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In many, but by no means all, early New England burying grounds the graves are positioned east/west. This east/west orientation is the most common orientation in other parts of the country and world as well. The earliest settlers had their feet pointing toward the east and the head of the coffin toward the west, ready to rise up and face the "new day" (the sun) when "the trumpet shall sound and the dead shall be raised" or when Christ would appear and they would be reborn. If the body was positioned between the headstone and the footstone, with the inscriptions facing outward, the footstone might actually be facing east and the decorated face of the headstone facing west. If the headstone inscription faces east, the body would most commonly be buried to the east of it. Much depends on the layout of the graveyard -- if there was a church or other building in the center of the burial site, where the high ground was located, the location of access roads, etc. Early graves were seldom in the neat rows that we are used to seeing. Burials were more haphazard, more medieval in their irregularity; families didn't own plots and burial spaces were often reused. The north side of the cemetery was considered less desirable and is often the last part of the burying ground to be used, or you may find the north side set aside for slaves, servants, suicides, "unknowns," etc. In many burial grounds graves face all four points on the compass. Sometimes a hilly site will have stones facing all four directions. With the coming of the Rural Cemetery Movement in the 1830s and 40s, an entirely new style of burial became popular. The ideal of winding roads and irregular terrain dictated the orientation of the monuments to a large degree.


African American Slaves
Due to the perils of slavery, archaeologists face many obstacles when searching for slave graves. Often times, slave graves were marked with carved wood shafts, plants, an iron pipe, railroad iron, and most were adorned with sea shells. In Africa, the living bury the dead near and sometimes under the diseased house, so the spirit can find their way home. Universally, African American slaves were buried east to west with their heads pointed to the west, which points to Africa. Shells, representing the sea, were sprinkled over African American graves indicating, "The sea brought us, so the sea will take us back."

The Muslim faith does not allow for any decorations or structures constructed on top of Muslim grave sites. Mourners are permitted to lay a pile of stones on the hallowed ground in order to encourage praying for that person.

The Jewish faith requires that the diseased be mourned for a total of 12 months. On the first month a basic stone marks the grave. At the finale of the 12 months of mourning a tombstone is unveiled and accompanied by a celebration.

Native American
Native American people mark their graves drastically different due to the difference in how the tribes function. In the North Eastern shores, Indian traditionally mark their graves with canoes hung on poles, dug into the ground, or swaying from trees. The canoe coffins are adorned with items used by the diseased such as tin cups, blanks, pots, and pans. Generally, the items are torn or full of holes rendering them useless by people of this world, but believed to be repaired in the great beyond.



Anchor - seafaring profession; Hope; wrapped in vines it represents firm Christian faith.
Angel - Flying it would mean rebirth or resurrection; Trumpeting means resurrection; Weeping symbolizes grief and mourning. An angel is the messenger between god and man.
Ankh - Reincarnation, peace, eternal life.
Arches - Victory in death.
Arrow - Mortality; martyrdom.


Bible (Holy Book) - Wisdom; divine word of God; personal accomplishment. Two holy books on a Mormon grave indicates the Bible and Book of Mormon. Three holy books on a Mormon grave indicates the Bible, the Book of Mormon, and the Doctrine & Convenants.
Bird - Eternal life. If it’s flying, it stands for eternal life.
Bouquets/flowers - Morning of life; renewal of life; condolences; grief; sorrow.
Broken column - Loss of the head of a family; end of life; sorrow; a life cut short; the eventual ruin or decomposition of us all.
Broken ring - Family circle severed.
Buds/Rosebud - Morning of life; the renewal of life.
Bugles - Resurrection; the military.
Butterfly - Short lived; an early death.


Caduceus - (Two snakes entwined around a staff) The symbol of a physician or a healer.
Candle being snuffed - Time; mortality.
Chain links (3) - The divine trinity.

Cherub - Angelic; young child.
Coffin, Father Time, Picks and Shovels - Mortality.
Columns - Heavenly entrance.
Corn - Ripe old age.
Crescent Moon - Virginity; rebirth; victory.
Cross - Emblem of faith.
Crossed Swords - High-ranking military person.
Crown - Glory of life after death; righteousness.
Cup or Chalice - The Sacraments.


Door - Heavenly entrance.
Dove - Purity; devotion; innocence; gentleness; peace; the holy ghost.
Dragon - Imperial power; universe; chaos.
Draped Urn - Sorrow; mourning.
Drapes - Mourning; mortality.


