A graveyard is a history of people, a permanent record of the past of our community and a place of peace and sanctuary when the living can feel comforted and remember and feel close to the families no longer with them.
Graveyards exist because past life is worth remembering, - families can make lasting tributes to people who were cared for; communities can mark the lives of respected members. Tributes are made for the life, not the death of an individual and it is an opportunity to publically record information for the future which may otherwise be lost. Carvings and epitaphs leave stories of their own, and are a treasure trove of beautiful artwork Gravestone symbolism is a hidden language that, when decoded, can tell volumes about the deceased, their life, and their death. These places are not about a morbid fascination with death.
Each burial ground provides rich material for the study of the community. At Kilmun we have photographed and recorded the inscriptions on each grave marker, but this is only the beginning. As well as recording the history of family groups, there are a number of areas we will focus upon.
Details from the inscriptions will provide a source of information for community study, showing occupations, status, places people lived and came from, ages at death & life expectancy, comparisons between females and males, child mortality, periods of high and low mortality, wealth of families able to provide fine markers, size of families, the effects of war on the community ….and more.
Artistic opportunities exist for people of all ages – taking rubbings, photographs, painting and drawing, and the study of various fashions at different periods.
There are also practical things to consider which will help preserve what we have, and which will prevent further decay, making the graveyard an appealing, peaceful and interesting place for the community to spend time. While the stones belong to someone – the floral tributes show that families still visit and care for some of the graves – many are neglected. For safety reasons the council have placed some stones on the ground. There is a need for appropriate attention to be given to preserve what we can. This will require advice from the experts at Historic Scotland and the formation of a dedicated team of practical people to safeguard Kilmun graveyard.
Symbols and Stones
The stones in Kilmun graveyard display a great variety of symbols and while the meaning of some of these carvings is obvious, like a broken tree or flower representing death, some are much less clear. Even professional scholars disagree about the meaning of some designs and it is easy to jump to the wrong conclusion about a particular image. Some symbols are very common, some have more than one interpretation, and some interpretation must be seen as a possibility rather than a certainty.
The shapes of the grave markers differ too, from plain slabs to ornate granite, obelisks and crosses. The earliest shape at Kilmun is the hogs-back stone which has been re-used in another grave. This is a type used in Viking times. There are table-stones, tablets and of course crosses. Until the 19th century the cross was rarely used as it was seen to be a Papist symbol, but it became popular in the 19th century and there are many examples of plain and Celtic crosses in the graveyard. The obelisk, an Egyptian form, was considered to be tasteful and uplifting, and Kilmun has iron markers which are quite rare. Later Victorian stones can be massive granite afairs, but after the Great War headstones tended to be smaller and more uniform.
The carvings on stones became more elaborate as the 17th century drew to a close, and as prosperity increased for people like farmers and skilled craftsmen, they were able to afford individually designed memorials produced by the best stonemasons. As well as carvings of religious significance, these stones often displayed depictions of the tools of the person’s profession or trade. These are still recognisable as blacksmith’s, gardener’s, miller’s baker’s, tailor’s, and other craft tools. Masons, as members of the Freemasons Craft have their own distinctive emblems and several examples are found at Kilmun.
Studying the epitaphs and writing on the stones is rewarding, not only for the dates, but for the details of a person’s life, what it was considered important to include about an individual, the type of prose, the style of lettering, and spotting the mistakes. Some examples include the name of the person erecting the stone and reflect the status a fine stone might give to a family…or merely a chance for someone to show off! It is unusual to see the cause of death inscribed, unless accidental and several stones mention drowning, which is not unusual in coastal areas.
A list of interpretations follows, but is by no means definitive!
- ACANTHUS LEAF - Symbol of peace in the Garden of Eden.
- ALPHA OMEGA - Beginning and end of life.
- ANCHOR - A Christian symbol of hope or an symbol for sea-farers it symbolising hope and steadfastness. An anchor with a broken chain stands for the end of life.
- ANGEL - The agent of God, often pointing towards heaven; or a guardian of the dead, symbolizing spirituality, blowing a trumpet represents the Day of Judgment, and Call to Resurrection. Carrying the departed soul - a Guardian embracing the dead. The “messengers of God” are often shown escorting the deceased to Heaven. Flying- Rebirth. Many Angels gathered together in the clouds- represents Heaven. Weeping - grief, or mourning an untimely death.
- ARCH - Victory of life; or victory of death.
- ARMS OUTSTRETCHED - The plea for mercy.
- ARROW - Denotes mortality.
- BIBLE - Connotes a religious lay person or cleric.
- BIRD IN FLIGHT - Flight of the soul. Eternal life.
