Catholic gravestone symbols can be confusing if you don’t understand what they mean – but inspiring if you do!

This blog post will explore the meaning behind ten Catholic symbols at the cemetery.

Grandma Mary

Two of my grandparents were Protestant and two were Catholic, so as I grew up I watched them honor God in different ways.

My grandmother that was Catholic was particularly devout (and fittingly named Mary!). She had a statue of the Virgin Mary – similar to the one in the picture above – on her mirrored bedroom dresser placed reverently on a white doily.

Before each meal she made the Sign of the Cross (touching her fingertips to her forehead, then chest, then left shoulder, and finally the right shoulder) and then offered the standard meal prayer: “Bless us, O Lord, and these, Thy gifts, which we are about to receive from Thy bounty. Through Christ, our Lord. Amen.” She ended by making the Sign of the Cross once again. If we drove into town, she also crossed herself whenever we drove past a Catholic Church.

Grandma Mary and her family attended church every Sunday. After her children were raised, and she had a bit more free time, she drove to St. Mary’s Church for a 30-minute mass every morning at 8:30 am.

I sometimes attended this church with my grandmother when I was a child.
St. Mary’s Catholic Church, Auburn, New York

Mass included lots of standing up, sitting down, and kneeling. Up. Down. Up. Down. Kneel. Up. Down. Up. Kneel. Whew! It wasn’t until I was older that I learned the significance. Sitting was for listening. Standing was for reciting creeds and scripture. It was also for lining up to take Holy Communion from the priest. Kneeling was for praying. And a brief kneel (think curtsy) was to show respect.

To be honest, it was a good thing we were constantly moving during Mass because it was entirely in Latin and we couldn’t understand a word being said, so it was rather tempting to nod off. (Shh . . . don’t tell!)

Once you understand the significance of Catholic gravestone symbols you will enjoy looking for them when you go to the cemetery.

Catholic Gravestone Symbol #1: Alpha and Omega

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Have you ever seen a symbol like the one in the center of this cross at the cemetery? It is two Greek letters overlapping one another.

Jesus Christ refers to Himself in Revelation 22:13 as, “The Alpha and the Omega, the first and the last, the beginning and the end.” Alpha is the first letter and Omega is the last letter of the Greek alphabet – the original language of the New Testament.

In calling Himself the first and the last, Christ was referring to Himself as being eternal or never-ending. In other words, He has always existed and will always exist.

In the photo above, the Catholic gravestone symbol of letters Alpha and Omega are at the center of the cross, indicating that Christ is central to the atonement.

Catholic Gravestone Symbol #2: Angel with Lilies

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Who is this angel with feather-like wings and a gift of lilies?

He is Gabriel, the angel that visited the young Mary.

Each spring, members of the Catholic Church celebrate the Feast of the Annunciation in remembrance of the appearance of the Angel Gabriel to Mary. In fact, the word annunciation means to announce something.

Gabriel announced to Mary that the Messiah was coming. This was BIG news. For centuries, the Israelites had anxiously anticipated the prophesied Messiah – with the full expectation that He was coming to save them.

Can’t you just picture young girls, in particular, talking with one another in hushed tones about who might be the mother of the awaited Messiah? So it was in amazement that Mary heard Gabriel’s announcement that He was coming. Not only that, but the Messiah would be born to her – Mary – a young unmarried girl!

Why does Gabriel have lilies in his hand?

Lilies, with their white petals, are a symbol of the Virgin Mary’s purity and innocence.

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During the Renaissance, it was common to see white lilies in paintings of the Annunciation. For example, in this mosaic painting above from Assisi, Italy, there is a vase of lilies between the Angel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary.

So, if you see an angel with lilies at the cemetery, you now know who it is and why he is carrying those flowers!

Catholic Gravestone Symbol #3: Cardinal’s Hat

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A Catholic Cardinal is a Church officer who acts as a counselor to the Pope. Many Cardinals also lead an ecclesiastical district called a diocese. One of their main responsibilities is to take part in papal elections at the Vatican when a replacement is needed.

Cardinals originally wore wide-brimmed red hats called galero, like the one in the Coat of Arms on the gravestone above. Galero were similar to cowboy hats but they had long ropes with 15 tassels hanging from each side. The color red signified that they would be willing to shed their blood for the Catholic Church.

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In 1967, Pope Paul VI mandated the Cardinals wear less ostentatious hats in a move toward greater humility. Instead of a galero, the Cardinals began to wear a beanie-like zucchetto (on the head in the image above) or a square biretta (on the lap above).

But in spite of the change, it is the galero hat that is still found at the cemetery. A red galero on a gravestone is a sure sign that a Catholic Cardinal is buried there.

Catholic Gravestone Symbol #4: Irish Cross

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While others may call this type of cross a Celtic cross, Catholics refer to it as an Irish cross. This form of cross appeared in Ireland and Great Britain during the early Middle Ages.

There are many legends about the Irish Cross. Some say that it was introduced by St. Patrick. Others affirm that the circular portion was derived from pagan worship of the sun and that the cross on top of the circle represents Christ’s power over this earlier form of veneration.

The Irish Cross is frequently used to mark the graves of monks or priests.

To learn more about cemetery crosses click HERE.

Catholic Gravestone Symbol #5: Communion Host

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This gravestone has several significant symbols on it: a dove, a wafer of sacramental bread, and the word, “ave.”

The dove, a symbol of the Holy Spirit, is descending from heaven with a circular piece of bread in its beak.

Jesus Christ introduced the concept of partaking of bread in remembrance of his body – which would be sacrificed for all humanity – at the Last Supper shortly before his crucifixion.