Eye of God - God sees all.


Flame or light - Life; resurrection.
Flower - Fragility of life; with a severed stem it represents a shortened life.
Flying birds- Flight of the soul.
Freemason symbols:
Laurel leaves and branches - represent special achievement and distinction.
The square - represents morality.
Chain links - are the Goodfellows organization symbol.
Eastern Star - a member of a Freemason group for women.
Fruits - Eternal plenty.
Full-blown Rose - Prime of life.


Garland - Victory in death.
Grim Reaper - Death personified.
Gun - Served in the Military


Hands pointing up - pathway to heaven; heavenly reward.
Hands clasped - the goodbyes said at death.
Hand of God chopping - Sudden death.
Handshake - Farewell; friendship; unity; partnership.
Hand on the neck - Sacrifice.
Hand and eye - Clairvoyance.
Praying - Prayer; hope for the afterlife.
Holding - Marriage, farewell.
Harp - Praise to the maker.
Heart - Love; love of god; seat of the soul; mortality.
Horns - The resurrection.
Horse - love of horses; horseback riding.
Hourglass - The swift passing of time. If flying- time flies, short life.
Hummingbird - Wisdom; joy; happiness.


IHS - Found often on Celtic crosses, IHS is taken from the Greek “in hoc salus” which literally means “there is safety in this”. In the Middle Ages, this was incorrectly interpreted as meaning “Jesus Hominum Salvatore” or “Jesus Savior of Mankind”, since the first three letters in the Greek spelling of Jesus are IHS.
Imps - Mortality.
Inverted Torch - Extinction of life; death.
Ivy - Immortality, Friendship, Faithfulness.


Lamb - Innocence; purity; gentleness; sacrifice; most often found on the graves of children or stillborn babies.
Laurel branch and leaves - Special achievement, distinction; success; heroism.
Lily or Lily of the Valley - Virgin; innocence; purity; resurrection.
Leaves - regeneration; immortality; friendship.

Lion - Courage.
Lotus - Purity; resurrection; evolution; potential.
Lyre - Harmony and heavenly accord; music and song in praise of god.


Morning Glory - Beginning of life.


Oak leaves/acorn - Maturity; ripe old age.
Open book/bible - Deceased teacher or minister.


Pall - Mortality
Palm Tree or branch - Victory; rejoicing; righteousness; resurrection; martyrdom.
Pick- Death; Mortality.
Pine cones - Full long life with children.
Poppy - Sleep.
Portals - Passageway to eternal life.
Pyramid - Eternal life, resurrection


Rod/Staff - Comfort for the bereaved.
Rooster - Awakening; resurrection.
Rose - Completion; brevity of earthly existence; perfection.


Scythe - Death; the divine harvest.
Seashell - Resurrection; life everlasting; life’s pilgrimage.
Sextant - Navigator; explorer.
Sheaf of wheat - Ripe for the harvest; divine harvest.
Ship - Hope; seafaring profession; faith will carry you through life.
Shriner symbols -
Crescent moon
Star - divine presence; enlightenment; human aspiration.
Skull - Mortality.
Skull/Crossed bones - Death.
Skeleton - Life’s brevity.
Snake(tail in mouth) - Everlasting life in heaven.
Spade - Mortality; death.
Stars and Stripes around an Eagle - Eternal vigilance; Liberty.
Sun - Rising means renewed life; Shining means life everlasting; Setting means death.


Thistle - Scottish descent.
Thistles - Remembrance.
Tomb - Mortality.
Torch - Inverted it represents death and a life cut short. Right side up it represents life, truth, intelligence and regeneration.
Tree - Life.
Tree trunk - Brevity of life.
Tree trunk leaning - Short interrupted life.
Tree stump - Life interrupted.
Tree stump with ivy - Head of family; immortality.

Tree sprouting - Life everlasting.
Trumpets - Heralds of the resurrection.


Urn - Immortality
Urn with Blaze - Undying friendship.
Urn with Wreath or Crepe - Mourning.


Weeping willow tree - Perpetual mourning; grief; Nature’s lament.
Wheat - The divine harvest; reap what we sow.
Willows - Earthly sorrow.
Winged face - Effigy of the deceased soul; the soul in flight.
Winged Skull - Flight of the soul from mortal man.
Winged Sun disk - Lifegiving power of the sun; spiritual attributes of the heavens.
Woman with Anchor - Masonic symbol of hope.
Wreath - Victory.
Wreath on Skull - Victory of death over life.