- BOOK - Faith or a scholar. A prayer, knowledge or memory (where it has a dog-eared page). It may represent the Book of Life and is often shown as a Bible.
- BUGLES - Resurrection; or military.
- BUTTERCUP - Cheerfulness.
- BUTTERFLY - The soul or symbolic of the resurrection of Christ. Short-life.
- CALLA LILY - Symbolizes marriage.
- CANDLE - Candles symbolize the spirit or the soul. In Christian contexts, candles can symbolize Jesus Christ.
- CANDLE, WITH FLAME - Eternal life.
- CHAINS - There was a medieval belief that a golden chain bound the soul to the body. Broken links on a headstone can mean the severance and subsequent release of the spirit from the body.
- CHALICE - Sacraments The headstones of priests often bear these symbols.
- CHERUBS - Angelic; the graves of children. Divine wisdom or justice.
- CIRCLE - It is universally known as the symbol of eternity and never-ending existence. Extremely common on gravesites, its usual representation is a cross surrounded by a circle. Two circles, one above the other, represent earth and sky. Three interconnected circles represent the Holy Trinity.
- CINQUEFOIL - Maternal affection, beloved daughter
- CLOUDS - Veil which conceals God from His worshippers
- CLOVER - The Trinity.
- COFFIN, SARCOPHAGUS, CEMETERY MONUMENT - Mortality
- COLUMNS - Noble Life. Broken - Early Death. Complete - signifies that life has been completed. Urn on top- a symbol of death. Shroud on urn - a funerary sign meaning burial. With Archway- Heavenly Entrance
- CONCH SHELL - Wisdom
- CHRIST, VIRGIN MARY, A SAINT, or AN ANGEL - Devotion to that holy figure; desire for their aid to attain heaven.
- CROCUS - Youthful gladness
- CROSS - The ties between all religious beliefs and symbolism have always been strong. To the Christians the greatest symbolic message is in the crucifix. Botonee Cross- So named because of its modified trefoil (three-lobed) ends, represents the trinity. Calvary Cross- A Latin cross standing on three steps or blocks, it signifies faith, hope and love. Celtic Cross- This is often seen in Kilmun.The circle around the crosspiece symbolizes eternity. There is a legend of how St. Patrick when preaching to some soon to be converted heathens was shown a sacred standing stone that was marked with a circle that was symbolic of the moon goddess. Patrick made the mark of a Latin cross through the circle and blessed the stone making the first Celtic Cross. It is said to serve as a double symbol of eternity and unity, both that of the Son with the Father and the Holy Spirit and that of the believer with the Trinity. Ionic Cross- Similar to the Celtic Cross, but the ends flare outward. The ionic cross signifies everlasting salvation, love and glory. The circle around the crosspiece symbolizes eternity. Latin Cross- One of the oldest symbols of Christianity and the most commonly used form, it is also the simplest in design. In early times, it was called God’s mark.
- CROSS AND CROWN - Victory with Christ over death
- CROSS AND ANCHOR - Another early Christian symbol referring to Christ as “hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sincere and steadfast” (Hebrews 6:19).
- CROSSED SWORDS - High-ranking military person.
- CROWN - Reward and glory. Sometimes juxtaposed with cross; indicates that earthly life includes suffering, and the afterlife, victory.
- CYPRESS TREE - Designates hope.
- DAFFODIL - Death of youth, but also desire, art, grace, beauty, deep regard.
- DAISY - Innocence of child, , gentleness, purity of thought.
- DOG - Signifying the loyalty and that the master was worth loving. The memorial may have been to a shepherd.
- DOGWOOD - Christianity, divine sacrifice, triumph of eternal life, resurrection.
- DOLPHIN - Salvation, bearer of souls to Heaven. Portrays the idea of resurrection.
- DOVE - An important symbolic animal in Christianity representing the Holy Spirit. The white dove is referred to in the story of baptism of Christi. “And John bore record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from Heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him.” (Bible John 1:32) The descending dove is a common motif on grave memorials. Also a symbol of peace.
- DOORS & GATES - Passage into the afterlife; Heavenly entrance.
- DRAPES - Sorrow, mourning.
- EAGLE - Suggests courage and possibly a military career, symbol for St. John
- EYE IN THE TRIANGLE - Eye of God in the Trinity, all seeing, all knowing. The eye within the triangle, surrounded by a circle and radiating rays of light is used to symbolize the holiness of the true God.
- FERN - Sincerity, sorrow.
- FIGS, PINEAPPLE - Prosperity, eternal life.
- FISH - Indicates Faith
- FLAME - Eternity
- FLEUR DE LIS - Flame, passion, ardour, mother.
- FRUITS - Eternal plenty.
