Headstone Symbols: Lamb, Sheep, or Agnus Dei

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

Lamb atop a cemetery tombstone
You might run across a lamb like this in a cemetery, but what does it symbolize?. 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 lamb or young sheep represents.

The Symbol

It is quite common to find a depiction of a lamb or "baby sheep" on a headstone or gravemarker. In older cemeteries, particularly, the lamb often appears as a three-dimensional sculpture resting or laying down atop the tombstone. (The headstone in the photo above, for example, dates from a death that occurred in 1867.)

On more recent headstones, the baby sheep often appears in two-dimensions, as an outline or as you would see in a drawing, or in a slightly more three-dimensional form through the stone-carving technique of bas-relief. Keep in mind that this is only a general guideline, for recent tombstones with fully sculptured lambs exist.

Regardless of the age of the headstone, the visible detail of the lamb can vary widely, either intentionally or because of the passage of time. Due to weathering and/or the use of "softer" materials for tombstones, such as marble, it can prove difficult or impossible to know how lifelike the sheep first appeared on older gravemarkers (such as the one in the photograph above).

Older, three-dimensional lambs sitting on top of a headstone will generally show the least detail versus two-dimensional depictions – particularly in their faces and/or their wool coats – but you shouldn't necessarily assume this detail didn't initially exist. The stone mason/artist would have chosen how realistically to portray this lamb symbol.

The Meaning

People often associate the symbolic use of a lamb or baby sheep with Christianity, but its religious/cultural significance stretches back much further. The ancient Sumerians and Egyptians, for example, worshiped gods/goddesses who resembled ewes, rams, or sheep and appear in many of their respective artistic pieces/representations. The Bible's Old Testament includes numerous references to sheep and shepherds, and the Christian, Jewish and Muslim religions each feature a lamb as an important sacrificial animal.

Despite this, the depiction of a lamb as a funerary symbol in a cemetery generally signifies the gentleness, innocence and purity of the deceased, or it references the concept of Jesus as the "Lamb of God" according to the biblical verse/usage in John 1:29: The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.

More often than not, the presence of a lamb on a headstone marks the grave of an infant or child because of the qualities we associate with them, i.e., gentleness, innocence, and purity. The lamb shown in the photo above, for example, marks the resting place of a girl who died in 1867 at the age of roughly 14 months.

That said, the use of a lamb on a child's tombstone might possibly represent the religious/spiritual beliefs of the parents, who hope that Christ will watch over/protect their son or daughter after his/her too-short time on earth.

If a lamb appears on a tombstone in conjunction with one or more symbols, such as a Christian cross, a Chi-Rho cross, or a shepherd's crook, then its presence probably represents "Agnus Dei" – the Latin term that literally translates to "Lamb of God."

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John 1:29. Retrieved March 17, 2016. https://www.bible.com/bible/1/jhn.1

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