Headstone Symbols: Oak Leaves and Acorns

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

Oak leaves and acorns represent a common symbol found on cemetery tombstones and gravemarkers. 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, 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 oak leaves and acorns represent.

The Symbol

Many older tombstones and gravemarkers depict oak leaves (and possibly acorns) in some fashion. Often, the oak leaves appear on a single slender branch, as if it fell or was cut from the tree, although it is not uncommon to see a single oak leaf, a pair of oak leaves, oak leaves in the form of a vine framing a headstone, or (as depicted in the photograph above) oak leaves draped across the top of a gravemarker. In addition, tombstones even exist in which the entire marker resembles an oak leaf.

As noted above, cemetery depictions of oak leaves regardless of form might include one or more acorns.

In such cases, the acorn(s) typically appears where you would see it in nature, i.e., below the stem of an oak leaf.

The Meaning

Trees have served as powerful archetypal symbols throughout human history and around the world. Among various religious and cultural traditions, Christianity's Garden of Eden contained the Tree of Life and the Tree of Knowledge; the Bodhi Tree, a symbol of wisdom and perfection, features prominently in Buddhism; and according to Norse mythology, the World Tree known as "Yggdrasil" connects everything -- humans with the gods, the living and the dead, giants and monsters.

Oak trees, specifically, have also long played a prominent role in human religious and cultural beliefs. According to popular tradition, the cross upon which the Romans crucified Jesus was made of oak; the ancient Celtic druids worshiped this particular tree; and, according to Germanic folklore, children didn't arrive courtesy of a stork but instead sprang from an old hollow oak tree.

Myths and legends aside, people still view oak trees today as symbols of power, strength, and endurance. For example, the United States military awards oak leaf clusters to denote multiple acts of valor in battle, and the U.S. Congress made the mighty oak the country's official tree in 2004.

When displayed on a cemetery tombstone or gravemarker, oak leaves generally symbolize the qualities of power, strength, endurance, longevity, virtue, and faith, among other things. The first five qualities (power, strength, endurance, longevity, and virtue) derive from the nature of an oak tree itself, which grows and matures very slowly but can ultimately attain heights of 35 to more than 100 feet and live for centuries, depending upon the species.

These attributes might reflect the deceased generally during his or her life, physically or spiritually; represent personal or professional challenges he or she struggled against and/or overcame; or reflect the feelings among survivors for the deceased, among other symbolic and metaphoric representations.

The latter quality (faith) might arise from the nature of growing an oak. Part of the oak's mystery rests in the fact that such a powerful, majestic tree can grow from something as small as an acorn and, once planted, requires many, many years to mature. The nature of religious faith and love reflect this same phenomenon, e.g., the spark of faith or the tiny ember that grows into the flame of passion. Moreover, given its longevity, oaks serve as wonderful symbols for the enduring nature of religious belief or the eternal nature of love between family members, spouses/partners, friends, etc., despite their separation by death.


"22–11. Appurtenances," Wear and Appearance of Army Uniforms and Insignia, April 10, 2015. U.S. Army. http://www.apd.army.mil/pdffiles/r670_1.pdf

"Oak." Arbor Day Foundation. ​https://www.arborday.org/programs/nationaltree/oak.cfm

Continue Reading