Sherburne History Center

Sherburne History Center
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Thursday, October 28, 2021

A Bit of Cemetery Symbolism


Halloween arrives in just a few days.  It seems appropriate to explore the symbolism in death.  Cemeteries contain an abundance of symbols in the grave markers, plants, and architecture.  Understanding the meaning of a few of these symbols might give us a greater appreciation of the planning and design of cemeteries and the communities surrounding these resting places.

Entryway of Becker Cemetery, Becker, MN.  
Look closely, hidden by the evergreens, is 
the arched entryway to the cemetery
It seems as though everything in a cemetery contains some symbolic meaning.  The shape of the entryways to many burial grounds represent the gates of heaven.  Many cemeteries have pine trees and other evergreens to remind us of the concept of eternal life.  And the headstones often resemble bed stands to suggest eternal rest. 

We haven’t even looked at the headstones, yet the cemeteries overflow with symbolism and, seeming, prayers for the dead.

On tombstones you might encounter an anchor, a Judeo-Christian symbol for Jesus.  Fishermen use anchors and this symbol reminds of Jesus as a fisher of men.  Often the anchors have a cross bar at the top to symbolize the sacrifice of death on the cross.

Flowers on tombstones also carry an abundance of symbolism.  Sunflowers, in an earlier time, signaled a strong faith in the Catholic church.  Broken roses, or a tree stump, both symbolized a life cut short.

Even a simple message such as R.I.P., or rest in peace, conveys greater meaning.  Rest In Peace does not necessarily suggest a prayer for the dead to rest in the peace of heaven.  Rest In Peace may also convey a prayer that the dead actually rest in peace; that they be protected from the too common crime of the nineteenth century: grave robbing. 

Cemeteries and graveyards carry a great deal of symbolism.  The plants, the flowers, the headstones; even the entryways provide deeper meaning.  Understanding the symbols and the meaning of these markers may provide a greater understanding of the communities that support these final resting places.

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