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Symbol: Something that represents something else by association, resemblance, or convention.

-American Heritage Dictionary

 Nowhere is the language of symbols more apparent than in cemeteries. Dead men may tell no tales, but their tombstones do.

-Douglas Keister, Stories in Stone


Both Fairmount and Riverside Cemeteries in Denver were founded in the heyday of the “rural garden cemetery” movement that had travelled steadily westward since its beginning with Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA, in 1831. Both also reflect the transition from the historic Western view of cemeteries as “boot hills” or “bone yards” to a belief that final resting places could be places of beauty to be enjoyed both for the horticulture and the art inherent in the many monuments and markers. Adorning those markers are myriad symbols chosen by relatives (or sometimes in advance by the deceased themselves) that reflect the character and/or interests of the cemeteries’ permanent “residents.” While interpreting such symbols is an inexact science, many “gravestone scholars” have devoted years to cataloging the most common symbols, often suggesting multiple meanings for a single image. There is little question that a knowledge of symbolism (or iconography) will enhance your visit to any cemetery. Perhaps the symbols seen most frequently at both cemeteries are urns (universal symbols of sorrow) and obelisks (pillars of Egyptian origin that represent eternal life). Both urns and obelisks often are draped, symbolizing mourning.We encourage you to find these — and others like them — as you explore these historic spots.

 All Photos by Wynn Montgomery

FAUNA (Birds, Animals, etc.)

Animals on cemetery markers often represent a beloved pet, but many may also represent attributes that the deceased possessed.

  • Dog

Dogs most often pay homage to a beloved pet, but also are traditional symbols of loyalty and vigilance. The image of 13-year-old’s  dog now guards his master’s Riverside grave (Block 5) as does a similar canine at Fairmount (Block 25).

  •  Horse

The horse that stands above Addison Baker’s grave at Riverside (Block 5) is based on his favorite Arabian stallion, Ari. This monument is a rare example of a horse without a rider, a saddle, or other trappings. The horse on a more recent Riverside (Block 16) monument suggests that a young football fan rests there. You will find no horses at Fairmount.

FLORA (Flowers, Plants, & Trees)

Flowers have served as symbols of remembrance for as long as people have memorialized their dead.

  • Ivy 

Ivy, a symbol of undying affection, often clings to stumps and on many other markers.

  • Lily

The Easter (or Madonna) lily is a symbol of purity or chastity and perhaps resurrection. Lilies are found throughout both cemeteries—such as those that adorn the Miller (Fairmount, Block 2) and the Knox (Riverside, Block 19E) markers. Perhaps the Lilley family (Riverside, Block 28) chose this flower simply because of its name.

  • Lotus 

The lotus is a powerful symbol in Eastern and Egyptian cultures, suggesting purity, perfection, and spiritual grace.

  • Palm frond 

The palm frond represents victory over death

  • Pine cone 

The pinecone is an ancient symbol of fertility and regeneration.

  • Rose 

The rose, a symbol of love and beauty, can be carved (Anderson, Riverside, Block 8) or etched (Hughes, Fairmount, Block 8).   The interlocked hearts on the Hughes marker also symbolize love and matrimony.

  • Thistle 

The thistle is associated with earthly sorrow

  • Tree Stump 

Tree stumps often are erected by Woodmen of the World, but also are symbols of a life cut short.

  • Weeping Willow 

The weeping willow symbolizes sorrow and mourning

  • Wheat   

A sheaf of wheat indicates a long and fruitful life.


Secret societies, clubs, and fraternal organizations were at the height of their popularity from the end of the Civil War until the Great Depression, and many markers at both Fairmount and Riverside carry the symbol of one or more of these groups, many of which are still active. The two most frequently seen are the Masons and Woodmen of the World. Both the Benevolent Protective Order of Elks (BPOE) and the Knights of Pythias provided sections where some “absent brothers” are interred; other members of these orders rest in family plots. Each of the fraternal orders, except the Elks, have female auxiliaries with their own symbols.

