There are several creative ways for families to honor a loved one’s memory— such as placing tribute items on their headstone.
Decorating a loved one’s gravesite not only personalizes the memorial with its own unique cemetery symbolism, but also provides comfort to families.
Many grave mementos are rooted in history and tradition. Below, we offer insight on five of the most common items families place on graves and the meaning behind them.
Flowers are what we see most often when visiting cemetery gravesites.
The practice of leaving flowers at graves began thousands of years ago when the ancient Greeks would honor fallen warriors. They believed that if the flowers rooted into the ground and grew from the gravesite, it was a sign that the fallen had found peace.
In more recent history, Decoration Day was started three years after the Civil War as a time for American citizens to decorate the graves of fallen soldiers with flowers. Those in charge of Decoration Day chose to celebrate in the spring on May 30 because they wanted to make sure the greatest number of flowers were in bloom across the country. Today, we call Decoration Day Memorial Day.
>>> This article will teach you everything you need to know about buying real or artificial flowers for gravesites.
What Does Each Kind of Flower Symbolize?
A flower’s meaning can vary. The following are commonly placed and have known cemetery symbolism:
- Deep, dark, crimson roses signify mourning.
- Lilies stand for innocence, purity or majesty.
- Red roses represent love, respect or courage.
Learning to use certain flowers for specific cemetery symbolism can help all of us honor our loved ones appropriately.
Stones and Rocks
Besides flowers, the most common items left on graves are stones and rocks. Although originally a Jewish custom, it is now a practice embraced by all faiths.
Believe it or not, there is a difference between leaving stones versus rocks at a gravesite.
For thousands of years, people memorialized their loved ones by burying and stacking stones—also known as cairns—on top of their graves to mark the burial site and protect them from animals.
Today, leaving rocks on a grave is a way of continuing this tradition to commemorate loved ones. Rocks serve as an easy and small way for anyone to show they were at the cemetery to visit and honor their loved ones.
The Jewish religion uses the placement of a rock or pebble on a headstone to keep the soul of the deceased “where it belongs.”
Coins are commonly placed on gravesites and rooted in many various traditions and superstitions.
Coins on Veteran Graves
At cemeteries throughout America, it’s common for veteran and current military personnel to leave monetary coins when visiting the grave of a fallen comrade. Each coin left holds its own meaning:
- Pennies left on the headstone simply let family, friends and other visitors know that you visited.
- Nickels signify you and the fallen trained together.
- Dimes show you served together.
- Quarters tell the family that you were there when the veteran passed away.
Although the origin of this tradition is up in the air, many believe it started during the Vietnam War as a result of the political divide. Leaving a coin was an easy way to say you appreciate the soldier's service without discussing the politics of the war.
This custom is more prevalent on Memorial Day, but many veterans will leave a coin whenever they visit the grave of a fallen comrade. Typically, the coins are collected and used to help pay for cemetery maintenance or future veteran funerals.
Other Coin Traditions
Coins left on a headstone mainly denote military significance. However, there are several superstitions that compel people to leave money at the gravesites of their loved ones.
One common tradition is connected to Greek Mythology. The legend says that Charon, the ferryman of Hades, requires payment to transport your loved one’s soul across the river that separates the living from the deceased.
Another reference for coins on gravesites is attributed to the notorious Donnelly family. Legend has it that if you leave a coin on the Donnelly tombstone and make a wish, the Donnellys will grant that wish.
The superstition has expanded, and now people believe that their lost loved one will grant them a wish if they leave a penny on their headstone.
Grave blankets are another form of cemetery symbolism—and no, we aren’t referring to a quilt placed on your loved one’s gravesite. It is actually an evergreen arrangement woven into a natural blanket that can be laid out over a grave.
Brought over by Scandinavian settlers in that region, grave blankets are traditionally used in the Midwest. They are usually placed on gravesites before the first snow to serve as a symbolic gesture to tuck in a loved one and keep them warm during the winter.
Similar to a grave blanket, headstone saddles serve as another evergreen option for cemetery symbolism. As the name implies, a memorial or headstone saddle is like a horse saddle that sits on top of a memorial.
They are designed for upright monuments, which have an elevated, flat surface to place the saddle upon.
With the help of Styrofoam or another material, an entire flower arrangement will stay put in the saddle and not be blown away in the wind. The device also is adhered to the stone to ensure it will not shift or fall from different weather conditions.
Create Your Own Cemetery Symbolism
Although it’s interesting to learn the history behind some of these mementos, it’s important to understand that what you place at a loved one’s monument is completely up to you.
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