Stones Of Faith - Pennsylvania Germans and their Gravestones

GRAVESTONE SYMBOLS
GRAVESTONES

BY LOCATION

Pennsylvania and American German Gravestone Guide

Gravestone Symbols Definition

A B C D F G H I L M O P R S T U W
A
Angels

1797 AngelSymbolized rebirth, resurrection (flying angels), grief (weeping angels), protection, and the journey from earth to heaven. The angel of the resurrection, Gabriel, whose horn heralds the second coming, was the angel usually shown by Pennsylvania German gravestone carvers.

Examples: 1832 Angel 1853 Angel 1863 Angel 1861 Angel

Arch, Arched Entry

Circa 1780s ArchArches symbolize the passage to heaven. Triumphant entry, a victory over death. In the 1700s the Pennsylvania German gravestone carvers made the whole stone the archway, with the columns on the sides the stone and the arch, with it's keystone, being the top of the stone. In the 1800s, the archway was usually confined to the top half of the stone, and often contained another symbol, such as a book or urn, between its columns, or shown free standing in a group of other symbols.

Examples: 1830 Arch 1851 Arch 1857 Arch

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B
Bones

1770 BonesDeath and decay. One of the symbol set of the Memento Mori. See Hourglass, Sickle and Skull.

Examples: 1743 Bones 1790s Bones

Book

1855 BookThe resurrection through the scriptures or one's accomplishments recorded in the book of life.

Biblical Reference: Revelation 20, 12

And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works.

Examples: 1770s Book 1855 Book 1850s Book

Bouquet

1859 BouquetSignified condolences, grief and the shortness of life. See Flowers.

Buds

Circa 1850s BudRenewal of life, or a young soul. A broken or cut off bud often used on a child's grave. First appeared in this collection in the 1850s. See Flowers.

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C
Cherub

1774 CherubChubby child angels that became popular during the Baroque period. They appear on Pennsylvania German gravestones both in the 1700s and 1800s. They were shown holding other symbols such as a grapevine with a cluster of grapes, as a simple head and a pair of wings topping a stone, or, in the 1850s and later, as a pair comforting one another under a draped pall.

Biblical Reference: Psalm 18, 9-10

He bowed the heavens also, and came down: and darkness was under his feet. And he rode upon a cherub, and did fly: yea, he did fly upon the wings of the wind.

Examples: 1770s Cherubs 1780s Cherub 1831 Cherub

Circle

Eternity or life, never ending.

Clouds

Circa 1770s CloudThe divine abode or heaven, vehicle of Christ. See Sun.

Biblical Reference: Luke 21, 26-28

Men's hearts failing them for fear, and for looking after those things which are coming on the earth: for the powers of heaven shall be shaken. And then shall they see the Son of man coming in a cloud with power and great glory. And when these things begin to come to pass, then look up, and lift up your heads; for your redemption draweth nigh.
Cocks

1777 CockAwakening to resurrection, vigilance. The following verse was found on the Jacob Schitlir stone in Montgomery Co.

Biblical Reference: Mark 13, 34-36

For the Son of Man is as a man taking a far journey, who left his house, and gave authority to his servants, and to every man his work, and commanded the porter to watch. Watch ye therefore: for ye know not when the master of the house cometh, at even, or at midnight, or at the cockcrowing, or in the morning: Lest coming suddenly he find you sleeping.
Column

Circa 1870s ColumnMortality, The broken and/or draped column traditionally signifies the break in life, and the mourning of it's passage (funeral drape). The use of the broken column began being used by the Pennsylvania Germans in the 1850s.

Columns creating doors were symbolic of the heavenly entrance. This use of columns was present throughout the period covered by this collection. See Arch.

Examples: 1777 Columns 1790 Columns 1847 Columns

Crown

1785 CrownA crowned skull signified triumph of death, a symbol used prior to 1750s by the Pennsylvania Germans. After the 1750s the crown was most commonly shown alone, symbolizing the triumph over death or everlasting life.

Biblical Reference: James 1, 12

Blessed is the man that endureth temptation: for when he is tried, he shall receive the crown of life, which the Lord hath promised to them that love him.

