Tombstone Art & Symbols

I to P

Jesus Hominum Salvator (Jesus the Saviour of men)
A familiar headstone inscription, the three letters I.H.S. can be interpreted in a number of ways. Other explanations include In Hac Salus - safety in this (meaning the cross), and In Hoc Signo - in this sign (ye will conquer).
I.H.S Headstone
Headstone detail circa 1890,
Nunhead Cemetery
The evergreen leaf of the ivy denotes immortality.
The passage of life
The tortuous pathway to Nirvana.
The emblem of the redeemer. Ancient tradition has it that the outline of a lamb bearing a standard decorated with a blood-red cross may be discerned against the sun from hilltops early on Easter morning.
Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world.
John I, 29.
The eternal flame which dispels darkness where evil has its home. One old superstition says that rooms should never be lit with three lamps as this is a portent of imminent death.
Victory or peace
In ancient Rome the laurel was sacred to Apollo and Aesculapious, the God of Medicine, and associated with honour and well-being. Often found on the tomb of artistic figures. In Christian art, St Gudule, the patron saint of Brussels, carries a laurel crown.
Chastity, innocence and purity

A favoured funeral flower of the Victorians. Joseph, is often depicted holding a lily branch to indicate that his wife Mary was a virgin. In tradition, the first lily sprang forth from the repentant tears of Eve as she went forth from Paradise. The use of lillies at funerals symbolises the restored innocence of the soul at death.
Lion Tomb
The tomb of menagerist GeorgeWombwell
Highgate Cemetery
The ancients believed that lion's whelps were born dead and remained so for three days, when the father breathed on them and they received life.

The Lion Sermon, preached annually at St Katharine Cree Church, Leadenhall Street in the City of London, commemorates the 'wonderful escape' of Sir John Gayer from a lion which he met in the desert whilst travelling the wilds of Turkey. Sir John was Lord Mayor of London in 1646.

Maiden's Garland:
A garland of white paper or linen, embellished with streamers and a single white glove, which was carried at the funerals of unmarried women of blameless reputation. The garlands were hung in the church after the funeral and allowed to decay, when the pieces would be buried in the graveyard.
Monkey Puzzle Tree:
Sometimes found in Eastern England planted on the edge of graveyards, the tree's sparse foliage was believed to deprive the Devil of a hiding place from whence he might observe funerals and steal the souls of the departed.
Eternal life
The ancient Egyptian sun-worshipping symbol, they were erected in pairs before temple portals. The base is one-tenth of the height and the apex sheathed in copper, a design feature echoed on many Victorian monuments.
Abnet Park Cemetery
Triumph of a martyr over death
The palm-tree is said to grow faster from its being washed down, hence it is the symbol of resolution overcoming calamity. In eastern philosophy, the palm is said to have sprung from the clay of which Adam was formed.
Passion Flower:
Christ's passion - redemption
A favourite border design found on Victorian headstones, the flower bears a fanciful resemblance to the instruments of the Passion. Given its name by 16th century Spanish missionaries to South Africa.
The popular fallacy that pelicans fed their young with their own blood, which probably arose from the fact that the parent bird macerates food from the large bag under its bill, gave rise to the bird's acceptance as an emblem of Christ. The heraldic term is; a pelican in her piety.
According to Greek legend, an Egyptian bird, the only one of its kind, which lived a number of years then, making a nest of spices, flapped its wings to set fire to the pile while singing a melodious song. Consumed by fire, the fabulous bird rises with new life from the ashes.
Pyramid Tomb Pyramid:
The Greek name for a wheaten cake, humorously applied to the massive royal tombs of ancient Egypt. It was supposed that a pyramid-shaped tombstone prevented the devil from reclining on a grave.