- GARLAND or WREATH - Ancient symbol of victory, memory, passed to eternal life. Ivy Wreath- symbolic of gaiety, joviality. The wreath and festoon together symbolize memory. Laurel wreath- usually associated with someone who has attained distinction in the arts, literature, athletics or the military
- GEOMETRY COMPASS - In open position, often shown over open book, with letter “G” within angle of compass; Masonic affiliation
- GRAPES - Represents Christ, blood of Christ, God’s care or Last Supper.
- GRAPES W/LEAVES - Christian faith.
- GRIM REAPER - Death Personified
- HART (MALE DEER) - Represented either faithfulness or Christ slaying Satan.
- HANDS - One hand- the hand of God. Two hands (clasped) - holy matrimony; the person who died first holds the other’s hand, guiding the spouse to Heaven. Two hands praying – devotion.
- HARP - Associated with David in the Old Testament; symbol of St. Cecilia, patron saint of musicians. Symbolic of worship in Heaven, hope. Praise to God.
- HEART - Love, mortality, love of God, courage and intelligence. Bleeding- Christ’s suffering for our sins. Encircled with thorns- the suffering of Christ. Flaming- signifies extreme religious fervour. Pierced by a sword- used to represent charity.
- HOLLY - Foresight
- HORSE - Courage or generosity. An attribute of St. George, St. Martin, St. Maurice, and St. Victor, all of whom represented in Christian art on horseback.
- HORSESHOE - Protection against evil
- HOURGLASS - Swiftness of time; short life. Its use associated with personified figures of Death and Father Time comes out of a long tradition of mortuary symbolism. Rarely used alone; usually appeared along with hearts, stars, leaves, and sacred flowering vines. On its side- that time has stopped for the deceased. Winged- time and its swift flight.
- IHS (occasionally seen as IXC) - Signifies devotion to Jesus Christ; variously interpreted as an abbreviation for His name as spelled in ancient languages, or of the Latin phrase Iesu Hominum Salvator (Jesus, mankind’s Savior)
- IVY - Because it stays green forever, it has long been symbolic of immortality; eternal life. Friendship.
- KEYS -Keys stand for spiritual knowledge or, if held in the hands of an angel or saint, the means to enter heaven.
- KNOT - The interlaced Celtic knot represents resurrection and life everlasting.
- LABRYNTH - The passage of life.
- LAMB - This is the most common animal symbol found on a child’s grave. It signifies purity and innocence. The lamb is a symbol of Christ: “Behold the lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.” (Bible, John 1:29
- LADDER - Scale of perfection
- LAMP - Knowledge, a love of learning, and the immortality of the spirit.
- LILY - Innocence, purity, and resurrection. Often associated with the Virgin Mary and resurrection and used on women’s graves. The use of lilies at funerals symbolizes the restored innocence of the soul at death.
- LILY OF THE VALLEY - Return to happiness, purity, humility
- LION - Symbolizes the power of God and guards the tomb against evil spirits. Like other guardians, the lion’s watch is as eternal as the stone of which it is depicted. The lion also recalls the courage and determination of the souls which they guard, they manifest the spirit of the departed. Resurrection.
- MERMAID - Dualism of Christ – half God, half man
- MOSS - Merit.
- MORNING GLORY - Resurrection, mourning, youth, farewell, brevity of life, departure, mortality; beginning of life.
- OAK - Strength. The tree of life in pre-Christian times. The Druids worshipped the oak.
- OLIVE BRANCH - Peace; symbol of safety which the dove brought to Noah after the flood
- PALL, PICK, SPADE - Mortality
- PALM - Spiritual victory, success, eternal peace, a symbol of Christ’s victory over death
- PANSY - Symbolizes remembrance and humility.
- PASSION FLOWER - The elements of the passion of Christ: the lacy crown-the crown of thorns; the five stamens-the five wounds; the ten petals- the ten faithful apostles.
- PEACOCK - Symbolized the incorruptibility of flesh, resurrection, beauty of soul, immortality.
- PENTAGRAM - Christianity adopted the figure and the symbolism to suggest the five wounds suffered by Christ on the cross.
- PINEAPPLE - Hospitality, good host.
- PITCHER OR EWER - Traditional symbol found on a man’s gravestone.
- POPPY - Peace, rest, sleep, eternal sleep, consolation.
- PYRAMID - Eternity. It was supposed that a pyramid-shaped tombstone prevented the devil from reclining on a grave.
- R.I.P. - Requiescat In Pace (Rest In Peace)
- ROD or STAFF - Comfort
- ROOSTER - Awakening, courage, vigilance.
