Open Book Headstone Symbols

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

Open-book headstone
An open book is a common symbol found on cemetery tombstones and grave markers. 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 an open book represents.

The Symbol

People have used books as symbols for centuries in paintings, sculpture and other types of artwork associated with the dead. For example, the Etruscans created a piece of funerary art depicting a deceased individual with a linen book as early as 425-400 B.C., and the ancient Egyptians created many funerary images depicting papyrus scrolls (their version of books) hundreds of years before that, often in association with their Book of the Dead.

Unfortunately, the first symbolic use of an open book itself in a relatively modern-day cemetery or graveyard is unknown, but, presumably, the earliest form was carved into the headstone, creating a two-dimensional representation.

This outline-style survives in graveyards and cemeteries dating back to the early 1700s and is still used today, but the book can also assume a more three-dimensional form through the technique of bas-relief.

When carved into the headstone or grave marker, such books often appear smaller relative to the overall surface area and might contain another symbol, such as a Christian cross, Star of David, etc.

In addition, as seen in the photograph above, fully three-dimensional open books now grace many headstones and are easy to recognize. Often, the pages of the book will feature text, but it is not uncommon to see an open book with blank pages in a cemetery.

The Meaning

It is easy to overlook or dismiss altogether the meaning of such a commonplace item, but books constitute a rich, profound symbology for both the living and the dead. The English language reflects this in many modern phrases and idioms, such as:

• I can read you like an open book

• Don't judge a book by its cover

• She closed that chapter of her life

• That's the oldest trick in the book

• He does everything by the book

Within the context of a cemetery, graveyard or memorial park, the appearance of a book on a headstone or grave marker can likewise suggest numerous meanings, and it can prove difficult at times to understand its presence without more information about the deceased. That said, an open book on a headstone or grave marker can symbolize, among other things:

• A religious or holy book, such as the Bible, the Koran or the Book of Mormon, to indicate his or her spiritual beliefs and/or vocation, such as a minister, priest, teacher, librarian, author, cook, etc.

The Book of Life, either in a general sense or specific to the biblical passage in Revelation stating that only those whose names are contained within will receive everlasting life in heaven.

• The deceased's personality, i.e., he or she was open to new experiences, ideas, thoughts, etc., or sharing with others.

• His or her eagerness and/or desire to learn new information, skills, etc., during life.

• A record of the individual's accomplishments.

• A reflection of his or her good deeds, i.e., that the deceased lived a pure life and has no reason to feel ashamed or hide anything.

• The concept that a headstone or grave marker itself serves as a biographical document of a life lived, and that each person "writes" such a book during his or her lifetime.

• A life cut short by death, particularly if the right-hand page features a dog-eared corner.

It's important to understand that an individual or surviving family member might also select an open or closed book purely for practical reasons. As seen in the photograph above, an open book (two-page spread) on a tombstone or grave marker provides a wonderful opportunity for meaningful personalization by inscribing a favorite religious verse, phrase, quotation, epitaph or information about the deceased.

Finally, keep in mind that an individual or surviving family member might also select an open book simply because he or she liked the way it looked. Thus, despite the various meanings offered above, the rich symbolism books offer might be irrelevant or unknown from the perspective of the deceased and/or his or her family.

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"Books of the Dead: Symbolic Representations of Writing in the 5th-2nd centuries BC" by Allison J. Weir, September 22, 2010. Retrieved June 22, 2015. 

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