Let’s Discuss: Cemetery Symbolism

Written by Meghan Gattignolo, Visitor Services Coordinator

Greenwood Cemetery in Clarksville, Tennessee is the final resting place for many distinguished and well-known Clarksville residents. A walking tour of this beautiful place is not only filled with the individual stories of the deceased, but also includes discussion about the plethora examples of funerary art seen on many nineteenth-century headstones. In comparison, more recent stones can seem quite plain. Here are some examples of symbolism you will see on a tour of Greenwood Cemetery.


Within Judeo-Christian traditions, the lamb symbolizes purity, innocence and sacrifice. Lambs were often sacrificed to show obedience to God, and Jesus Christ is indeed often referred to as the Lamb of God. Reclining stone lambs often adorn the graves of children. For parents, the lambs serve as a tranquil reminder of their belief that children belong to God first and can be recalled to Heaven any time. Though losing your child is a hideous sacrifice, knowing a child’s soul is safe in Heaven is a clement belief.

Headstone with an ornate lamb on it. Headstone reads 'Darrell Nicholson, May 17, 1939 - April 26, 1947.

Photos of Greenwood Cemetery

Veiled Urns

In order to understand the use of symbols, it is important to note that during the nineteenth-century, a resurgence in classical old-world images and structures emerged. Archaeological digs on sites in Rome, Greece, and Egypt during this time contributed greatly to the interest. As a consequence, cemeteries and memorials built during this time featured columns and obelisks within the architecture, alongside religious symbols. An example is the prevalence of the veiled urn in cemeteries. The urn itself serves to represent the earthly remains of the person, while the veil is the ethereal veil that separates mortals from Heaven. Ironically, a tiny percentage of people during the 1800s were cremated.  In ancient Rome, however, saving remains of loved ones in ornate urns was wide-spread.

Ornate marker toped with an urn at Greenwood Cemetery

Photos of Greenwood Cemetery


Angels are also symbols of the Judeo-Christian tradition. The faithful often incorporate images such as angels to soothe afterlife anxieties, regardless of the century. Angels are attributed to a wide array of associations depending upon the position, attitude of stance and item the angel is holding. On the most basic level, angels represent mediators between God and human beings. An angel with a trumpet can be announcing the coming judgement day, or be representative specifically of Gabriel whose attribute is a trumpet. The Archangel Michael carries a sword, a warrior defeating evil. Cherubs and weeping angels decorate the graves of children, or someone who experienced an untimely death.

Ornate young, female angel holding a trumpet atop a marker at Greenwood Cemetery.

Photos of Greenwood Cemetery


Clasped hands are another interesting common symbol in nineteenth-century cemeteries. A hand holding another hand represents saying good-bye to a loved one. However, any special details can alter the meaning. An image where one hand is higher than the other can represent God or a waiting loved one as pulling the deceased into Heaven, or greeting them at Heaven’s door. Also, if one of the hands features a descending, out-stretched pinkie finger, this represents one party of a married couple has passed away unexpectedly, maybe even so quickly the bereaved spouse has not had enough time to fully grasp their deceased spouse’s hand. 

Headstone at Greenwood Cemetery reads M.C. Wife of C.D. Rudolph, Oct. 2, 1832 - May 27, 1917.

Photos of Greenwood Cemetery

Do not miss your last chance to tour Greenwood Cemetery with the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center for the year on Saturday, November 7 at 10 AM. Tour space is limited and sell out quickly. 

Meghan Gattignolo

Meghan Gattignolo is the Customs House Museum & Cultural Center’s Visitor Services Coordinator and regularly contributes articles to the Museum’s blog. From a military family, Meghan has spent most of her life in Clarksville. She loves learning about Clarksville’s history and writing. Meghan holds a B.A. in History from Austin Peay State University, with minors in German and Political Science. She lives in Clarksville with her husband and two daughters. 

Maegan Collins, Media & Communications Coordinator, prepares photographs and visual images as well as prepares the blog posts for the web.

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