Topic: Headstone Symbolism in Linwood Cemetery

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A living page describing the headstone symbolism found in Linwood Cemetery

As you walk around Linwood Cemetery  you can't help but be curious about the symbols carved on the majority of the headstones.  Pictures have always been used to communicate, more so in times when people could not read or write very well.  In Victorian times (1850-1901) there was a whole language of symbolism developed from early imagery and used in pattern, jewellery and memorials which continued through the First World War (1914-1918) slowly fading out.  We have retained a small portion of this language today - roses for romance, rosemary for remembrance, etc.  

Symbols were also used to indicate an occupation, interest or national identity.  Linwood Cemetery reflects a time in New Zealand history when observing the Christian (or by heritage, Hebrew) faith was culturally obligatory.  Aethism was frowned upon and socially unacceptable.  Therefore most of the existing headstones reflect Christian imagery (or Jewish in the Hebrew Congregation Blocks 16 and 19)

Rather than create a Dictionary of Headstone Symbolism here, we have added links to other international websites that have already done so.  Gravestone Symbolism (USA) Arnos Vale Cemetery (UK).  There are many more groups of symbols, in Linwood Cemetery than we can list here.

It also needs to be remembered that it is unusual for the deceased person to have had a say in the design of their headstone, this task being left to the family or in quite a few cases in Linwood Cemetery, co-workers, friends or the community.


 Headstone Symbolism - ISH - B45P274 GREEN 

This symbol, often mistakenly thought to be a dollar sign, is actually the capital letters I H S laid on top of each other. It can alternately be seen in the form IC, XC or XPS, though there needs to be further research to identify if this version appears in Linwood Cemetery.

It is a Christian symbol traditionally identifying the person buried is of the Catholic faith, in Linwood Cemetrey it is also found on headstones in areas of other, mainly Anglican Christian denominations.

The symbol's use can be traced back to the 8th century in Europe and, over time, it has had many different definitions attributed to it, all essentially meaning devotion to Jesus Christ.

Most commonly IHS is regarded as representing the first three letters of Jesus Christ’s name in Greek, iota eta sigma. When capitalised, the word eta appears as ‘H’ - or alternatively in Latin as Ihesus.

The meaning In His Service or In His Steps. is now widely disputed.

Some sources believe IHS stands for the Latin phrase Iesus Hominum Salvator = "Jesus saviour of mankind" or is the IHS in dn ihs chs rex regnantium = “Jesus Christ is King of Kings”. When in the form IHSV it stands for In Hoc Signo Vinces =“In this sign you shall conquer”.

Whatever the interpretation, they are similar and nothing to do with the person's financial status but a symbol of Christian devotion - and more often associated with the Catholic or High Anglican church. 


The Angel


The angel is a traditional Christian religious icon of a benevolent spiritual being that's been given the authority of God to weild His power, carry His messages and represent Him on earth.  Usually shown in human form with large wings and a long robe, angels belong to the ninth and lowest order of the Christian heirachy of heavenly beings.  Despite their often feminine appearance in statues and paintings, every reference to angels in the original Greek Scripture is in the masculine form angelos - believed to be more a reference to the authority than to gender.

In common usage "angel" is a noun for a person who acts with high standards of kindness, helpfulness and gentleness.  When used on grave plots it denotes the person interred had those qualities.

There is also a symbolic "language" of cemetery angels.  As with Kerr's Angel (Block 34 Plots 94 & 95), an angel pointing upward is leading the soul toward heaven and it's reward of life after death.  An angel with a trumpet represents the call to resurrection; with an extinguished torch, that life is extinguished; a rolled up scroll in his hand shows the deceased's life has been recorded; a star on the angel's crown - the deceased's spirit is rising to heaven.

There were many angels on graves in Linwood Cemetery, some in white porcelain, but over the years they have been vandalised and Kerr's Angel (Block 34 Plots 94 & 95) was the only one standing.  It came down in the 2011 February eathquake, but the Friends of Linwood Cemetery had the monument restored so the angel stands atop again.



"I will strive to live with love and care
Upon the level, by the square."

Dated 1507 and Found inscribed on a brass square at Ball's Bridge Limerick, Ireland

The ancient fraternity of Freemasonry uses many "religious, construction and architectural forms" as symbols;

 "Viewing God as the architect and builder of the universe, Freemasonry intends to build the temple of humanity through self-improvement with stone-masonry work. The compass, used in geometric calculations, symbolizes creation and the spirit. The set-square draws perfect right angles, so represents uprightness and lawfulness. The compass and the square measure things, so they symbolize judgment. They also represent geometry, and the union of the sky (the compass's circle) and the earth (the square). The letter "G" in this symbol represents God, geometry and geomancy." []

The symbolism associated with Freemasonry was carried through onto headstones. As the Friends of Linwood Cemetery look in detail at headstones in Linwood Cemetery we are finding many associated with Freemasonry and hope also to find out more about the role The Craft played in their lives. The first Grand Master of the Freemasons of NZ, Henry THOMSON is also buried in Linwood Cemetery (Block 14 Plot 4).  We also understand that the use of black and white tiles on a grave plot may also indicate that the person interred in the plot was a Freemason.

