Cemetery symbolism: what do the shapes, engravings, and symbols on headstones mean?

Branches, flowers, animals, urns, hands, letters, crosses and a myriad of symbols decorate graves across the world. But what are they and what do they mean?

Let’s look at some I’ve seen on my cemetery wanderings.

Angel dropping flowers – Menindee, NSW

The grave of a young boy and girl who drowned in Menindee in 1835.

In Menindee, a town on the Darling River in NSW, an angel drop flowers onto the grave of young siblings Patricia and Edward (Ted) Power. The 9 and 7-years-olds were taken to the river by their mother and governess to paddle but quickly got out of their depth and encountered a quick current and 18 inches of weeds. Their bodies were found almost six hours later. They were the only children of Mr and Mrs Pierce Power of Haythorpe Station.

The angel is a symbol of spirituality and it’s said the hand pointing downward symbolises sudden death or mortality. Perhaps the flowers are blessings being spread. Angels with wings symbolise the ascent of souls into heaven.

Obelisk – Bundarra, NSW

An obelisk in Bundarra cemetery, NSW.

Sadly there are eight children between the ages of 6 weeks and 10 years and 22 year old Laura Baker memorialised on this Anglican monument. The children were the sons and daughter of George and Mary Baker. The died over a 19 year period between 1868 and 1887. Originally seen at Egyptian temples, the obelisk is a common monument all over the world. When erected in cemeteries, they signify eternal life.

Broken chain, finger pointing down – Coolgardie WA

Robert Foweraker’s headstone (left) includes a hand pointing downwards and a broken chain, Coolgardie Cemetery, WA Goldfields.

Robert Foweraker died of typhoid fever aged 24 in 1896, a common cause of the death among gold prospectors at the time. The broken chain symbolises the death of a family member. The finger pointing down is said to represent mortality or sudden death and is the hand of God reaching down for the soul. The pointing hand and the chain are often used separately.

The Calvary Cross – Toowong Qld

The Calvary Cross – Toowong Cemetery, Brisbane.

The Calvary or Latin Cross is the plainest of the crosses you’ll see in a cemetery. You’ll notice there are three blocks on the base. These represent the climb Christ made to Calvary where he was crucified. The three steps are said to be a reminder of faith, hope and charity. Some say the also represent the Father, Son and the Holy Ghost.

The Celtic Cross – Toowong, Qld

The Celtic Cross after sunset at Toowong cemtery, Brisbane.

Celtic crosses have their arms enclosed in a circle. They were most often used by those of Irish heritage. The circle (ring or nimbus) symbolises eternity. Many believe St Patrick devised the first Celtic Cross, combining a Christian cross and the symbol of the sun which was worshiped by pagans. There are two theories behind the inclusion of the sun. One is that it was used by St Patrick to encourage pagans to Christianity. The other is that cross envelopes the sun to show that Christ is superior to the pagan sun gods.

The Eastern Cross – Toowong, Qld

Several Eastern Crosses – Toowong Cemetery, Brisbane.

This cross is the symbol of the Eastern Orthodox religion. Orthodox crosses have three bars. is that They symbolise the cross Christ was crucified on.
The most popular theory about its meaning is that the top bar is the title board – the sign above Jesus’ head, the middle bar is the bar on which Christ’s hands were nailed, and the bottom, sloping bar is the footrest.

The Greek Cross – Menzies, WA

This headstone in the WA Goldfield’s town of Menzies depicts the Greek Cross and clasped hands.

There are two obvious symbols on this headstone. The cross’ arms are of equal length in what’s called a Greek Cross. It’s connected to eastern European cultures.

Clasped hands.

In the middle of this cross is the ‘clasped hands’ symbol. This can appear in a few forms. If you look at the cuffs, you’ll note the hand on the left has a frilled blouse cuff so that represent a woman. The right cuff is a male and the male is holding the woman’s hand. It represents a marriage or relationship and the person who died holds the hand of the other. The headstone’s inscription explains the relationship between the husband and wife.

The Fleuree Cross – Wilcannia, NSW

Several Fleuree crosses and two Calvary crosses at Wilcannia Cemetery, east of Broken Hill, NSW. (Note the cross with what looks like a dollar sign. See I.H.S below)

Also known as the Gothic cross, the Fleuree cross has three arms with floral or flared ends depicting three petals (the fleur-de-lis), said to resemble the French lily. The petals are said to represent the Virgin Mary and the Holy Trinity.

The Rock of Ages – Karrakatta, WA

The Rock of Ages, Karrakatta Cemetery, Perth.

This is based on the original drawing that accompanied a hymn called ‘Rock of Ages’ written by Anglican Reverend Augustus Toplady in 1763. A couple of variations include a woman hanging to an anchor or pillar.

