Many grave memorials display incised or three-dimensional animals and these have strong symbolic meanings. The following are some of the most commonly encountered symbolic animal designs:
White Dove– An important symbolic animal in Christianity representing the Holy Spirit. The white dove is referred to in the story of baptism of Christ. “And John bore record, saying, I saw the Spirit descending from heaven like a dove, and it abode upon him” (Bible, John 1:32). The descending dove is a very common motif on grave memorials. Seven doves are representative of the seven spirits of God or the Holy Spirit in its sevenfold gifts of grace.
Winged Birds (other than doves)– These are symbolic of the “winged soul.” The representation of the soul by a bird goes back to ancient Egypt. Some older burial art features only wings to convey the symbol of divine mission.
Butterfly– Although quite rare, it is occasionally seen on graves (most often of children). It is symbolic of the resurrection of Christ. The meaning is derived from the three stages of the life of the butterfly – the caterpillar, the chrysalis, and the butterfly. The three stages are symbols of life, death and resurrection.
Lamb– This is the most common animal symbol found on a child’s grave. The lamb appears throughout the ages with great regularity in Christian art and because it is a symbol of Christ: “Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world!” (Bible, John 1:29). The use of the lamb in religious art pre-dates Christianity and appears to have been used first by the Egyptians. It signifies purity and innocence.
The ties between all religious beliefs and symbolism have always been strong. To the Christians the greatest symbolic message is in the crucifix. The crucifix or cross can generate many symbolic messages ranging from love, faith and goodness to terror and fear (e.g. the Ku-Klux-Klan’s use of the burning cross). There are many different types of Christian crosses worldwide, but only a handful are common in North America.
Shell– It is used in Christian art to signify pilgrimage. The use of shell in burials is pre-Christian in practice and pre-dates even Egyptian burial practices. Shell is symbolic of fertility, resurrection and pilgrimage. The use of the shell as a grave motif and the use of actual shell fragments have been documented on 19th century burials in three pioneer cemeteries in Victoria and most likely exist elsewhere in the province.