What’s that on My Ancestor’s Tombstone?

Cemeteries are like an outdoor museum of statues and artwork that tell a story about the people that rest there. Each headstone was created to say something about that person – whether it was just a name and date or something much more elaborate.

If you have ever had the sorrowful duty of choosing one for a loved one, you know that everything from the type of stone that was chosen to the type of font that was used was carefully considered. While we have many more options today than our ancestors did for personalizing the stone to reflect something about our lost loved one, the practice is not a new one. Here are just a few of the more common designs you may see on your ancestor’s tombstone.

Alpha (A) and Omega (?) are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, the “beginning” and the “end.” This has Biblical significance since Jesus calls himself “the Alpha and Omega” in the Book of Revelation.


Urns – Urns are one of the most commonly used cemetery monuments.  You will see them with and without draping.  It is said to represent immortality or the death of the body and the return of the body to ashes.


Hands – A hand with index finger pointing upward symbolizes the hope of heaven, while a hand with forefinger pointing down represents God reaching down for the soul. Cemetery hands tend to be shown doing one of four things: blessing, clasping, pointing, and praying.


Laurel, especially fashioned in the shape of a wreath, is a common symbol found in the cemetery. It can represent victory, distinction, eternity or immortality.



The most common of the Masonic symbols is the compass and square standing for faith and reason. The square in the Masonic square and compass is a builder’s square, used by carpenters and stonemasons to measure perfect right angles. In Masonry, this is a symbol of the ability to use the teachings of conscience and morality to measure and verify the rightness of one’s actions.

The compass is used by builders to draw circles and lay off measurements along a line. It is used by the Masons as a symbol of self-control, the intention to draw a proper boundary around personal desires and to remain within that boundary line.

The letter G usually found in the center of the square and compass is said to represent “geometry” or “God.”

These symbols are just a small sample of the many kinds of tombstone adornments you’ll find. Please let me know if you’d like to find out more, or have some of your own to add, by leaving a comment.

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