Headstone Symbolism - Freemasons - B29P8 SEY Headstone Symbolism - Freemasons - B30P200 ASHFORD Headstone Symbolism - Freemason - B36P205 JOHNSON 

Freemansonry - Euclid's 47th Proposition (or Pythagorus' Theorem)


So far we have found three headstones etched with the symbol of Euclid's 47th Proposition - more commonly recognised at Pythagoras' Theorem ("The square on the hypotenuse is equal to the sum of the squares on both sides").  A roughly hewn symbol on Block 21 Plot 221 SMITH kept us wondering for quite sometime until, with the help of Friends, we identified the precisely drawn symbols on Block 24 Plot 226 TRIBE and Block 20 Plot 59 HENRIKSEN. From the little we have read, this symbol may indicate that the person was a Past Master.

Masonic Lodge of Education

Old Age New Age-ism - Our Father's Church

Our Father's Church Symbol

Often mistaken for a Star of David, this symbol is that of the Our Father's Church which was formed in July 1892. A 'Free Church' devised by James O'Bryen HOARE who is buried in Block 36 Plot 272. A former Anglican preacher at St Paul's, Papanui, he chaired The Metaphysical Club of Christchurch which he started in 1897 as a forum for lectures and information "To promote interest in & Practice of a Spiritual Philosophy of Life & Health".

The Star shows the six aspects of the Church's Reign of Law - "Let there be Light" by which it's followers were to aspire to; Constant Advance, Power of Life, Solidarity of (Human) Race, Brotherhood of Man, Divinity of Man, All Things Sacred.

So far, as well as James HOARE's headstone, we have also found this symbol on Block 30 Plot 83 Osborne COOMBE, a music teacher, and we believe the brother of the Club's Secretary Miss Coombe. 


The image of a hand or a pair of hands is common on headstones in Linwood Cemetery and there is also a language to the symbolism. In everyday life, the traditional pakeha form of greeting is to shake hands, and also on parting.  Therefore hands on a headstone represent leaving this earth and could also be greeting a loved one who had already pre-deceased the person who has died - or God. 

Pointed finger

Headstone Symbolism - Hands - B43P57&58 McCALLUM 

In this example on Block 43 Plot 57 & 58 McCALLUM, the hand, holding a broken chain has the finger pointing down.  This could represent sudden death, the hand being that of God and the chain representing a life that is now broken.  In some cases it could also represent the Masonic handshake, but whether the person was a Freemason should be checked and not taken for granted from any headstone symbols.

When the finger is pointing upwards, it indicates the person who has died will ascend to heaven.

 Cementing a Relationship - Clasped Hands

Clasped hands symbol

A hand or pair of hands carved on a headstone is quite common in older cemeteries, though it is now out of fashion. The pair of clasping hands at the end of distinctive cuffs is the hand symbol most prevalent in Linwood Cemetery. Usually the left cuff has a frill representing a woman's blouse and on the right it is a man's shirt cuff. Chosen to symbolise the 'farewell' said between loved ones, in some countries it is also used as a Masonic and Independent Order of Foresters symbol.


We have found four headstones depicting music on them in Linwood Cemetery. 

Headstone Symbolism - Music - B24P77 HORNE 

Block 24 Plot 77 HORNE has the first verse of a hymn 'Art Thou Weary' on it. 


Headstone Symbolism - Music - B21P209 GARRY 

Block 21 Plot 209 GARRY has a mixture of musical notes, numbers and letters on a couple of staves spelling out his name and dates. 

Headstone Symbolism - Music - B23P2 POST  

Block 23 Plot 2 POST spells Ada, the first name of Mr POST

Headstone Symbolism - Music - B21P167 BLOOMGREN

Block 21 Plot 167 BLOOMGREN, a very well known musician of his time, has the symbol for a sustained pause.  He accidentally drowned of New Brighton on 23rd December 1908.  His headstone states it was "erected by his comrades of the Vice-Regal Orchestra and West's Pictures O..."   Click here for more information.

 The Draped Urn

Cremation was an early form of preparing the dead for burial. In some cultures, especially in classical times, it was more common than burial. The shape of the container in which the ashes were placed may have taken the form of a simple box or a marble vase, but no matter what it looked like it was called an "urn," derived from the Latin uro, meaning "to burn."

As burial became a more common-practice, the urn continued to be closely associated with death. The urn is commonly believed to testify to the death of the body and the dust into which the dead body will change, while the spirit of the departed eternally rests with God.

