Understanding cemetery crosses can help us understand the faith of our ancestors. It can sometimes even help us discover their heritage and country of origin.
Many American genealogists have discovered through DNA tests that the roots of their heritage are in Europe. European cultures have historically been rich in religious faith. Countless numbers of our ancestors were Christians who viewed the cross as a symbol of faith in Christ and hope in the atonement.
Even before Christians adopted the cross as a symbol, the Druids of ancient Celtic cultures used the same symbol. Druids cut the limbs off large oak trees, leaving only side branches so that the tree formed a living cross. Then the arch-Druid scaled the trunk and wrote the name of a deity at the intersection of the trunk and arms.
While traveling in Eastern Europe, I stopped in a small church in Lithuania and saw these women demonstrating their incredible faith. Their worship began by kneeling at the bottom of the staircase where they offered a prayer. Then they moved up one step where they again knelt on the cement and prayed. They repeated their act of worship as they moved upward step-by-step toward the cross framed by sunshine in the open window. I was told that they did this every morning on their way to work. They were praying to God, but the cross was a symbolic reminder of Christ’s death and resurrection.
Hill of Crosses
In Lithuania, there is another touching place of worship called the Hill of Crosses.
In 1795, Lithuania was a conquered nation and became part of the Russian Empire. Lithuanians rebelled against their conquerors in 1831 from a fort they built on top of this small hill. Many rebels perished in the resistance. When their bodies could not be located, their relatives began placing symbolic crosses on the hill in their memory.
By 1948, the Soviet government perceived the crosses as a symbol of rebellion, so they worked hard to remove them. The crosses were bulldozed off the site three times, as recently as 1973. Locals told me on my visit that after the last clearing, Soviets also covered the hill in manure. But dedicated Lithuanians returned in the dead of night to replace the crosses.
The Hill of Crosses is a mound just 10 meters high, but with more than an estimated 200,000 crosses, it stands as a beacon of faith. The hill is not organized or maintained by any particular person or group. The crosses are a jumble of spectacular and simple, towering and tiny. It is a place where people preserve their hope.
Understanding Cemetery Crosses
Although there are many types of crosses in cemeteries, they are mostly derived from three main types of cross:
- Greek Cross, which looks like a plus sign +
- Latin Cross, which looks like the lowercase letter t
- Celtic Cross, which has a circle that connects the four arms
Walking through a cemetery will take on new meaning as you come to understand the symbolism behind different kinds of crosses.
Cemetery Cross #1: Agony Cross
Each of the three arms of the Agony Cross comes to a sharp point like the point of a nail. The Agony Cross is symbolic of the suffering of Jesus Christ, who was nailed to a wooden cross. This type of cross is also called the Pointed Cross, the Passion Cross, or the Cross of Suffering.
Cemetery Cross #2: Anchor Cross
In the 1st century, during the times of Roman persecution, Christians used anchors as a secret symbol to identify one another.
Imagine you are a Christian in the first century hiding in the catacombs. Your closest friends have been burned at the stake, thrown into a lion’s den, crucified, or set aflame at Emperor Nero’s garden party as a torch. If you need to go out into the streets you can take an anchor-cross with you. Those “in the know” will recognize the symbol as a cross and identify you as a Christian, while others would merely see an anchor.
The anchor is a symbol of hope, as noted in Hebrews 6:19 – “Which hope we have as an anchor of the soul, both sure and steadfast, and which entereth into that within the veil.” Images of anchors and messages of hope often appeared together in 1st-century tombs. For example, epitaphs from early Christian tombs read pax tibi or “peace be with you.” Peace and hope were essential to the early Christians as they faced the constant threat of being killed for their beliefs.
Just as sailors may use the anchor as the last resort during a storm, Christians look to Christ as an anchor of their faith. Thus, the Anchor Cross is also sometimes called the Mariner’s Cross.
Cemetery Cross #3: Botonee Cross
Botonee is a word from the middle-French language meaning button. The Botonee Cross has a cluster of three balls, knobs, or buttons at the end of each arm.
