Headstone Symbols: Weeping Willow Tree

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

Willow on tombstone
A weeping willow tree is 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 a weeping willow tree represents.

The Symbol
Quite popular on grave markers and tombstones in the early 1800s during the Greek Revival period, the weeping willow tree can assume many forms. Sometimes stylized, sometimes literal, the willow tree depictions seen in graveyards and cemeteries are fairly easy to identify via their broad/wide crown and drooping branches. In addition, it's not uncommon to see other Greek symbols in conjunction with the willow, such as an urn, a nymph or a Grecian pedestal.

The Meaning
You might think that given its name and drooping branches, a weeping willow tree can only represent the tears, grief and sadness associated with the death of a loved one.

While this is generally the correct interpretation of this symbol when found on a grave marker or tombstone, a willow tree actually has a few other meanings, including happiness and even immortality.

In the Christian tradition, for example, the willow is mentioned several times in the Bible in varying contexts.

In Leviticus 23:40, the Israelites receive these instructions: "And ye shall take you on the first day the boughs of goodly trees, branches of palm trees, and the boughs of thick trees, and willows of the brook; and ye shall rejoice before the Lord your God seven days." Psalm 137, however, mentions willow trees in a sad context: "By the rivers of Babylon, there we sat down, yea, we wept, when we remembered Zion. We hanged our harps upon the willows in the midst thereof. For there they that carried us away captive required of us a song; and they that wasted us required of us mirth, saying, Sing us one of the songs of Zion."

Weeping willow trees grow relatively quickly and are remarkably hardy. Willows can lose a significant number of their branches due to cutting or storms and, as long as their root system remains unharmed, fully regenerate. In addition, cuttings from willow trees can grow into new trees even after laying on the ground for months unattended, or when planted upside down in the soil.

For this reason, many associate willow trees with immortality and, when seen on a tombstone or grave marker, willows can symbolize life after death, the resurrection of the soul, etc.

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