Burial Customs , Form and Decoration of Headstones

The materials of a headstone play an important role in the longevity of the grave marker, while the epitaph allows a tombstone to showcase individuality. The shape and embellishments displayed on a headstone also add to the sentimental value of marking the grave of a loved one. In this article, the many different forms and common themes of headstone decoration is discussed.

Gravestones have come a long way in their presentation with the tops highlighting a range of shapes, including gabled, rounded, semi-circle, pointed or arched, and topped with a statue of their own. During the 18th century, the trend was to decorate a headstone with symbolic reminders of death , called ‘memento mori’ , a tradition that dates back to the age of antiquity.

With a history that traces back to the Classical world of ancient Rome, the phrase ‘memento mori’ translates into “Remember you must die.” Because of this, the remembrance of death has played a role in the funeral customs all over the world. Fast-forward to medieval European times, where Christianity played a significant influence in the way the death of an individual was commemorated. Depictions associated with memento mori have emerged in many early works of Christian and Buddhist art. Heaven, hell, Divine Judgment, and the salvation of the soul are some of the themes one may encounter.

The funeral art and church architecture of medieval European times is quite telling. Some tombs of this time were decorated with the image of the decayed corpse of the deceased. This was called a cadaver tomb (transi), which differed from using the image of a skeleton on a tomb. During the 15th century, this practice was quite popular amongst the wealthy. A well-known theme of memento mori appears in the form of the Grim Reaper who plays no favorites between the rich and poor when it comes time to carry off a body.

In Colonial times in the United States, the Puritans decorated their tombstones with skeletons, winged skulls, or angels putting out the lights of candles.

Other symbols of death that appeared throughout the years in historically notable headstones include winged cherub heads, heavenly crowns, as well as gravediggers with picks and shovels.  Old Father Time may appear on a headstone. As time passed, the kinds of imagery found on graves evolved. Elaborately carved crosses and angels grew in popularity. Other special emblems and imagery that have become common themes include:


·    The poppy represents eternal sleep.

·    An angel of grief depicts sorrow.

·    Birds symbolize the soul.

·    A crown means reward and glory.

·    Dolphins are seen as a bearer of souls to Heaven.

·    Purity, love and the Holy Spirit shines through in the dove.

·    Horseshoes are thought to provide protection against evil.

·    Ivy is used to signify memory, faithfulness, and undying friendship.

·    Innocence is seen with the display of a lamb.

·    The lamp is used as a reference to immortality.

·    The olive branch means forgiveness or victory over death.

·    A triangle symbolizes truth, equality and the trinity.