The first tombstones were literally boulders that were used to keep the dead from crawling out. As time passed, people needed to know which boulders were over graves and which were just boulders. So, they started marking the graves. Usually the only things on the gravestones were skulls, skeletons, and and angels of death. Making markings on gravestones soon became a trade, and soon gravestones were extremely popular. In the late 1800's, the trade reached its peak, and gravestones were very intricate and detailed. That period ended, and the current gravestone decoration style that is currently used begun.

There are many, many symbols on tombstones. Most of these symbols fall under some basic categories.

There are many different symbols for mortality. Mortality symbols contain obvious images; arrows, a figure with a dart, and coffins. Mortality symbols are placed on tombstones of those who lived a long life, and those who died young. An hourglass can symbolize that time has run out. Death can be symbolized by a skull and crossbones, a spade, a scythe, and even the Grim Reaper.

Religion is also very common theme on tombstones. Symbols used to symbolize Christianity could include Holy Books and a suffering heart, Angels represent spirituality. Crosses come in many different variations, and so have a lot of meanings. A Celtic cross is usually used to mark the graves of monks and priests. A crucifix symbolizes Christianity.There are representations of other religions. A crescent symbolizes Islam, and a menorah and the Star of David symbolize Judaism.

Plants are very common as decoration on tombstones. The symbolism is very diverse. A full rose symbolizes death in the prime of life, while a morning glory symbolizes the beginning of life, and lilies represent virgins. Oaks and acorns symbolize power and victory, and ivy symbolizes friendship and immortality. A poppy symbolizes eternal sleep.

Trees, used as grave symbols are not as common as religion, plants, and mortality. They usually symbolize life. A tree trunk symbolizes a short life. Weeping Willows symbolize mourning and grief. Wheat symbolizes harvest.