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How to Decipher the Meanings of Tombstone Markings

  • Written by | 10 Comments10 Comments Comments
    Last Updated: December 8th, 2009

    Cemeteries are filed with tombstones and many of them have markings, which can be symbols or words on the stones. Each of these has a meaning about the person’s life and when researching the family tree this can give insight into the ancestor’s life.

    These carvings on the stones can be in the form of words, they can be symbols or pictures. This can be as simple as the word “Relict,” which means this is a woman that was a widow at the time of her death. However, if the word “Consort” appears on the tombstone of a woman this means she was married and she passed away prior to her husband.

    There are also other meanings of tombstone inscriptions, which are a meaning that the family would have added as a way to honor the departed. These can be inscriptions such as “flying birds,” which means flight of the soul, or “fruit,” which means eternal plenty. These would not be a clue to the person’s life, but it is a clue that their family cared for them.

    There are other symbols that do have meaning when inscribed on a tombstone, which can be an organization they belonged to or have a military meaning. Bugles when on a tombstone have the meaning “resurrection and military,” and crossed swords inscribed on a tombstone stands for a high ranking military person. There is also the laurel, which means fame or victory, which might be seen on the tombstone of someone that served in the military during a battle. The seafarer or sailor also had a symbol; this was an anchor or ship, with the meaning “hope or seafaring profession.”

    There are symbols such as the morning glory, that signifies the beginning of life, or the palm branch, which means victory and rejoicing. There are symbols that can also signify at what point in the person’s time of life they passed away. This is depicted in the carving of a butterfly, which means short lived, or an early death, or the full blown rose that stands for death in the prime of life. The broken wing that was inscribed on the tombstone carried the meaning the family circle severed, and would not be unusual to see on the tombstone of a woman that had children. The cherub on a tombstone signified angelic and might be seen on a child’s tombstone.

    These are just some of the many symbols and inscriptions that can be found on tombstones, and with them some tell a tale about the person’s life. Even when it is a symbol with a common meaning it still shows that the person was loved and missed after their passing by family and friends. The person whose profession is inscribed on their tombstone can give clues to the genealogist, with new possibilities to look for, such as the person that served in the military as a soldier. Then there is the anchor that can mean the person was a sailor or they worked in the shipping industry and this can open new avenues to research.

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  1. #1
    Frieda Davison
    February 22nd, 2010 at 3:01 pm

    There are multiple meanings for many of these symbols. The anchor, for instance, is an ancient Christian symbol and does not necessarily have a connection to the see for the deceased. Rarely does a symbol just have one meaning.

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  2. #2
    April 15th, 2010 at 10:54 am

    Does anyone know the meaning of two cirles on a tombstone. A black rimmed cirle inside a white one. I believe it has something to do with not wanting any of the inscription to point towards the earth.

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  3. #3
    October 11th, 2010 at 5:30 pm

    There are also many others such as sea shell; sea-related & water things represent the crossing over to heaven. African-American symbols: broken,shiny glass & shells the heavenly crossing often equated to crossing back to the African home. So interesting. You can do rubbings of the most unusual or family ones.

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  4. #4
    April 13th, 2012 at 9:14 pm

    What does B.u.K mean on an old headstone?

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  5. #5
    November 28th, 2013 at 6:10 am

    On ADAM’s stone in Fentonville, NY: a triangle with capital letters A K I A inside. What does this mean? There used to be a code for the KKK. When they met a suspected fellow member, they’d say “AYAK” (Are You A Klansman?). An affirmative reply was “AKIA” (A Klansman I Am). I don’t know if this is what the tombstone is saying, or not. Any help?

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  6. #6
    Fran Newkirk
    April 30th, 2014 at 10:27 am

    what appears to be 2 fern stems with leafs open and 1 not unfurreled with a banner across the front with curled ends.
    Would anyone have any idea what this represents, this is on the headstone of my great grandfather he was from Germany. Thank you to any and all replies.

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  7. #7
    Lisa McGuire
    March 10th, 2015 at 8:39 pm

    In New Jersey researching cemeteries. Came across a headstone with the ancestors name on it with a couple of extra letters after her name. ” OP”
    What does it stand for?
    Thank you

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  8. #8
    Jesse Jamison
    January 26th, 2017 at 9:49 am

    Thanks for sharing some of the meanings of symbols on tombstones. I have seen lots of roses and butterflies in my graveyard and often wondered what they meant. However, I do think that the meaning does also depend on who put the headstone there. For example, when I asked my parents why there were butterflies on my sister’s headstone they told me it was a symbol of her innocence.

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  9. #9
    Georgenia Hood
    February 22nd, 2017 at 12:21 pm

    My great, great, great grandmother has shaking hands that are circled and the letters FE & CU of A on her stone, what does the letters stand for? We know she has indian blood.

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  10. #10
    September 6th, 2017 at 12:48 pm

    Why were the names of husband’s (or wives) listed on headstones.


    Here lies Mary Abbot
    Wife of John Abbot

    I’ve found several instances like the one above, but very few where it’s the other way around.


    Here lies John Abbot
    Husband of Mary Abbot

    Is this just a reference so the headstones can be identified easier? Or is it for a different reason.

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