Headstone Symbols: Anchor

The meaning of the symbols commonly found on cemetery gravestones and markers

Anchor in front of tombstone
You might run across a maritime anchor like this in a cemetery, but what does it mean?. Photo © Chris Raymond

Depending upon your perspective, a cemetery, church graveyard or memorial park can prove a location to avoid as long as humanly possible or a place of fascination and even enjoyment. For many in the latter camp, visiting the silent stone sentinels and mute metal markers found in a cemetery offers an opportunity to pay homage to the dead, trace their family history and genealogy, capture interesting photographs, or find moments of solitude and contemplation.

If you've visited a cemetery for any reason at some point, you might have wondered about a design you saw carved on an old tombstone and what it means. This article examines the meaning behind the headstone symbols commonly found in cemeteries, church graveyards and memorial parks and, specifically, what an anchor represents.

The Symbol

In use for millennia to help boats or ships stay in one position on the water, anchors have taken countless forms during the history of seafaring. Probably beginning with large rope-bound rocks, the evolution of anchor forms/styles has also included baskets or bags filled with sand or rocks, lead-filled logs and even human-shaped stones with grooves along their edges or holes in the middle for a retrieval rope or chain.

Eventually, the maritime anchor evolved into the shape most familiar to us today, i.e., a central vertical shaft or "shank" affixed to a rope or chain at the top, with two curved arms extending outward/upward from the bottom of the shaft.

While there are now numerous forms/styles of seafaring anchors, it's generally easy to recognize an anchor symbol in a cemetery, graveyard or memorial park context.

Please note that it's common to find an anchor in one of three different forms in a cemetery: Carved onto the tombstone or gravemarker itself as a decoration or meaningful symbol; a complete headstone or monument in the three-dimensional form of an anchor; or (as shown in the photograph above), a genuine maritime anchor placed next to an otherwise traditional gravestone.

The Meaning

Usually, the presence of an anchor on or near a cemetery headstone or gravemarker signifies hope. As noted above, the purpose of an anchor is to hold a boat or ship in one position on the water, often when the existing current, tide or a storm threatens to thwart our needs and/or desires. Thus, anchors have often served as symbols of hope in art, literature and scripture to depict the struggles of human beings against the (literal) forces of nature, or the (metaphorical) battles people wage against the tempests of life, such as sin, temptation, misdirection from a chosen path, etc.

The concept of an anchor as a symbol of hope might arise from the Bible. For instance, a passage in Hebrews concerning the Christian promise of eternal salvation through faith in God reads: "Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and stedfast, and which entereth into that within the veil."

In addition, Jesus called the apostle Peter the "rock" upon which the Christian Church would be built.

In this biblical context, a rock, like an anchor, provides solidity, steadfastness and reliability. Similarly, in the United States, the history/legends surrounding the Pilgrims include landing on Plymouth Rock after their long sea voyage from England. In both cases, these rocks symbolize the hope of greater things to come because of their perceived stability versus the tempestuous forces (spiritually or literally) involved.

The use of an anchor on or near a gravestone or marker might also have another, literal meaning, i.e., the deceased worked on the water in some capacity during his or her lifetime, such as in the Navy or Coast Guard, as a commercial fisherman or an architect of maritime vessels. On the other hand, the deceased might have simply enjoyed recreational sailing, boating, fishing or other water sports, or spending time on the water/at the beach.

Interestingly, the deceased in the photo above shares his last name with a ship that famously sank on Lake Superior in November 1975 -- the S.S. Edmund Fitzgerald. Even though the deceased in this case appears unconnected to this ship in any known way, it's still possible that the anchor at his gravestone represents some slight connection. Thus, if you encounter one in a cemetery, graveyard or memorial park, you should not rule out the presence of an anchor based solely on an unknown or even illogical connection to water, boats or ships, etc. Unless you can directly ask the surviving family member or loved one responsible for the design of the headstone or gravemarker why he/she included an anchor, you simply never can tell for sure.

Other Cemetery Headstone Symbols:
Broken Column
Christian Cross with Crown
Compass, Carpenter's Square and "G"
Death's Head
Finger Pointing Up
Handshake or Clasped Hands
"IHS" or IHC"
Laurel Wreath
Oak Leaves and Acorns
Open Book
Three Chain Links
Treestones, Tree Stumps or Tree Trunks
Weeping Willow Tree

Related Articles You Might Enjoy:
Are You a Taphophile?
How to Clean a Cemetery Tombstone or Marker
3 Reasons to Buy a Cemetery Plot in Advance
Headstones Get a High-tech Makeover

Sources:
Hebrews 6:19. Retrieved February 22, 2016. https://www.bible.com/bible/1/heb.6

Matthew 16:18. Retrieved February 22, 2016. https://www.bible.com/bible/1/mat.16 

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