Why do we have animals on headstones?

Posted by AK Lander | On January 30, 2018 11:32

There are lots of symbols and emblems people expect to see on gravestones but some of these are surprising, though they do have historical and religious significance.

There are lots of symbols and emblems people expect to see on gravestones but some of these are surprising, though they do have historical and religious significance. Gravestone decoration goes in and out of fashion, with trends defining different eras and it can be difficult for those exploring the subject to understand what is relevant today.

Whether you are looking to understand what is suitable for a recent gravestone or have an interest in headstone ornamentation, we have explored why animals appear on gravestones.


carved bird on headstone

Birds have always been a symbol of freedom and have significance within a host of religions. Whether as a messenger to god or to represent the apostles, birds have a strong Christian link. However recently, the number of birds on a headstone could represent the number of grandchildren. 


carved dove on headstone

Doves are symbols of hope, peace and sacrifice so are popular motifs on headstones. As a white bird, they represent purity which is strongly linked to death. Signology describes the dove as: “Generally thought to be a symbol of peace. In Christianity, the dove is a symbol of the Holy Spirit (Holy Ghost) and represents the soul. It is also symbolic of love. A pair of doves is believed to be a symbol of love and fidelity. Doves are often released by couples on their wedding day as a symbol of purity and to signify the beginning of their new life together.”


carved eagle on headstone

Eagles are a symbol often associated with North America and freedom and in the USA they are popular on military and veteran resting places. They are also a representation of lots of societies, with the double-headed eagle being linked to Masonic orders or eagles with different initials being representative of fraternities.

John the Evangelist is portrayed with an eagle. Religion Facts explains this: “The eagle represents John because of his lofty and ‘soaring’ gospel (it is much more theological in nature than the other three.”


carved owl on headstone

Owls have been a symbol of wisdom since ancient Greece as it was representative of Athena, the goddess of wisdom. There is a link to owls and death however in Western culture, wisdom, clarity of vision and creativity are more popular motifs.


carved insect on headstone

Though insects are an unusual choice to aid the dead and depict their life, a few insects are occasionally seen on gravestones. The symbology behind insects is attached to everyday qualities.


carved butterfly on headstone

Butterflies are popular in everyday culture but as a symbol on a gravestone, they have a layered meaning. Regularly seen on children’s graves the metamorphoses element is powerful when related to death. According to the genealogy website Families, butterflies are important: “A butterfly, as you may have guessed, is the symbol of resurrection, and metamorphosis. It can also represent that the person lived a short life, or died an early death.”


carved bee on headstone

Mammals are popular and often seen either on or carved on top of gravestones, though each mammal has very different meaning. Often the animals of the Bible appear on headstones and they are often set to visualise the qualities they portray in parables.


carved lamb on headstone

The lamb is a clearly Christian symbol and as another animal that is portrayed as white, it is often seen as a pure creature. Headstone Symbols, a site owned by gothic photographer Amanda Norman, thinks the lamb is a clear symbol of innocence and sacrifice: “A lamb on a headstone often indicates the grave of an infant due to their innocence and this is especially true if there are no other headstone symbols to be seen.  The big giveaway is the age of the deceased marked on the headstone if available. In many religions, the lamb is also a symbol of sacrifice and therefore in some cases, it could be used for a person who was either innocent in life or that the deceased sacrificed something significant in their lifetime.”


carved winged lions on headstone

The winged lion is a representation of Mark the Evangelist however without wings, the lion is a symbol of power, courage and strength and often denotes a leader. Within the Christian face it is a double-edged sword, on one hand, it is power but it can also be vanity. Bible Meanings is clear about the lion within the Bible: “That a lion denotes the good of celestial love and the derivative truth, in its power, and also that in the opposite sense it denotes the evil of the love of self in its power, is evident from passages in the Word where a lion is mentioned.”


carved dog on headstone

Dogs have always been known as man’s best friend but it is their loyalty that sees them marked on headstones. Whether they appear as a visualisation of the person’s loyalty, or a beloved family pet, they are a popular motif on graves.


Image Credit: Wikipedia Commons, tarotizefotoerichF DelventhalptrabattoniJim Wise