Arches, broken chains, and the Alpha and Omega: Explaining the mystery of symbols on gravestones

by | Jul 11, 2024

Walking through a cemetery can transport a person into a world full of mystery. Each name inscribed on a stone tells a story. The years carved into each tombstone reveal how long a person lived and the historical period during which they walked the earth. Markers lovingly refer to a person as mother, father, or beloved child. Symbols such as broken trees, crosses, or doves convey more subtle narratives. Let’s delve into the meanings behind these often mysterious symbols.

Let’s begin with symbols commonly found in Catholic cemeteries. Most markers feature Christian symbols. The dove, often depicted, serves as a universal sign of peace and a symbol of the Holy Spirit. Baptism, representing dying to sin and rising to new life in Christ, is frequently symbolized by water. One of the most recognizable symbols of Christian faith is the cross, reminding us of Christ’s death and resurrection. Another symbol of resurrection is the fleur-de-lis, shaped like a lily. The whiteness of the lily represents Mary, the Mother of Jesus, with its three petals signifying the Holy Trinity: Father, Son, and Holy Spirit. A fisherman or a fishing pole may indicate someone who loved fishing, while a fish symbolizes the early Christians who used it as a secret sign to avoid Roman persecution.

Puzzling letters often offer more obscure Christian imagery. Abbreviations like IHS, IX, CHI RHO, TAU RHO, and INRI might seem unfamiliar, but these are Christograms, monograms for Jesus’ name. IHS is a shortened form of the Greek spelling of Jesus. The “I” overlaid on an “X” represents the first letters of Jesus and Christ in Greek. CHI RHO combines the first two letters of “Christ” in Greek, with X (chi) and P (rho) on top of each other. TAU RHO, also known as a Staurogram, is Greek for Cross and is made using the Greek letter T (tau) superimposed on the Greek letter P (rho). INRI, the sign that hung over Jesus’ cross during His crucifixion, stands for the Latin phrase “Jesus of Nazareth, King of the Jews.” Finally, the Alpha and Omega, the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, signify that God is the beginning and the end.

Not all gravestone symbols are Christian or religious; many hold both secular and spiritual meanings. Arches and gates symbolize entry into the next life. A half-carved tombstone represents the transition from life to death, while a broken pillar or tree stump signifies a life cut short. Conversely, a complete pillar or full tree denotes a long, fulfilled life. Birds represent the flight of the soul, and both butterflies and dragonflies signify new life. Medieval thinkers sometimes depicted chains binding the soul to the body, with a broken chain symbolizing the soul’s liberation. A draped urn, the most common symbol after the cross, represents a funeral urn and possibly immortality. A peacock etched on a stone also symbolizes immortality. Hands reaching up or down can represent both the soul reaching for heaven and God reaching down for the soul, with a handshake symbolizing a welcoming into heaven.

Finally, consider the scroll. The scroll represents the unfolding of our lives. With both ends rolled up, it symbolizes the continuous revelation of our life stories. The length of the scroll signifies the unknown duration of our lives, with the future remaining hidden. The stories and lifetimes of those buried in a cemetery provide snapshots of the past. So, the next time you visit a cemetery, take your time to explore the mysteries behind the words, symbols, and images that narrate the stories of people and their place in time.