The cloth draping the urn symbolically guarded the ashes. The shroud-draped urn is believed by some to mean that the soul has departed the shrouded body for its trip to heaven. Others say that the drape signifies the last partition between life and death.


Pretzel? Knot!

Staffordshire Knot We were sure Eugene George Henri MAINWARING (Block 20 Plot 134) must have been a Master Baker when we saw the pretzel symbol carved on his headstone, but research revealed he was the ninth son of Rear Admiral MAINWARING of Whitmore Hall in the UK. As his mother was a countess from the Weimar district (today's Austria) and the pretzel is also a symbol of North European Catholic origin, this seemed a good fit. But, no, the Weimar district coat of arms does not depict a pretzel nor is he buried in the Catholic section of the cemetery, but the Anglican. A frustrating search of English peerage and heraldry also drew a blank and an e-mail to Whitmore Hall went unanswered.

Then Sarndra Lees, our researcher in Auckland, found information about the Staffordshire Knot at the same time that Craig Cormack was researching the owner of a Staffordshire Regiment cap badge also depicting the knot. And yes, Whitmore Hall is in Staffordshire!

Dove and Gates

Headstone Symbolism - Dove & Gates - B29P43 RUSSELL 

This finely carven image of a dove flying over open gates is on the grave plot of a child Denley William RUSSELL who died at 7.5 months on 12 June 1899 and can be found at Block 29 Plot 43.

From fragments found on some grave plots, there were several porcelain doves on headstones in Linwood Cemetery but these have vandalised a long time ago.  The dove is another Christian symbol representing a pure unsullied soul, so particulary popular for children's grave plots. In the Christian Bible, at Jesus's baptism it says;

"And John bore record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him" (Bible, John 1:32). []

The gates are the gates of heaven - open to receive the dead person's spirit.

Open Book

Headstone Symbolism - Books - B29P84 CONWAYHeadstone Symbolism - Book - B36P225 BEARDSLEY 

An open book is also a symbol that appears on grave plots in Linwood Cemetery.  It can be a motif carved on a headstone as on Block 29 Plot 84 CONWAY which has the words THY WILL BE DONE in lead lettering on the pages of the book - words from the main Christian prayer.  Or the head stone can itself appear in the shape of an open book with inscriptions recording the name of the persons in the plot and their information on each page as in Block 36 Plot 225 BEARDSLEY.

The book can represent the Book of Life - the belief that all our deeds are recorded on a book in heaven, or the bible.  It may also represent that the person's occupation was that of a teacher, scholar, librarian, maybe even a publisher.


As mentioned above, there was a whole language of flowers.  If you look at McCALLUM above, you will see ivy carved as a border around the pointed fingered hand.  Ivy by its nature is hard to eradiacte, binds anyhthing in its way and grows upwards.  It is no surprise that in flower symbolism,  Ivy represents binding, eduring friendship and that the person is heading for heaven.

Several headstones have a bunch of flowers caved on them.  It could be that the common names of the flowers in the bunch spell a message, a quality of the person's personality, or their name.

Headstone Symbolism -Flowers - BB29P148&150 WHITMORE

The bunch of flowers on Block 29 plot 148&150 is unlikely to spell the full name of the grave's occupant - Tamerlane Vitruvious WHITMORE.  But it would be interesting to be able to decipher what they do spell, if anything, or whether the person commissioning the headstone just wanted flowers on the headstone so thre was always some associated with the plot in place of fresh ones.  There are four different flowers in the posy, two of which are a rose and a daisy.

National Identity

The New Zealand pakeha population are mainly descended from European immigrants and some headstones have an inscription that clearly tell the visitor where the person buried in the grave came from.  Linwood Cemetery is divided into areas by faith and so in the Scottish Presbytarian section you would expect to find evidence of Scottish heritage.  This can be found in the use of pink granite - a Scottish stone brought over as ballast in the trade ships and in some of the symbols on the headstones as in the thistles, the national flower of Scotland,  on the cuffs of the clasped hands on STINNEAR-RAMSBOTTOM-ISHERWOOD (Block 30 Plot 6)

Headstone Symbolism - Thistle - B30P6 STINNEAR 

Six-Pointed Star

The six pointed Star of David appear on many of the headstones in the Jewish section (Block 16 and 19) as it is a symbol of that faith, but it also appears on some headstones stones outside of that area.

As mentioned above, the Church of Our Father used it, and it also appears on some masonic headstones and could also be used to indicate a person from Northern Ireland who is of the protestant faith as it is used on the flag of Ulster.  Again, knowing more about the person's life can give a better idea of the meaning intended by the person commissioning the headstone.


© The Friends of Linwood Cemetery Charitable Trust

Revised 2nd September 2018 by Alexandra.  

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Headstone Symbolism in Linwood Cemetery