Headstone Symbols: Compass, Carpenter's Square and "G"

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

Freemason compass/square on tombstone
A compass, carpenter's square and (sometimes) the letter "G" represent a common symbol found on cemetery tombstones and gravemarkers. 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, 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 compass, carpenter's square and (possibly) the letter "G" represent.

The Symbol
This symbol typically* comprises two objects:

• A compass (or, more correctly, a pair of compasses), which is commonly used in mathematics and the building/construction trades to draw circles and arcs, and to measure the distance between two points.

• A carpenter's square (sometimes called a framing square), which is used to calculate angles, pitch, and other measurements, and to create perfect right angles and/or straight (perpendicular) lines.

* Sometimes, nestled within the space created by the compass and square, you might see the letter "G," as seen in the photograph above.

The Meaning
The presence of the compass/carpenter's square symbol on a tombstone or grave marker indicates that the deceased was a member of a secretive fraternal society called the Freemasons or Masons, an organization that might date back to the Middle Ages in Europe when stonemasons built great cathedrals and other buildings.

While the precise meaning of this Masonic symbol has been lost to time (and members of the Freemasons do not readily share information about the organization), it's generally accepted that the Mason's compass and carpenter's square "represent the interaction between mind and matter" -- representative of the society's values, which emphasize honor, civic duty, learning and progress, among other things.

Likewise, the true meaning of the letter "G" (when it appears) within the symbol is also unclear. Some believe it represents God, while others think it stands for geometry, a discipline that uses a compass and square to precisely measure/create angles, lines, etc., and obviously plays a significant part in correctly shaping stone and constructing buildings.

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"Freemasons/Masons," Stories in Stone by Douglas Keister, Gibbs-Smith, 2004. Retrieved May 8, 2015. Author's collection.

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