Examples: 1743 Crown 1778 Crown 1790s Crown

Cypress Tree

1858 CypressMourning, death and eternal life. Once it is cut down it doesn't regrow, but its leaves are evergreen. The cross of the crucifixion was allegedly constructed in part of cypress. The cypress was the Roman symbol for mourning. It came into fashion as a gravestone symbol in the 1850s for the Pennsylvania Germans.

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D
Doves

1777 DoveThe Holy Spirit, hope, or mourning. The dove descending symbolized the Holy Ghost. The ascending dove symbolized the souls flight to heaven. It is also shown with an olive branch in its beak, symbolizing hope and deliverance (story of Noah - Genesis 8). When shown simply standing it may refer to mourning. When the dove is mentioned in the Bible it is often in the context of mourning.

Biblical References: Matthew 3, 16-17

And Jesus, when he was baptized, went up straightway out of the water: and, lo, the heavens were opened unto him, and he saw the Spirit of God descending like a dove, and lighting upon him: And lo a voice from heaven, saying, This is my beloved Son, in whom I am well pleased.

Psalm 55, 6

And I said, Oh that I had wings like a dove! for then would I fly away, and be at rest.

Isaiah 38, 14

Like a crane or a swallow, so did I chatter: I did mourn as a dove: mine eyes fail with looking upward: O LORD, I am oppressed; undertake for me.

Examples: 1786 Dove 1850 Dove 1876 Dove

Drapery (or Pal)

1858 DrapeThe cloth that was draped over the coffin on its journey to the gravesite came to be a symbol of mourning. Often shown with tassels. Came into use by the Pennsylvania Germans after 1840s.

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F
Finger Pointing

1855 Finger PointingA finger pointing downward invites the viewer of the stone to consider the fate of the person laying beneath it. A finger pointing upwards signifies the soul of the deceased has gone to its heavenly reward. Neither symbol was used by the Pennsylvania Germans until 1850s.

Fleur de Lys

1864 Fleur de LysThree leaved symbol of the trinity. Came into use during the Gothic revival movement starting in 1860s.

Example: 1881/1886 Fleur de Lys

Flowers

1772 FlowerFlowers were the most frequent symbol used on Pennsylvania German gravestones. For a detailed look at this symbol see Flowers - The Popular Symbol.

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G
Garland

1860s GarlandShortness of life (flowers) or victory over death, a second half of the 1800s gravestone symbol.

Grapevine, Grape

1864 Grape/GrapevineSymbolizes Christ and his church. Wine, product of the grape, was symbolic of the blood of Christ which, through the sacrament of baptism, washed away sins and enabled an eternal life.

A flower is the Wisdom
Which ever was with God,
Arose in Christ's Humanity,
Its power drives out death.
It is like ripe grapes,
Which refresh my heart
When in faith I grasp them,
No one can take them from me, Now or in eternity.
(Vorschrift by Susanna Hubner 1808 - A Schwenkfelder fraktur artist)46

Biblical References: John 15, 4-5

Abide in me, and I in you. As the branch cannot bear fruit of itself, except it abide in the vine; no more can ye, except ye abide in me. I am the vine, ye are the branches: He that abideth in me, and I in him, the same bringeth forth much fruit: for without me ye can do nothing.

Matthew 26, 27-29

And he took the cup, and gave thanks, and gave it to them, saying, Drink ye all of it; For this is my blood of the new testament, which is shed for many for the remission of sins. But I say unto you, I will not drink henceforth of this fruit of the vine, until that day when I drink it new with you in my Father's kingdom.

Examples: 1773/1788 Grape/Grapevines 1882 Grape/Grapevine

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H
Hands Clasped

1883 Hands ClaspedAppearing around the 1860s, clasped or shaking hands signified farewell and devotion to the departed. Often used by married couples, the cuffs shown with the hands denote which is the husband's hand and which is the wife's.

Heart

1789 HeartPopular with the Pennsylvania Germans in the 1700's, the heart was used as symbol for the person and their spirit. It was the vehicle by which a person heard the gospel and the source for the faith in the promise of everlasting life through belief in the gospel. For an in depth discussion, see Hearts.

