Headstone Symbols: Laurel Wreath

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

Laurel wreath
A laurel wreath is 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 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 laurel wreath represents.

The Symbol
Laurel leaves typically appear in the form of a wreath on cemetery headstones or gravemarkers. These wreaths can appear open (as seen in the photograph above) or closed, i.e., the wreath forms a complete circle. Often, though not exclusively, the base of the leaves will depict berries, and the wreath will feature a ribbon, either near or wrapped around a portion of the wreath -- as one might see on wreaths during the Christmas holiday.

It is not uncommon for palm fronds to appear with the laurel wreath, either near or (again, as seen in the photograph above) running behind or through the center of the wreath.

The Meaning
Laurel, an evergreen plant, produces wide dark-green leaves that persist through the winter (symbolically, the season of death). Because of this, various cultures throughout history have viewed laurel plants/cuttings as symbols of eternity and possessing the power over death.

Similar to other cultures that brought trees, boughs, crops and other plants inside their homes during winter as symbols of the hoped-for rebirth and rejuvenation of life in the spring (the same historic tradition that gave rise to modern Christmas trees), the ancient Romans decorated their homes with laurel plants and cuttings.

Eventually, laurel cuttings in the form of wreaths also became associated with victory in Roman culture, whether in battle or an athletic, intellectual or some other form of competition.

Later, early Christians began adding palm fronds to laurel wreaths, representative of the arrival of Jesus in Jerusalem a week before his crucifixion, during which believers placed (among other things) palm fronds in front of him as he passed. In the Christian tradition, palm fronds are still used during Palm Sunday services to denote the beginning of the Passion -- the week leading up to the crucifixion of Jesus and the celebration of his resurrection on Easter Sunday.

It is this symbolic association with eternity and life everlasting that generally underlies the appearance of laurel wreaths on cemetery tombstones and gravemarkers (with or without palm fronds). Although the specific reason explaining why an individual's marker displays a laurel wreath is typically lost to time, a laurel wreath can signify:

• Victory, whether in some secular form or spiritually, i.e., life over death

• Eternity, including the persistence of memories about the deceased or the immutability of the human soul

• Life everlasting, such as the promise of immortality, reaching heaven, etc.

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"Holiday Greens and Their Traditions" by Dr. Leonard Perry. University of Vermont Extension, Department of Plant and Soil Science. Retrieved July 21, 2015. http://pss.uvm.edu/ppp/articles/greens.html

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