When researching family history, a trip to a cemetery is often a fruitful experience that can lead to breakthroughs in your research. Walking among the graves can lead to exciting discoveries in terms of names, dates, and other crucial information, not to mention the fact that the bittersweet feeling of being physically close to your ancestors is an experience in itself.
However, many people aren’t making the most of their cemetery visits because they’re overlooking some important symbols and icons. These carefully carved symbols are more than just design features; they could be pointing toward critical information like how an ancestor passed away or how they lived.
Here are some of the most popular ones that you may come across.
The American Flag
The American flag on tombstones is one of the most common symbols that you’ll find on graves in the US. It obviously symbolizes pride and courage and is, of course, used to mark the resting place of a military veteran here in the US.
So, if you didn’t already know how your great uncle spent his life—the American flag on his grave should give you a hint.
An Elk Head Marked “BPOE”
The US has quite a few fraternal organizations, and the Elks enjoy their reputation as one of the most active and largest of these organizations.
The organization is called the Benevolent Protective Order of the Elks, represented by the letters B, P, O, and E, along with an elk head. It currently has more than one million members but was founded in 1868, so there’s a slight chance of an ancestor being a member of this organization.
A Broken Column
If you see a broken column in a cemetery, it could be due to vandalism or general damage, but it could also be intentionally carved as a symbol—the distinction between the two would be obvious to a certain extent.
A gravestone designed as a broken column would indicate a life being cut short, i.e., the death of someone who died young. Of course, the gravestone’s birth and death dates would help confirm this.
An Eastern Orthodox Cross
If you’ve come across a distinctly different cross in a cemetery, it is very likely the Eastern Orthodox Cross, also known as Ukraine, Russian, Byzantine, or Slavic Cross. It has two extra beams that set it apart from the typical Christian cross and is generally found on graves belonging to those who followed the Eastern Orthodox faith..
It could be an exciting discovery if you were to come across this cross on an ancestor’s grave, especially if your family no longer identifies as Eastern Orthodox.
Coats of Armor and Heraldic Shields
This symbol is associated with The Order of Knights of Pythias, an international fraternal organization founded in 1864. It was originally a secret society with government clerks as members, but it isn’t really a secret anymore, given that at its absolute height, it had close to a million members.
Its symbol on a tombstone has some variations, including a coat of armor with a heraldic shield and the letters F, B, and C (friendships, benevolence, charity), or it could be crossbones and a skull with the heraldic shield. You may even see the letter K and P, i.e., Knights of Pythias or I O L P, which stands for Independent Order of Knights of Pythias.
So, if you see a similar symbol on an ancestor’s tombstone, that’s a significant indication that they may have been affiliated with the Knights of Pythias.
Of course, these are only a few symbols you’ll find in a cemetery. So, if you’ve come across an icon on an ancestor’s grave that you don’t recognize, reach out to us.