teacher.

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 Chalice: usually seen on the graves of priests and represents the sacrament of transubstantiation. Note the other symbols alongside the chalice.

 Circle: Usually means eternity. This can take several different forms such as a wreath, upside down.

Cherub: Often thought of a small child/angel but it often represents the soul of the deceased. 

Column: In some of our older cemeteries broken columns are quite common. They can represent a number of things - a life cut short; they can refer back to the Greek and Roman period showing decline and decay, nothing lasts; simply mortality

Compass and square: A masonic symbol. The compass represents the spirit and the square the psyche. The square can also stand for honesty and truth and the compass can stand for loyalty. Notice also the letter "G" in most of the examples. It can stand for God or geometry.

 Cross: The ultimate Christian symbol. There are many different types of crosses butt he most usual one found in Irish cemeteries is the Celtic cross. Many of these crosses are very ornate.

 Crown: It can represent the victory of Christ or of the deceased; the reward of the virtuous; the crown of righteousness

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 Dog: See Animals above

 Door: Not very often found in Ireland the door represents the passage from life to death. Christ said I am the Door. 

Dove: Could mean the Holy Spirit. It comes in a number of forms. Beak downwards, with a twig/olive branch in its mouth, it represents the dove bringing back to Noah the sign of God's forgiveness after the Flood. Without the twig, it can represent the soul/spirit of the deceased.

 Dragon: Always a negative image in Western culture it is usually portrayed on the receiving end of a slaying - the triumph of good over evil.

Eye: The all seeing eye is sometimes found on masonic graves. It represents the all seeing eye of God

 Flowers: Flowers are used to show grief, sorrow, respect and sympathy for the dead. They are also carved onto stones. Flowers live, bloom and die quite quickly and they can be a useful memento mori.  Individual flowers can mean different things. Bunches of exotic flowers and fruits can be a symbol of paradise.

         Bunches of grapes are used to represent sacrifice. The connection between wine and Christ's blood is a strong Christian message.

        Ivy is an evergreen and can denote everlasting friendship and fidelity.

        Lily signifies purity and is often associated with the Virgin Mary where it means chastity.

        Oak generally refers to old age. It should be remembered that in Victorian times old age could be relatively young by to-days standards.

        Palm leaves are used to signify the coming of Christ or woven into a garland to signify triumph.

        A rose can mean harmony and love. It can also mean the attainment of perfection. It was used in the past as a sign of truthfulness.

        Sheaves of wheat represent the gathering in of the harvest, the Resurrection

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   G: See Compass and Square above. The letter G stands for God, geometry, geomancy.

Garlands/wreaths: Victory presumably of life over death if it is a garland. Sympathy if it is a wreath.

 Hand: A hand pointing upwards to Heaven and to God. Hands clasped together show friendship, perhaps marriage, fidelity, farewell.

 Harp: a symbol of Ireland. The harp with shamrocks as in the photo below was a logo of the Repeal Movement.

 Heart: Almost always in Irish cemeteries it is the Sacred Heart of Jesus signifying love, sacrifice.

Hourglass: Time flies.

HTWSSTKS: The masonic mark of ancient Grand Master. It stands for Hiram the widow's son sent to King Solomon

IHS: It originally came from the Greek letters for the name Jesus. Nowadays you will be told it means Iesus Hominum Salvator (Jesus Saviour of men), In Hac Salus (In this, safety), In Hoc Signo (In this sign you will conquer). Some anti-Catholic propaganda suggest it means Isis, Horus and Set!

INRI: Jesus of Nazareth King of the Jews (in Latin of course)

Irish symbols: The shamrock, the wolfhound, the round tower, the ruined church, the rising sun

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 Lamb: In Irish cemeteries it represents the Lamb of God, Christ's sacrifice for mankind. It can also mean purity, innocence. It can be lying down or more triumphantly standing with flag or cross.

Laurel leaves: victory over death, worldly success perhaps but when inverted it represents death and resurrection. See garlands/wreaths

Lion: It represents resurrection.

M: for Mary, the Mother of God.

Masonic: See the sections on the eye, square and compass, the letter G, the letters HTWSSTKS, pentagram

Military symbols: I have included these under sculpture.

Obelisk: From ancient times, it was very popular in Victorian times. It can represent eternal life and points upwards to heaven.

PX: or XP, the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ. It is often mistaken for Pax the word for peace and sometimes Pax is inscribed on gravestones.

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Phoenix: Rebirth

Pyramid: Very popular in Victorian days where all things Egyptian were in vogue.

Quill: the deceased was a writer or sometimes it can be used to denote the deceased was a teacher.

Scales: Sometimes on their own, sometimes held by a variety of figures, scales represent justice, the Last Judgement.

Scythe: Old Father Time or Death the Grim Reaper carries a scythe. The links with the harvesting of souls is obvious. A bill hook or sickle is a smaller version of the scythe. Of course it could mean that the deceased had links with gardening.

Shamrock: An Irish symbol representing the Holy Trinity. Also used as a national emblem. See Irish symbols or Celtic Cross

Shell: Used by pilgrims. Seashells were often brought to sacred places.

Skull: Death.

Snake: It can be used to represent the Devil, harking back to the Garden of Eden. A snake eating its tail signifies rebirth or immortality

Star of David

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Square: Masonic symbol meaning judgement, geometry.

Sun: The sun rising means rebirth, immortality, resurrection

Torch; Usually seen inverted. If it is lit, it means burning, resurrection; if it is extinguished it means death.

TOSF: Sometimes seen in an inscription, it means Third Order of St Francis

Trades: There are not too many of these. Sometimes there are symbols used, in other cases the trade is written on the stone. A more common one is a stone erected by members of a trade union to one of their own.

Unicorn: It can mean purity

Urn: From Greek and Roman times the urn held the ashes of the cremated dead. A draped urn can refer to an older person.

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