Hourglass

1757 HourglassThe passage of time, or time running out or gone. Sometimes shown in conjunction with a skull and bones as memento mori. It was also included in most of the Vanitas paintings that were popular in the 1600s. The hourglass was used by Pennsylvania German carvers prior to 1800, but not much later.

Examples: 1770 Hourglass 1790s Hourglass 1793 Hourglass

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I
Ivy

1860 IvyAn evergreen plant that attaches itself securely to the objects it grows over making it difficult to remove. These attributes suggest eternal (evergreen) attachment, affection, friendship and/or eternal life.

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L
Lamb

1852 LambSymbol of Christ the Redeemer, used throughout the New Testament when referring to Jesus. In the 1800s in most of America, it is the most common symbol used on children's graves. The Pennsylvania Germans used it on both adult and child gravestones.

Biblical References: John 1, 29

The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.

Example: 1850s Lamb

Laurel

1850's LaurelThe laurel crown (or wreath) follows the same general meaning of the crown. In Roman times, to be crowned with a laurel crown signified honor, glory, or victory. After the Federalist period (1789 - 1830), in which all things Roman became the fashion in America, the laurel crown replaced the metal European monarchial crowns shown on earlier stones. On Pennsylvania German gravestones the laurel crown often included roses.

Biblical Reference: 2 Timothy 4, 7-8

I have fought a good fight, I have finished my course, I have kept the faith: Henceforth there is laid up for me a crown of righteousness, which the Lord, the righteous judge, shall give me at that day: and not to me only, but unto all them also that love his appearing.
Lily/Tulip

1759 LilyThe lily was one of the more popular gravestone symbols used by the Pennsylvania Germans from the 1700s to the early 1800s. It appeared again in the 1850's as the Victorian Easter Lily, a symbol of resurrection. For a detailed definition of this symbol, see Lily-Tulips and the Rose of Sharon.

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M
Moon

1777 MoonDeath and rebirth. For a number of examples of the moon's use look through the different pages covering the Muddy Creek Cemetery. For a detailed discussion of this symbol see "The Moons of Muddy Creek"

Memento Mori

1790's Memento MoriA Latin phrase meaning "be mindful of death" that has come to represent a set of death symbols which include bones, skulls, and the hourglass. For a look at a use of memento mori by the Pennsylvania Germans see Memento Mori at Bergstrasse

Examples: 1770 Memento Mori 1790s Memento Mori

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O
Obelisk

1862 ObeliskThe obelisk came into fashion during the Egyptian Revival period (1820-1840) which was fueled and inspired by Napoleon's 1798-99 Egyptian campaigns and British involvement in Egypt. The following from a good article found at the Association for Gravestone Studies web site, in the "Symbolism on Gravestones" section, best sums up it's meaning:

...There is hardly a cemetery founded in the 1840s and 50s without some form of Egyptian influence in the public buildings, gates, tomb art, etc. Napoleon's 1798-99 Egyptian campaigns, the discoveries at the tombs of the Pharaohs, and our new Republic's need to borrow the best of the ancient cultures (Greek revival, classic revival, the prominence of classical studies and dress, etc.) led to a resurgence of interest in the ancient Egyptian culture. Obelisks were considered to be tasteful, with pure uplifting lines, associated with ancient greatness, patriotic, able to be used in relatively small spaces, and, perhaps most importantly, obelisks were less costly than large and elaborate sculpted monuments. There were many cultural reasons for the revival styles of the nineteenth century. Freemasonry, while part of the overall cultural influence, was not responsible for the prevalence of obelisks. If you would like to read more about some of these styles, see The Egyptian Revival: Its Sources, Monuments and Meaning, 1808-1859, by Richard Carrott.

Example: 1850s Obelisks 1845 Obelisk

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P
Pal

See Drape

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R
Rooster

See Cocks.