- ROSE - Love, beauty, hope, unfailing love, associated with the Virgin Mary, the “rose without thorns.” A red rose symbolizes martyrdom and a white rose symbolizes purity and virginity. The different stages of a rose’s bloom, is indicative of the person’s age at time of death. A bud - generally a child 12 years or under. Partial bloom- generally a teenager. Full bloom- normally in early/mid-twenties. The deceased died in the prime of life. Rosebud, broken- life cut short usually found with a young person’s grave. Rosebuds, joining- strong bond between two people (e.g. mother and child who died at the same time). Rosebuds, several on same branch- secrecy. Rosette- The Lord, messianic hope, promise, love. Wreath of rose- Beauty and virtue rewarded.
- SCROLL - Symbol of life and time. Both ends rolled up indicate a life that is unfolding like a scroll of uncertain length and the past and future hidden. Often held by a hand representing life being recorded by angels. The scroll can also suggest honour and commemoration.
- SCYTHE - Death, the divine harvest.
- SERPENT - Shown swallowing its own tail, it represents spiritual striving
- SHAMROCK - Ireland as country of origin.
- SHELL - Shell is symbolic of fertility, resurrection and pilgrimage. Shell, small stones, and coins are the traditional objects left at grave sites. There are several meanings given to this act. It may be a symbolic referral to the ancient custom of burying the dead under a cairn of rocks to protect the body from scavenging animals, or a reminder that the individual is not forgotten.
- SCALLOP - symbol of the Crusades, pilgrim, pilgrim’s journey, resurrection, life everlasting, connotes one’s life journey. A symbol of birth and resurrection, a traditional symbol of the Puritans.
- SHIP - The grave of a seafarer.
- SICKLE - Death as the “last harvest”.
- SKULL/SKELETON - Mortality; death.
- SNAKE in a CIRCLE - Everlasting life in Heaven.
- SOLDIER on HORSEBACK - If the horse has both front hoofs in the air, the person died in battle. If one hoof is raised, the person died as a result of wounds; if the horse has all four hoofs on the ground, the person died of natural causes.
- SQUARE - It represents the earth and earthly existence. Some monuments have a cube or square inverted to point the corners downward and upward. This illustrates earthly existence and the directions of earth and heaven
- SQUIRREL with NUT - Religious meditation or spiritual striving.
- STAR - Five-pointed star- Symbolic of the life of Christ or the five wounds of Christ. Five-pointed pentagram star- Its exact origin is unknown, and its meaning has changed throughout the ages. The pre-Christian Celtic priests called it the witch’s foot. It is also called Solomon’s Seal and was known in the Middle Ages as the goblin’s cross. Today the symbol is a favourite among graffiti artists and so-called demonology practitioners. Like the pentagon, it is believed to have protective powers against evil. In Wicca beliefs, it represents protection against demons and a symbol of safety. The ancient Babylonians used the symbol as a magic charm. The five-pointed pentagram star represents the five senses. In Judaism, it represents the five mosaic books. This symbol has also been adopted by Masonic organizations. The Star of David- six-pointed Star of David (it is typically used as a symbol of Judaism. The star is actually comprised of two triangles. It signifies divine protection as epitomized by the alchemistic signs for fire and water which are an upward and downward apexed triangle.
- SUN SETTING - Death.
- SUN RISING/SHINING or with RAYS - Renewed life; resurrection
- SWORD - A military career. Broken sword- life cut short. Crossed swords- life lost in battle.
- THISTLE - Earthly sorrow, Christ’s crown of thorns, Scotland as country of origin, remembrance.
- TREE - The all-covering love of Christ. Life, The Tree of Life.
- TORCH - Lit or upright the torch represents life.
- TORCH INVERTED - Life extinguished.
- TRIANGLE/TREFOIL - The symbol of the Trinity
- TRUMPETS - Victory and resurrection.
- TRUMPETERS - Heralds of the resurrection.
- URN - Symbol of mourning, the body as a vessel of the soul, originating as repository for the ashes of the dead in ancient times – a popular symbol of mourning.
- URN with BLAZE - Undying friendships
- VESSEL with FLAME - The eternal flame or the eternal spirit of man.
- VINE - The sacraments, God’s blood, God
- WEEPING WILLOW - Mourning, grief. Nature’s lament, a symbol of sorrow.
- WHEAT - Resurrection, bread and wine , fertility.
- WINGED FACE - Effigy of the soul of the deceased.
- WINGED GLOBE - On Victorian monuments it is symbolic of the power that can recreate and, with the wings, means, “God, Lord over all, creator.”
- WINGED SKULL - Flight of the soul from mortal man.
- WINGED WHEEL - Symbolized the Holy Spirit.
- WOMAN HANGING ONTO CROSS - Faith. Original drawing accompanied Rev. Also seen as woman clinging to pillar or anchor. Common motif on Masonic grave memorials.
- YEW TREE - Sadness, eternal life.