Forest Lawn Cemetery - Table of Contents

Cemetery Symbols
Found in Forest Lawn Cemetery, Buffalo, NY

Symbols are objects that carry secondary meaning. Usually they represent abstract concepts or ideologies of a particular culture so understanding them depends on the viewer's knowledge of that culture. For example, a broken tree is a common symbol of death. But, on a stone in a Massachusetts cemetery is a carving of a fallen tree beside a standing tree. Near the fallen tree is an ax and looking out from under this tree is a face. By reading the accompanying epitaph it becomes clear that this picture is not symbolic but literal. The deceased died when the tree he was chopping fell on him.

In the Middle Ages, Christian iconography was widespread; the meaning of the images was well-known, e.g. the dove symbolizing the holy spirit, the fish and the monogram form of the Greek letters chi and rho (XP) symbolizing Christ. By the latter part of the 17th century though, such a broad-based cultural ethos was dissipating. Symbols and their meanings were becoming more individualized and consequently, harder to interpret. Today, you can sometimes see new tombstones on which the symbol or the words obviously have a very personal meaning which can't be interpreted by the casual visitor with any degree of certainty. The epitaph on Lauri Butler's marker in Houston, TX reads "wild, wild horses we'll ride them someday;" clearly a message of highly personal significance. For this reason, the following interpretations should be used with caution.

Acanthus leaf

Christian symbol for hope. Commonly used in the 18th and 19th centuries to represent the deceased's seafaring profession. Also used, often wrapped in vines, to represent firm Christian faith.

Messenger between God and man.

The original meaning of this Egyptian symbol is not known. One suggests that it combines the male and female symbols of Osiris (the cross) and Isis (the oval) and therefore signifies the union of heaven and earth. It is usually portrayed in ancient Egyptian art in the hands of a deity As a hieroglyph, it likely encompassed a range of meanings depending on its associated hieroglyphs but all of these expressions centered around the concept of life or life force.

Over time, the ankh certainly came symbolize life and immortality, the universe, power and life giving air and water. "Its keylike shape also encouraged the belief it could unlock the gates of death."

The Coptic Christians used it as a symbol of life after death. The ankh has been used in magic.


Broken Column
End of life; sorrow. Usually symbolizes a life cut short. It also represents the eventual ruin or decomposition of us all.


Commonly used in the 18th and 19th centuries to represent the deceased's seafaring profession. Also used, often wrapped in vines, to represent firm Christian faith.

Celtic cross
The first three letters in the Greek spelling of Jesus are IHS. In the Middle Ages this was incorrectly interpreted as "Jesus Hominum Salvatore" or "Jesus Savior of Mankind". This interpretation has stuck, and the letters have thus acquired a greater significance than originally understood.


Holy Spirit, Soul Reaching Peace, Spirituality.

In Slavic culture, at death the soul turns into a dove. In VisigothicRomanesque art, it represents souls. In Hinduism, the dove represents the spirit.

Greeks: This bird was sacred to Zeus, to Athena as a symbol of the renewal of life, and to Aphrodite as a symbol of love. To the ancient Egyptians, it signified innocence, and in Islam the dove is the protector of Mohamed In Christianity, the Holy Ghost of the Trinity is often portrayed as a dove. In China it represents longevity and orderliness while in Japan the dove is associated with the war god Hachiman. In Jewish history the dove was sometimes sacrificed for a mother's purification after childbirth. The dove is sometimes an emblem of Israel.

The dove returning to the ark with an olive branch indicated that the land had reappeared after the flood.
and Signifies peace and security.

Draped Urn
Sorrow, mourning




Greek key ( fret)

This is a very expressive symbol that takes on different meanings depending on its positioning in relation to the body and arrangement of the fingers.
  • The raised hand symbolizes voice and song, placed on the chest it represents the wisdom of the sage, on the neck it depicts sacrifice, covering the eyes it signifies clairvoyance at the moment of death.
  • Two hands joined typically signify union. A common hand placement on Jewish tombstones is the two open hands, thumbs touching, with index and middle finger spread away from the ring and pinkie fingers. This gesture, raised above the head, is used by priests to bring God's glory through the hands' openings and to the congregation.
  • In Egyptian hieroglyphics, pre-Columbian America and as an amulet in Islamic cultures, the open hand represents a human task and magnetic force. The hand, with its five fingers, takes on the meaning of the number five, i.e., love, health and humanity.
  • Handshakes carry a variety of meanings including, greeting, good-bye, friendship, solidarity, unity and agreement, and the doubling of power achieved through partnership.
  • The right hand is the life-force or hand of power.
  • An eye associated with a hand symbolizes clairvoyant action.

Inverted torch
Extinction of life, death.

Immortality, Friendship, Faithfulness. Because it is an evergreen that clings while climbing, it signifies the need for protection. Since it grows quickly, it also symbolizes regeneration, sensuality and revelry. The Greco-Roman god Dionysus, or Bacchus, had an ivy cup and wore a crown of ivy leaves.

See also Ivy.

Purity, Innocence, Gentleness, Sacrifice. In Christianity it represents the sacrificial crucifixion of Christ for the sins of the world.

Laurel branch, leaves
Represents special achievement, distinction, success, triumph of worldly accomplishment, and heroism.