  •  Colorado Pioneer

Membership in the Society of Colorado Pioneers was limited to those who settled in the area before 1861, when the Colorado Territory was created with boundaries identical to those of the current state. Riverside contains a section (Block 28) with the graves of 46 such Pioneers. Most Pioneers’ headstones, like Schinner (Fairmount, Block 6) simply say “Pioneer.” Some add the date of arrival. A few, like the Curtis marker (Riverside, Block 1), bear a “logo” that contains a gold pan, a rifle, a shovel, and a pickax.

  • Woodmen of the World/Women of Woodcraft.

Until 1920, this fraternal organization provided headstones as well as insurance to its members. Those markers came in a variety of shapes, the most frequent being logs or tree stumps such as McKelvey (Fairmount, Block 11). Most incorporate the WoW motto (“Dum Tacet Clamat”: “Though Silent He Speaks”) and seal or some of the four items incorporated in that seal (a dove, an ax, a maul, a wedge) such as Benson (Riverside, Block 8). Note that a tree stump without some WoW identification is also a common symbol as discussed elsewhere. Fred Falkenburg, whose statue is at Fairmount (Block 17), was a WoW leader.


 Human forms (both mortal and immortal) are found throughout cemeteries. Whether they represent actual people or are purely symbolic, these images often are among the most detailed examples of the sculptors’ art. In addition to depictions of the entire body, certain appendages and organs appear frequently.

  • Angel

Angels, which not are plentiful as you might expect in these cemeteries, are intermediaries between God and humans. Often they are obviously guardian angels, such as on the elaborate Fisher monument (Fairmount, Block A), pointing or leading the way to Heaven. Others hold the Book of Life or a scroll on which they are recording the events of that person’s life (Green- Riverside, Block 1)

  • Mourner/Weeper

These human figures may be kneeling (McNeill, Riverside, Block 19E), standing (Riethmann, Fairmount, Block 3), sitting, or lying prostrate across the marker. They may be leaning on a cross or an anchor (a symbol of hope) or carrying a garland or wreath. They are anonymous symbols of the grief of the survivors, and they are almost always females.


The objects that adorn cemetery markers may have religious significance, or they may depict the vocation or avocation of the deceased.

  •  Pillow

Victorians preferred to think of death as a long sleep, so some markers took the form of pillows or cushions such as those of Lawrence (Fairmount, Block 10) and Stockton (Riverside, Block 8).

  • Wreath

Whether made of flowers (Stille, Riverside, Block 5) or laurel leaves (Hill, Fairmount, Block A), wreaths and any other circular object represent eternity (life after death). As shown, wreaths may be held by a mourner (or an angel) or surrounded by other symbols. They also may be the sole item on a marker.


Some frequent cemetery sightings, including markers of a special shape and certain lettering on these and other markers, do not fit any of categories discussed elsewhere. The most common of these are described and interpreted here.

  • Alpha & Omega

These are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet, usually interwoven, symbolizing Christ as “the beginning and the end” (Revelation 21:6). Examples include Iliff (Fairmount, Block 63) and Routt (Riverside, Block 1).

  • IHS

These letters, usually overlaid and resembling a dollar sign, often appear on a cross (Steiner, Fairmount, Block 9), but not always (Huddart, Riverside, Block 15E). The most commonly accepted of several beliefs regarding the significance of these letters is that they represent the first three letters of Jesus’ name in Greek (iota, eta, sigma) and thus indicate identity of the individual with Christ.


  • Gravestone Symbolism (
  • Gravestone Symbolism (
  • Hacker, Debi. Iconography of Death: Common Symbolism of Late 18th Through Early 20th Century Tombstones in the Southeastern United States. Columbia, SC: Chicora Foundation, 2001.
  • Keister, Douglas. Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography. Layton, UT: Gibbs Publishing, 2004.