Roses

1795 RoseThe rose on Pennsylvania German gravestones, as the lily, were for the most part portrayed differently prior to 1800 then it was after. In the 1700's it is usually shown as a flat, somewhat geometrical, decorative ideal rather then realistically. For a discussion of the 1700s rose use, see Roses, Serpent and the Sun Symbol at Manheim. After 1800 the rose and it's leaves and stems are portrayed realistically and took on the Victorian connotations. It became very popular in the 1850's and later. Children's graves would show rose buds, while teenage and adult graves would show open roses. The adult stones tended to show roses in cut flower bouquets or wreaths, whereas young adults and children's gravestones would show a single flower branch with the stem cut to signify death. The rose, as any flower symbol, reflects the shortness of life.

For a deeper look at the rose as a symbol in the 1700s see Lily-Tulips and the Rose of Sharon.

Examples: 1757 Rose 1760/1770s Rose 1770s Roses 1795 Rose 1850s Rose Bud 1853 Rose 1855 Rose 1881 Rose

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S
Sickle, Scythe

1770 ScytheThe idea of reaping was firmly identified with death in the bible and reaping was done with a scythe or sickle. The Grim Reaper or Death is shown welding a scythe or sickle. This instrument became one of the objects included in the symbol set of the Memento Mori. For a detailed look at the only sickle in this collection see Memento Mori at Brickersville

Biblical References: Matthew 13, 30, 37-38

Let both grow together until the harvest: and in the time of harvest I will say to the reapers, Gather ye together first the tares, and bind them in bundles to burn them: but gather the wheat into my barn....He answered and said unto them, He that soweth the good seed is the Son of man; The field is the world; the good seed are the children of the kingdom; but the tares are the children of the wicked one;

Galatians 6, 8

For he that soweth to his flesh shall of the flesh reap corruption; but he that soweth to the Spirit shall of the Spirit reap life everlasting.
Skull

1745 SkullOne of the primary Memento Mori symbols, it was used to denote death and mortality. When crowned, it is said to denote death triumphant. It fell out of use by the Pennsylvania Germans after the 1790s.

Star

Circa 1760/1770s StarThe star was one of the most popular of symbols used by the Pennsylvania Germans on their gravestones. It stayed in use throughout the time period covered by this collection and never seems to have fallen from favor as a gravestone symbol. It was portrayed in a number of ways, 5 pointed as on the flag, simple 6 pointed stars made with crossed lines, even 4 pointed in some instances. One of the most popular ways of portrayal was the compass star, a star within a circle. Because a circle encompassing a rayed figure was also used to denote a flower, it is often difficult to determine if the symbol shown was a flower or a star.

Multiple meaning could be conveyed with this single symbol: Everlasting life; Christ's birth; the word of Christ that brings salvation; and Christ himself.

Biblical References: Daniel 12, 2-3

And many of them that sleep in the dust of the earth shall awake, some to everlasting life, and some to shame and everlasting contempt. And they that be wise shall shine as the brightness of the firmament; and they that turn many to righteousness as the stars for ever and ever.

Matthew 2, 1-2

Now when Jesus was born in Bethlehem of Judaea in the days of Herod the king, behold, there came wise men from the east to Jerusalem, Saying, Where is he that is born King of the Jews? for we have seen his star in the east, and are come to worship him.

2 Peter 1, 19

We have also a more sure word of prophecy; where unto ye do well that ye take heed, as unto a light that shineth in a dark place, until the day dawn, and the day star arise in your hearts:

Revelation 22, 16

I Jesus have sent mine angel to testify unto you these things in the churches. I am the root and the offspring of David, and the bright and morning star.

Examples: 1762 Star 1774 Star 1789 Star 1821 Star 1831 Star 1848 Star 1862 Star

Sun

1811 SunThe sun was a popular gravestone symbol with the Pennsylvania Germans from the 1760s to the 1840s. It was shown in a number of ways: rising, either from clouds or, in one case, with wings; fully risen, usually at the top of the stone; as a dot within a circle, the symbol used in almanacs to denote the sun (see Roses, Serpent and the Sun Symbol at Manheim for a look at this usage); or in combination with the moon and stars (see The Old Stone at Brickersville).

The concepts it stood for were also multiple: the soul in heaven; Christ, the "son" of God; and Christ's death and resurrection. Its setting and rising have been used as a metaphor for death and resurrection by a number of cultures throughout man's history.