The virgin's flower and also the symbol of innocence and purity.

Light , Purity, Perfection, Mercy and Majesty. In Greco-Roman mythology this flower was sacred to Hera and Artemis. In Byzantium and early France, it was a royal emblem (the fleur-de-lis is sometimes considered a stylized lily). Primarily the lily has Christian associations, usually attached to the Virgin Mary where it signifies chastity. when Christ is shown as the judge of the world with a lily in his mouth, the flower represents mercy. A lily and a sword signify guilt and innocence.

Lyre (Greek)
Symbol of harmony and heavenly accord. It represents music and song in praise and honor of God.


See: Cary Monument

An upright four-sided pillar, gradually tapering as it rises and cut off at the top in the form of a pyramid, symbol for the Egyptian god, Re, who held the power to recreate, hence, God, lord over all, creator.


Order of the Eastern Star symbol

Signifies Victory and rejoicing. The palm has a variety of sacred and secular associations. In the Cabala, it symbolizes the righteous man (tzaddik) and was an emblem of Judea after the Exodus. One of the four plants paraded on the Sukkot to celebrate God's bounty, it represents the Jew who studies the Torah but does not obey the commandments. Other interpretations include the spine that bends before God, and God. In Christianity, it signifies righteousness, resurrection, and martyrdom based on Christ's entry into Jerusalem where palm branches were laid in his path. In the Middle Ages, a palm leaf was a badge of pilgrimage to the Holy Land and people wearing it were called 'palmers.' Because of its height and radiating leaves, it was an early fertility and sun symbol. The Babylonians considered it a divine tree because of its association with the sun. In many early Middle Eastern civilizations the palm was a Tree of Life; the Phoenician god Baal-Tamar was the lord of the palm and the palm was the emblem of the goddesses Astarte and Ishtar. In ancient Rome, victors were presented with palm branches and the palm took on victory as its meaning in ancient Rome, Egypt and Greece. The palm has also signified fame and peace. In contemporary, secular culture it represents tropical delights

An aquatic plant native to southern Asia and Australia, having large leaves, pinkish flowers, a broad, rounded, perforated seedpod, and fleshy rhizomes.

Purity, Resurrection, Evolution, Potential. Commonly used in ancient Egypt and in Hinduism, the flower is sacred in Buddhism. "It symbolizes the creation of life from the slime of the primordial waters (Gibson, p. 24). The closed lotus represents potential. Depending on the number of petals, the lotus' symbolism changes, shaped by the symbolism of the number. With eight petals, it represents cosmic harmony, with 1,000 petals it means spiritual revelation. The lotus is the emblem of India and Egypt.
Cf., lotus-eaters in Homer's "Odyssey."

See Daniel Good Mausoleum

Completion, Achievement, Perfection. Meanings vary depending on the color, shape and number of petals. For example, the blue rose symbolizes the impossible, the golden rose the pinnacle of achievement, an eight petal rose regeneration. Scales Justice, Balance. Originating in Chaldea as the mystic symbol of justice, it represents the equivalence of guilt and punishment. From the zodiacal archetype of Libra it represents immanent justice, the idea that guilt automatically unleashes the forces that bring self-destruction and punishment (Cirlot p. 279).


A symbol of a navigator or explorer

Shriner symbol:
  • Urn
  • Crescent Moon
    Shriner symbol. See A Short History of the Shrine
  • Scimitar
    Shriner symbol. See A Short History of the Shrine
  • Star
    The Spirit, Divine Presence, Enlightenment, Wisdom, Human Aspiration. Represents light struggling against darkness. The Babylonian goddess Ishtar's emblem was an eight-pointed star and females such as Astarte, Isis, and the Virgin Mary are often pictured with a crown of stars. Stars are sometimes believed to be the souls of the dead with comets being seen as foretellers of doom and a sign of the anger of the sun god. Stars often take on additional meaning depending on their color, shape, number of points and arrangement. The most common, the five pointed star, comes from Egyptian hieroglyphics where it meant "rising upwards toward the point of origin" and formed part of words such as "to bring up," "to educate," "the teacher," (Cirlot, p. 310).

Turned upside down, it represents death. Right side up, it symbolizes life and the regenerative power of fire. It has been used in initiation and fertility rites in many cultures and was the emblem, in Greek mythology, of Eros and Aphrodite, symbolizing the flame of love. In Christianity, the torch represents purification through God's illuminating the spirit, and Christ as the Light of the World. Associated with one of the seven deadly sins, it represents anger. The torch is also seen as an emblem of places of learning and signifies truth and intelligence.

Tree trunk
Brevity of life

Tuscan column



Willow tree
Perpetual mourning and grief

Winged sun disk and cobras
Sun -- A Symbol of light and warmth, renewed life and life everlasting.

The winged sun is a symbol of royal dignity from the Ancient Kingdom.

This is an ancient Egyptian symbol which represents the journey of the sun. Ra was the creator of the world, ancestor of the pharaohs and god of the sun (symbolized by the solar disk) and skies (symbolized by the wings).

Victory in Death.

Sources of symbols:

See also: The Association for Gravestone Studies

Photos and their arrangement 2002 Chuck LaChiusa
.| ...Home Page ...| ..Buffalo Architecture Index...| ..Buffalo History Index...| .. E-Mail ...| ..