Nothing in my hand I bring,
Simply to Thy cross I cling;
Naked, come to Thee for dress;
Helpless, look to Thee for grace;
Foul, I to the fountain fly;
Wash me, Saviour, or I die!

Ivy – Bundarra, NSW

Ivy bordering the headstone of Daniel and Mary Ann Baker, Bundarra Cemetery, NSW northern tablelands.

I had to look twice at the border of Daniel and Mary Ann Baker’s grave. Is this a grapevine or ivy? Grapes and vines are an obvious reference to the Catholic sacrament of the Eucharist or when wine is sipped during communion. I think this headstone however is bordered by ivy, symbolising undying affection and fidelity.

Doves and olive branch – Bundarra, NSW

A dove and olive branch on 1888 grave of 41yo Mary Darby at Bundarra on the NSW northern tablelands.

The dove and olive branch aren’t necessarily always seen together. Doves are a well known symbol of love and peace. It also symbolises purity, resurrection and the Holy Spirit. Olive branches are representative of peace and hope. It’s said a dove carried an olive branch to Noah’s Ark as a sign of hope and to show the water level was falling.

Clothed urn – Wallabadah, NSW

Anything draped indicates sorrow or mourning. Wallabadah Cemetery, NSW.

An urn usually represents the soul or mortality. The cloth draped over it symbolises mourning.

I.H.S – Laidley, NSW

These three letters from the Greek alphabet spell out the first half of ‘Jesus’.
Picture by Taniah McMillan. Laidley Cemetery, Queensland.

Letters from the Greek alphabet are not uncommon on headstones. Here Iota, Eta and Sigma spell out the first three letters for ‘Jesus’. In some cases, the letters are overlaid (see earlier photo of several crosses in Wilcannia).

Sea shells – Lombadina, WA

Graves in the remote Dampier Peninsula community of Lombadina are littered with shells.

Shells are often used to decorate the graves of Aboriginals and Islanders.
I took this photo at the cemetery in the remote Lombadina community, north of Broome. The local Bardi people are ‘salt water people’, people who have a great affinity for the sea. For thousands of years the ocean has been a source of food and spiritual significance for the Bardi people.

Shells also appear on non-indigenous graves, Gum Flat cemetery, NSW.

One of the popular theories about sea shells on graves originates in Greek mythology where Aphrodite, the goddess of love, was born from sea foam and then was carried to shore in a sea shell. Regarded by some as a source of life, the hard shell protects a soft, living being. This can be an analogy for someone who’s died: While a human body may be devoid of life, the soul continues to live.

“Aphrodite was the Greek goddess of love and fertility her counterpart, the Roman goddess Venus. The myths say she was born from sea foam and then reached the shores of the earth in a sea shell. The shell was regarded by pagans as a source of life. Though the outside of a shell is hard and inanimate, the inside is soft and alive which can be an analogy for a human who passes away. The body’s dead shell is only a covering for the soul that is alive within.”

ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is a cemetery wanderer, journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative and amusing workbook and funeral planning guide for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The second edition is available in Australia for $18.95, including postage. (Overseas orders will incur an additional AU$8 postage.) Lisa enjoys telling the stories of the dead because they reveal so much of our history and way of life.

Author and journalist Lisa Herbert is a cemetery wanderer and blogger.

Test cricketer lies in unidentified grave in WA’s Goldfields, Cricket NSW searching for descendants

The hunt is on for relatives of an Australian test cricketer who lies in an unidentified grave in Western Australia’s Goldfields.

John Cottam was the 49th Australian to don the baggy green. He was one of five players drafted into the test team in Sydney in 1886-87 to replace players involved in a pay dispute.

Cottam was out for 1 and 3 on debut and never played for Australia again.

He died 10 years later in Coolgardie, aged 29. It’s assumed he made his way to the Goldfields in search of fortune, but, like so many other prospectors in that era, he succumbed to typhoid fever in 1897.

John Cottam’s grave lies in plot 10 of the ‘General’ section of the Coolgardie Cemetery, 40km south west of Kalgoorlie, WA.

Kalgoorlie resident and keen cricket historian Clint Easton found Cottam’s lonely grave in the cemetery of once-prosperous mining town of Coolgardie. Clint was planning to self-fund the placement of a headstone to commemorate the cricketer and his achievements. Cricket NSW and Cricket Australia have since heard about Clint’s efforts and have now paid for a bronze plaque to be put on the grave. It will be unveiled on John Cottam’s birthdate, September 5.

Cricket NSW is now keen to find any living relatives of John Cottam.

Who was John Thomas Cottam?

Cricket NSW Honorary Librarian and Official Historian, Dr Colin Clowes said Cottam was 19 when he made his first-class debut for New South Wales against the touring English team in 1887.

“He did well enough – 29, second highest score, and 14 not out – to be chosen for the following test match after several players withdrew over a pay dispute,” said Dr Clowes.