Biblical References: Malachi 4, 1-2

For, behold, the day cometh, that shall burn as an oven; and all the proud, yea, and all that do wickedly, shall be stubble: and the day that cometh shall burn them up, saith the LORD of hosts, that it shall leave them neither root nor branch. But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall.

Matthew 13, 41-43

The Son of man shall send forth his angels, and they shall gather out of his kingdom all things that offend, and them which do iniquity; And shall cast them into a furnace of fire: there shall be wailing and gnashing of teeth. Then shall the righteous shine forth as the sun in the kingdom of their Father. Who hath ears to hear, let him hear.

Matthew 17, 1-3

And after six days Jesus taketh Peter, James, and John his brother, and bringeth them up into an high mountain apart, And was transfigured before them: and his face did shine as the sun, and his raiment was white as the light. And, behold, there appeared unto them Moses and Elias talking with him.

Examples: 1760/1770s Rising Sun 1799 Sun Symbol 1800s Winged Sun 1800s Sun 1810 Sun Symbol 1826 Rising Sun 1832 Rising Sun 1840 Sun 1857 Sun

Sun Flower

1782 Sun FlowerThe sunflower with its practise of following the sun with its face symbolized the adoration of Christ, symbolized as the sun.

Me, only Thy Sun-Flower, let after Thee be truning:
And in the pensive night, and Darkness for Thee mourning,
Until Thy form in me, Like Christ's hath full pow'r
then shall I still in Thee - I, only Thy Sun-Flower.
(from a poem by Johann Kelpius (1673-1708), an early Pennsylvania poet known as one of the "hermits of the Ridge" - Translation by Dr. Christopher DeWitt)47
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T
Threes

The Trinity, God the Father, God the Son, God the Holy Spirit.

Tulip

See Lily/Tulip

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U
Urn

1857 UrnUrns began appearing on Pennsylvania Gravestones as early as 1820 in association with the willow, but did not become popular until the 1840s when they were usually shown on pedestals, in association with willows, or draped.

The urn was associated with death and mourning since ashes and bones of the deceased where sometimes kept there. The urn along with the willow were aspects of the Victorian mourning symbol set.

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W
Willow

1859 WillowLike the Urn, the willow was a symbol of mourning. It came into general use by the Pennsylvania Germans in the 1840s, becoming very popular in the 1850s and 60s.

Examples: 1850s Willows 1865 Willow

Winged Figures

1751 Winged FigureWings equated to flight. Flight of the soul from the body in death and flight of the soul to heaven after death. There were winged full figures, winged heads, winged bird bodies with human heads and, in one instance, just wings found on Pennsylvania German gravestones. Winged souls were used as symbols throughout the second half of the 1700s in the German communities but fell out of use by the 1830s. One of the most extensive usage of winged figures is found at Brickersville in Lancaster County

Biblical References: Exodus 19, 4

Ye have seen what I did unto the Egyptians, and how I bare you on eagles' wings, and brought you unto myself

Psalm 18, 9-10

He bowed the heavens also, and came down: and darkness was under his feet. And he rode upon a cherub, and did fly: yea, he did fly upon the wings of the wind.

Psalm 55, 6

And I said, Oh that I had wings like a dove! for then would I fly away, and be at rest.

Malachi 4, 2

But unto you that fear my name shall the Sun of righteousness arise with healing in his wings; and ye shall go forth, and grow up as calves of the stall.

Examples: 1750/90s Winged Figures 1777 Winged Figure 1791 Winged Figure 1790s Wings 1806 Winged Figure 1820s Winged Figures

Wreath

1865 WreathThe open wreaths symbolized victory of a good life, an idea originating in the neo-classical period from the triumphant wreaths awarded by the Romans. (see Laurel Wreath) A closed wreath, often made of many different flowers symbolized both the memory of a life past, the shortness of life (the flowers) and the circle of eternity. Wreaths began being used in Pennsylvania Gravestones art around the 1850s.

Examples: 1830 Wreath 1850s Wreath

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Copyright 1985-2005 Sandra J. Hardy. All rights reserved.

For more information on the history, archeology and anthropology references for PA German symbols see the Links page.