Broken Column Cemetery Headstone Symbol

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

Broken cemetery column
In older cemeteries, you might encounter a broken column like this one serving as the headstone or gravemarker. Photo © Chris Raymond

Depending on 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 a broken column represents.

The Symbol

Typically found in older cemeteries, this cemetery symbol comprises the lower portion of a column standing on a pedestal and base -- the type we associate with ancient Greek or Roman architecture -- that appears broken at the top. Occasionally, you might also see a smaller portion of the column resting on the ground near the base, as if it fell there when the column broke.

Generally measuring 1-2 meters tall (3.28-6.56 feet), the standing column, pedestal, and base typically serve as the actual headstone or grave marker, but they might also appear in conjunction with a mausoleum or larger monument.

The column might feature a fluted shaft, or a smooth shaft (as seen in the image above), and might also feature additional ornamentation, such as a wreath of flowers (as shown above), a laurel wreath, draped fabric, etc.

The Meaning

Although cemetery vandalism remains an ugly, unfortunate societal problem, any broken columns you might encounter will generally prove intentional and not the result of someone's thoughtless, insensitive act.

(Compare the weathering of the stone overall to the column's broken edge to be sure -- if the latter appears similarly weathered rather than sharp and fresh, then there's no need to inform cemetery officials or the authorities.)

Quite popular in the late 1700s through the mid-1800s as a cemetery symbol due to an interest in neoclassicism, a broken column generally represents the "break" made by the deceased between the living and the dead, i.e., the transition he or she made between this world and the next. In some cases, a broken column might specifically symbolize that the deceased died prematurely or at a relatively young age, whether due to an accident, disease, war, suicide, etc. The broken column ​that is shown above, for example, marks the resting place of a man who died in 1872 at age 39, although the cause of his death is not indicated.

Other Cemetery Headstone Symbols

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
Weeping Willow Tree