“John toured New Zealand with the NSW team in 1890. He scored three half-centuries, a number equal to those scored by all the other players combined.

“John played no further first-class cricket and it is difficult to construct his career after that New Zealand tour. However after one Club match later that year The Referee wrote:

‘Cottam and Clarke showed splendid form and after recovering from his recent severe prostration, it would appear that the former has regained all his wonted brilliance as a batsman.

‘When in his best form we have not a better batsman in the colony than Cottam, whose style is well nigh faultless’.”

image_2-570971552.jpg
John Cottam appears in ABC Guide to Australian Test Cricketers by Rick Smith (ABC Books, 1993)

Liked a drink

Dr Clowes said John Cottam appeared for Redfern in the initial season of Electoral Cricket in 1893-94 “with little success”.

“The reason for his loss of form is unclear but a drinking problem is a probable cause as a John Cottam is mentioned in newspapers in several alcohol-related incidents. One of these placed him in Fremantle in February 1896 where he was robbed of a gold watch while drunk.

“Sometime after this he went to the Goldfields,” said Dr Clowes.

Cricket NSW applauds Clint’s “amazing” efforts

In a letter to Clint Easton, Cricket NSW CEO Andrew Jones thanked him for his “amazing” research.
“A very sincere thank you for your efforts. You have shown exceptional diligence and love for the game and we appreciate it greatly,” wrote Mr Jones.

Kalgoorlie mine worker and avid sports fan Clint Easton. Photograph: ABC Goldfields

Mr Easton has been delving into John Cottam’s family tree. Speaking on ABC radio, he said there’s not much to go on.
“I found he was the eldest son of Thomas Cottam. There are two young chaps called Cottam in cricket history so hopefully they are related to him.”

If you can help locate any relatives of John Cottam you can get in touch with NSW Cricket via library@cricketnsw.com.au or 02 9029 2305.

Cricket NSW recently placed an advertisement in the Daily Telegraph (via Bruce Cain)

Coolgardie, the original site of WA’s goldrush

While the current population is under 1,000, during the goldrush Coolgardie was WA’s third largest town, with a bustling street filled with grand hotels and even a stock exchange with 25 stock brokers! Coolgardie has a fascinating and large cemetery, telling the stories and struggles of the region’s mining pioneers and their families. There’s even an assassination tale of an Afhani cameleer who was shot in the back as he prayed.

All Black in Coolgardie Cemetery

John Cottam is not the only national sportsman buried in the cemetery there. One of the first All Blacks lies in a grave only marked by a number. Kalgoorlie historian Moya Sharp is working to have a headstone or plaque erected on his grave. George Maber died of Typhoid aged 25 in 1894, three months after making his debut for New Zealand. There’s more information about George Maber via Moya’s fantastic Outback Family History blog. On ABC radio, Clint Easton said he was hoping to work with Moya to have George Maber’s achievements and Coolgardie resting place recognised too.

ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is a cemetery wanderer, journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative and amusing workbook and funeral planning guide for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The second edition is available in Australia for $18.95, including postage.

Goldrush murder: Assassinated Afghani cameleer rests in outback WA cemetery.

If dehydration, typhoid, a mine collapse and alcoholism didn’t get you, an assassin might.

In the back corner of  a large cemetery in the goldrush town of Coolgardie, about six hours from Perth, sits the grave of a man who was shot in the back as he prayed.

The headstone reads: “Tagh Mahomed who died by the hand of an assassin at Coolgardie Jan 10 1896 aged 37 years. His end was peace.”

Tagh Mahomet was an Afghani cameleer and businessman. Camels and their handlers played a vital role in the outback at the time, carrying supplies to sheep and cattle stations and goldfields. Tagh and his brother Faiz were local merchants and were prominent in civic affairs. They were the state’s largest camel owners.

Tagh Mahomet
Tagh Mahomet, 1890s. Image: State Library of Western Australia 186P

Tagh was shot by a fellow Muslim in a mosque on Mount Eva, on the eastern outskirts of Coolgardie. There are differing accounts of why Goulam Mahomet killed Tagh. Some believe the death was caused by ongoing feuding factions back home in Afghanistan. Goulam Mahomet claimed that Tagh has threatened him. Goulam Mahomet was hanged for the murder of Tagh at Fremantle Prison.

The Muslim section of Coolgardie Cemetery is in the back left hand corner.

Coolgardie Cemetery is a large goldfields cemetery. While the current population is under 1,000, during the goldrush, Coolgardie was WA’s third largest town, with a bustling street filled with grand hotels and even a stock exchange with 25 stock brokers!

ABOUT THE BLOGGER: Lisa Herbert is a cemetery wanderer, journalist and author of The Bottom Drawer Book: an after death action plan, an informative and amusing workbook and funeral planning guide for those who want to prepare for the inevitable. The second edition is available in Australia for $18.95, including postage. You can buy here.