Catholic emblems and symbols appear as early as the 18th century on headstones, memorials and grave markers. At first, symbols often represented an area of work or trade. As time has moved on, more elaborate symbols developed to represent a loved one’s legacy. The most common use for Catholic headstone symbols today is to represent the beloved’s personality.
The following is a list of commonly seen headstone symbols that are relevant to the Catholic faith:
IHS (sometimes IHC) is an abbreviation of Jesus’ name in Greek, anglicized as Ihsus, Ihsoys or Ihcuc. This symbol is generally seen engraved on crosses. Often the letters are overlaid on each other.
In Christian funerary symbolism, gates represent the passage from one realm to the next. In scenes of the Last Judgement, gates are always central in the picture.
Known as the crux dissimulata, the anchor is the symbol of hope. The anchor is actually a cross in disguise (the bottom open curve represents receptivity to spiritual matters). When Christians first started practicing their religion, they had to do it under a veil of secrecy, lest they be persecuted for their beliefs. The anchor was one way Christians could broadcast their religion to other followers without being discovered.
Lilies are symbols of innocence, purity and virginity. They symbolize the surrender to God’s will and grace, as in Matthew 6:28, “Consider the lilies of the field, how they grow; they toil not neither do they spin.”
The red rose is a symbol of martyrdom, while the white rose is a symbol of purity. It is also recognized as the symbol of eternal love and devotion.
The dogwood has long symbolized Christ’s Passion, but it is also a delicate reminder of spring and regeneration.
Weeping Willow Tree
Although the form of the willow suggests grief and sorrow, it also suggests immortality. In Christianity, it is associated with the gospel of Christ because the willow will flourish and remain whole no matter how many branches are cut off.
In many cases, lambs mark the graves of children and infants. They symbolize innocence. Christ is frequently depicted as a shepherd, but he is also referred to as the lamb of God as in John 1:29, “Behold the lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world!”
The cardinal represents the fire and vitality of the living spirit, as well as the living blood of Christ. Both cardinals and blood have long been symbols of vitality, and in the Christian context, that vitality is everlasting. “By His blood we are freed from sin to serve the living God, to glorify Him, and to enjoy Him forever.” Traditionally, the cardinal is symbolic of life, hope and restoration.
A dove stands for the peace of the departed soul. In ancient examples, it often bears an olive branch in its beak, symbolizing the hope of the Resurrection.
Two doves on a funeral monument sometimes signify the conjugal love and affection of the parties buried there.
The dove in flight is the symbol of the Ascension of Christ or of the entry into glory of the martyrs and saints. It also signifies the Christian soul — not the human soul as such, but the soul as indwelt by the Holy Spirit. Therefore the Christian soul is especially seen in the soul as freed from the toils of the flesh and entered into rest and glory.
The wedding rings symbolizes the unity, completeness and eternal love for one another.
Saint Patrick, Ireland’s patron saint, is said to have used the shamrock as a metaphor for the Christian Holy Trinity.
The hands are clasped together and held before the heart; it is a symbol of submission and sincerity.