Tombstone Art & Symbols

R to Z

Joseph Barlow Robinson:
The master stonemason and architectural designer who's book 'The Cemetery Mason's Useful Book of Designs for Headstones, Crosses and Alphabets', published in 1868, set a universal standard for Victorian funeral monuments.

Headstone Design
Headstone based on one of J. B. Robinson's original designs
Rock Headstone
This headstone at Highgate Cemetery commemorates 'Stoney' Smith, the inventor of Hovis - a popular family loaf of bread.

Everlasting strength
Christ, as the unshakeable and eternal foundation. The well-know hymn 'Rock of ages, cleft for me' (1775), is said to have been conceived by August Montague Toplady whilst he sheltered from a storm in a rocky valley near Cheddar, Somerset. A more likely story is that it was written on the back of an IOU while playing Whist in Bath.

Emblematic of a paragon or one without peer
The rose generally signifies silence. In Greek mythology, Cupid gave Harpocrates, the god of silence and secrecy, a rose not to betray the amours of Venus. The flower is seen sculpted on the ceilings of banquet-rooms, to remind guests that what was spoken sub vino was not to be repeated sub divo. In the 16th c. it was placed over confessionals.
Many different types of stone roses twine the tombs of British cemeteries, each rose with its own hidden message. Here are just a few and their meanings.


Burgundy Rose:
Simplicity and beauty

China Rose:
Grace or beauty ever fresh

Dog Rose:
Pleasure and pain

Moss Rose:

Musk Rose:
The capriciousness of life

Provence Rose:
All-consuming life

White Rose:
Virginity. Full of buds - Secrecy

Wreath of Roses:
Beauty and virtue rewarded

Yellow Rose:


Sacred to the Druids for its protective properties, the rowan or mountain ash is often found planted in graveyards as the trees are said to preserve the slumber of the dead.
Scythe, or sickle:Time
The Grim Reaper
A traditional badge of pilgrims.
The ship signifies the christian church, carrying the faithful through the world. The motorcar is a modern alternative.
Car Tomb
Headstone detail circa 1962,
Abney Park Cemetery
The 'crossbones' on which the skull often rests are two human thigh-bones laid across one another.
Snake Image
When the mind is quicken'd out of doubt The organs, though defunct and dead before, Break up their drowsy grave, and newly move With casted slough and fresh legerity.
Henry V, IV, I
It was popularly thought that snakes in casting their sloughs annually gained new vigour and fresh strength.
Passage of time
Sword: Justice or fortitude
In the days when the sword was a principle weapon of battle they were often regarded as magical objects with supernatural properties. An oath made on a sword was as binding as one made on a Bible. A prevailing notion predicts approaching death if a sword falls from its scabbard.
Sword Stone
When inverted, the torch denotes life extinguished.
Regeneration or knowledge
In Scandinavian mythology the roots and branches of the world tree 'Yggdrasil', binds together heaven, earth and hell. It is the tree of life and knowledge, and time and space.
Draped Urn
Draped Urn,
Highgate Cemetery
After the cross, one of the most common of funereal monuments. The design mimics the funeral urn of the ancients, while the drape signifying the last partition between life and death.
Fruitfulness harvested
The willow, especially the weeping-willow, has been associated with sorrow and bereavement ever since the Babylonian Captivity when the Jews became captives of Nebuchadnezzar in 597 B.C.
Deep mourning
A native British tree, as an evergreen, it is a symbol of immortality. Worshipped by the Celts, the tree was planted on holy sites. In later centuries churches were deliberately sited close to existing trees, hence the yews commonly found in churchyards are often older than the church itself. One example, that of Llangernyw churchyard in Conwy, North Wales is over 35ft in girth and estimated to be over 4,000 years old.