The act of partaking of the sacramental bread in the Catholic church is referred to as Holy Communion. The communicant partakes of round flat wafers, called hosts, which are made from unleavened bread. And the host is sometimes stamped with images, such as crosses or lambs.

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Holy Communion hosts are made of unleavened bread.

The word host comes from the Latin word hostia, which means sacrificial victim. Roman Catholic theology affirms that as the communion host is blessed it undergoes transubstantiation or the transformation from bread into the literal body of Christ.

Only those in good standing with the Church are allowed to partake. During church services, known as mass, members of the congregation leave their pews to line up in front of a priest near the altar to receive Holy Communion.

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As they approach the priest he extends the wafer saying, “the body of Christ.” The communicant answers, “amen” and extends their tongue. The priest then places the wafer in their mouth. (Which promptly determines to stick to the roof of the mouth!)

Children are given careful instruction to prepare them for their first Holy Communion at the age of eight. Little girls dress like mini-brides and boys in white Sunday-best suits.

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What does Ave mean?

The dove on the gravestone above is approaching the word ave. Ave is a Latin word used by the Romans as a greeting, literally meaning “hail” or “be well.” In the Catholic Church, prayers offered to Jesus’ mother, Mary, are opened with the words “Ave Maria” or “Hail Mary.”

Thus, this gravestone symbolizes the mother (Ave Mary), the Son (Christ’s atonement through the communion host), and the Holy Spirit (the dove). It is an interesting change from the typical references to the Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.

Catholic Gravestone Symbol #6: Crossed Arms

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A 14-year-old girl named Bernadette is buried here.

Why does this little angel have her arms crossed?

Well, as mentioned previously, only those in good standing with the Catholic Church may partake of the Holy Communion. Those who are unconverted, unbaptized, or unrepentant may not receive the sacrament. However, they may line up to approach the priest for a blessing.

As they come to the front of the line they cross their arms to indicate that they are not worthy or ready to partake of the Holy Communion.

The priest then places his hand on their head and gives them a brief blessing, such as “May God bless you” or “May God continue the good work in you.” Alternatively, the priest may make the Sign of the Cross on their forehead.

This sweet gravestone angel is symbolic of the departed approaching God on bended knee, asking for a blessing.

Catholic Gravestone Symbol #7: Crown of Thorns

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This gravestone uses several symbols as a strong reminder of the atonement of Jesus Christ: the cross, a crown of thorns, rays of light, and grapes.

In the New Testament, it is recorded that a crown of thorns was placed on Jesus’ head during the events leading up to his crucifixion on a cross. It was an instrument of pain and mocking by his captors.

“And when they had plaited a crown of thorns, they put it upon his head, and a reed in his right hand: and they bowed the knee and mocked him, saying Hail, King of the Jews!” (Matthew 27:29)

The grapes on this gravestone are symbolic of the blood of Christ being shed for all mankind. Christ himself introduced the idea of wine being a symbol of his blood at the Last Supper.

“After the same manner also he took the cup, when he had supped, saying, This cup is the new testament in my blood: this do ye, as oft as ye drink it, in remembrance of me.” (1 Corinthians 11:25)

The rays of light around Christ is symbolic of His holiness.

Catholic Gravestone Symbol #8: Crucifix

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Crucifix gravestones, like this one belonging to Tom Sherlock, is a common sight in a Catholic cemetery. Many Christian religions use the symbol of a cross as a reminder of the sacrifice made by Jesus Christ, but a crucifix is a uniquely Catholic symbol. It is a cross with the body of Christ still hanging upon it as a witness to the atonement He made for humanity.

This crucifix depicts Christ wearing the plated crown of thorns placed on him by Roman soldiers. Nails pierce His hands and feet.

There is a sign above His head with the letters INRI carved in it. These letters stand for the Latin words, “Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum” or “Jesus of Nazareth, King of Judea.”

It was customary among the Romans to place a sign over the person being crucified to state their name and the crime for which they were accused.

John 19:19 states that Pilate wrote a title that read, “Jesus of Nazareth, The King of the Jews.” In verse 20 John adds that the sign was translated into Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, and Latin. The chief priests of the Jews sought to correct Pilate, asking him to rephrase the crime as “He said, I am King of the Jews.” Pilate refused, saying, “What I have written, I have written.”

Did you know that there are many different types of crosses? To learn more check out BillionGraves’ most popular blog post: Understanding Cemetery Crosses.

Catholic Gravestone Symbol #9: Dove

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Scriptural stories use the dove as a symbol of forgiveness and peace.

When the family on Noah’s ark finally saw clear skies after a year of rain, Noah followed God’s instruction to send out a dove in a search for dry ground. The dove returned with an olive branch, which was a symbol of God’s forgiveness.

Later, when Christ was baptized by John the Baptist, a dove descended on Him (Matthew 3:16 and Mark 1:10). Though Christ was perfect, He set the example for all to seek forgiveness through baptism. Thus, the dove is the symbol of forgiveness and peace brought through the Holy Spirit to those being baptized.

Catholic Gravestone Symbol #10: Gate of Heaven

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This gravestone represents the gate of heaven which was closed with Adam’s sin and reopened through the resurrection of Christ. It gives hope to the family of the departed that their loved one will enter heaven through the power of Christ’s atonement.

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We hope you have some amazing cemetery adventures that are especially interesting as you continue to learn more about gravestone symbols!

Cathy Wallace and the BillionGraves Team

To learn more about other gravestone symbols check out these BillionGraves blog posts:

P.S. There are cemeteries across the world that need to have their gravestones documented with GPS locations. If you have a group that is interested in taking photos at the cemetery with the BillionGraves app please contact us at Volunteer@BillionGraves.com. We would love to help you!