Symbol: Something that represents something else by association, resemblance, or convention.

            -American Heritage Dictionary

 Nowhere is the language of symbols more apparent than in cemeteries. Dead men may tell no tales, but their tombstones do.           

            -Douglas Keister, Stories in Stone

Both Fairmount and Riverside Cemeteries in Denver were founded in the heyday of the “rural garden cemetery” movement that had travelled steadily westward since its beginning with Mount Auburn Cemetery in Cambridge, MA, in 1831. Both also reflect the transition from the historic Western view of cemeteries as “boot hills” or “bone yards” to a belief that final resting places could be places of beauty to be enjoyed both for the horticulture and the art inherent in the many monuments and markers.Adorning those markers are myriad symbols chosen by relatives (or sometimes in advance by the deceased themselves) that reflect the character and/or interests of the cemeteries’ permanent “residents.”   While interpreting such symbols is an inexact science, many “gravestone scholars” have devoted years to cataloging the most common symbols, often suggesting multiple meanings for a single image. There is little question that a knowledge of symbolism (or iconography) will enhance your visit to any cemetery. Perhaps the symbols seen most frequently at both cemeteries are urns (universal symbols of sorrow) and obelisks (pillars of Egyptian origin that represent eternal life). Both urns and obelisks often are draped, symbolizing mourning.  

 Photos by Wynn Montgomery

We encourage you to find these—and others like them—as you explore these historic spots.

Other Common Cemetery Symbols

(We are constantly updating this page so check back often for new info on symbolism)


  • Gravestone Symbolism (
  • Gravestone Symbolism (
  • Hacker, Debi. Iconography of Death: Common Symbolism of Late 18th Through Early 20th Century Tombstones in the Southeastern United States. Columbia, SC: Chicora Foundation, 2001.
  • Keister, Douglas. Stories in Stone: A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography. Layton, UT: Gibbs Publishing, 2004.
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