The Botonee Cross originated with heraldry. Heraldry literally means the study of rank and heritage (AKA ancient genealogy!). During the Middle Ages people banded together based on their family’s status and background. People who grouped together based on high family rank were called heraldry. They stayed to themselves, lived near their own castles, and did not wander about alone.
When a soldier of heraldry got dressed to go out into the world he put a full suit of armor on over his clothing. But with a helmet and mask covering everyone’s face, it could be difficult to tell your cousin from your brother – or even from your enemy. To identify each other the heraldry devised symbols for each family. The symbols were emblazoned on their banners, helmets, and shields.
However as the heraldry chose symbols, nearly everyone wanted the Christian symbol of the cross. Then they still couldn’t tell each other apart. So they had to modify the cross to make it different from their neighbor’s heraldry cross symbols. One of the modifications was to add the cluster of three buttons to the ends of the cross, representing the Trinity. Ta-da! There you have the botonee!
Cemetery Cross #4: Calvary Cross
Calvary Crosses are mounted on a platform of three steps. The ascent represents the climb Christ made to Calvary. The three steps are a reminder of the three principles of faith, hope, and charity or the three members of the Godhead: Father, Son, and Holy Ghost.
Cemetery Cross #5: Celtic Cross
The Celtic cross has a ring or nimbus that connects the four arms. It originated in Ireland and Great Britain in the Early Middle Ages.
Irish legends hold that St. Patrick introduced the Celtic cross. Adherents claim St. Patrick combined the symbol of the Christian cross with the symbol of the sun, worshipped by pagans, to attract new believers to Christianity. Others interpret the placement of the cross on top of the sun as Christ’s superiority over the pagan sun gods.
The legends may be true, but it also may simply be that the circle gives structural support to the arms, so it was easier to create.
If your ancestor has a Celtic Cross, chances are good that you have an Irish heritage.
Cemetery Cross #6: Crucifix
A crucifix is different from a cross since it always has a figure of the suffering Christ on the cross. This example, made of marble and bronze, is from a Greek gravestone in Attica.
This hand-carved crucifix stands about 12 feet high atop the Hill of Crosses in northern Lithuania. It depicts Christ wearing the plated crown of thorns placed on him by Roman soldiers. Nails pierce his hands and feet. There is a sign above his head with the letters INRI carved in it. These letters stand for the Latin words, “Iesus Nazarenus Rex Iudaeorum” or “Jesus of Nazareth, King of Judea.”
It was customary among the Romans to place a sign over the person being crucified to state their name and the crime for which they were accused. John 19:19 states that Pilate wrote a title that read, “Jesus of Nazareth, The King of the Jews.” In verse 20 John adds that the sign was translated into Hebrew, Greek, Aramaic, and Latin. The chief priests of the Jews sought to correct Pilate, asking him to rephrase the crime as “He said, I am King of the Jews.” Pilate refused, saying, “What I have written, I have written.”
Cemetery Cross #7: Eastern Cross
This cross is a symbol of the Eastern Orthodox religions. It is sometimes called the Cross of Lorraine or the Russian Orthodox Cross, and it can be found on the Coat of Arms for Hungary and Slovakia.
Unlike other crosses with one crossbar, the Eastern Orthodox cross has three crossbars. Two are horizontal and one is slanted.
There are varying legends about the purpose of the slanted bar. One interpretation indicates that the largest horizontal bar represents Jesus. The other two bars stand for the thieves who were crucified on either side of Jesus. The smaller horizontal bar represents the repentant thief who accepted Christ while on the cross and was promised to be with Him in the world of spirits. Finally, the slanted bar is symbolic of the mocking thief going to hell.
Another explanation says that the Eastern Cross was a symbol used by St. Andrew, the first Christian missionary to Russia. It is said that when Andrew taught he used a large cross with three horizontal bars as a visual aid. The bottom bar was meant to represent a footrest on which the person being crucified would place their feet, the middle bar was where Christ’s hands were nailed, and the top bar, the sign above his head. As Andrew taught, he tilted the lower footrest crossbar slightly and explained that those found on the right-hand of Christ would go up to heaven and those on his left hand would go down to hell.
Cemetery Cross #8: Glory Cross
A Glory Cross has light rays shining out from the center of the cross, symbolic of the light Christ brought to the world through his atonement. The light rays on a Glory Cross can be seen from both the front and back sides of the cross. This type of cross is also called the Rayed Cross.
This particular Glory Cross, from Lithuania, is hand-carved and hand-painted. It features Christ and his 12 apostles partaking of the last supper.
Cemetery Cross #9: Greek Cross
A Greek Cross has an upright shaft and a horizontal bar intersecting in the middle with the arms being of equal length. This type of cross was commonly used by the 4th century.
The Greek Cross has been found in ancient Roman catacombs. It became the symbol on the flag of English crusaders and later morphed into the Red Cross of St. George. More recently, a red Greek cross was adopted by the American Red Cross.
A Greek Cross on a gravestone may indicate the deceased had a connection to eastern European cultures or served in the American Red Cross.
Cemetery Cross #10: Harvest Cross
This Harvest Cross shows ivy wrapped around the cross, indicating the departed had been clinging to Christ. It also shows wheat and grapes, symbols of the harvest or the fruits of the good works and labors of the deceased.
Cemetery Cross #11: IHS Cross
IHS stands for the first three letters (iota-eta-sigma) of the name Jesus in Greek: ΙΗΣΟΥΣ. In both of these photos, the name of Jesus is at the heart of the intersection of the cross, meaning he is at the center of the atonement and forgiveness.
In the photo on the left, the I, the H, and the S are intertwined, making the symbol look like a dollar sign.
Cemetery Cross #12: IHS Celtic Cross
This cross from Ireland combines the Greek letters IHS, for Jesus’ name with the Celtic cross.
Look closely at the center of this Celtic cross and you will see the familiar dollar sign, which is actually the first 3 letters of Jesus’ name, I, H, and S intertwined.
Celtic Crosses on a gravesite are a clue that the person buried there was of Irish or British descent.
Cemetery Cross #13: Congé Cross
The ends of the Congé Cross flare out at the end. It is a variation of the Latin Cross.
Cemetery Cross #14: Labarum Cross
The Labarum Cross combines the first two letters from Christ’s name from the Greek alphabet, Chi (X) and Rho (p). Hence, the labarum cross is also called the Chi-Rho Cross. This symbol was first used by Emperor Constantine.
Labarum is the Greek word for Roman military standards (flag poles). Since the Chi Rho symbol was first used on Constantine’s flags that hung from labarums, the word labarum came to be synonymous with the Chi-Rho symbol.
It is said that the night before Constantine was sending his soldiers out to battle he prayed. Then he had a dream in which he saw the symbols of Chi-Rho, Christ’s name, in a sunset. He then put the symbol of the Christian god on his flags and on his soldier’s shields.
Standards and flags were very important to ancient armies as they went to war. Imagine you are a soldier going to battle with them. First, your troops follow a leader who is holding a flag aloft as you march into battle.
Now picture yourself suddenly engaged in hand-to-hand combat. You are caught up in the moment and lose sight of your company’s flag. After a great struggle for your life, you looked about and realized that you are no longer with your battalion. They have moved on, leaving you behind.
In order to return to safety, you need to find them as quickly as possible. So your eyes scan the horizon for your army’s flag on top of a tall labarum. Spying it across a field, you run to rejoin your comrades and fight by their side.
The Labarum cross made Constantine’s flags special to his troops. With the symbol of Christ’s name on Constantine’s flags, it was as if the soldiers were fleeing to Christ for safety and fighting with Him by their side.
If you see a Labarum Cross in the cemetery the deceased was most likely Catholic or Episcopalian.
Cemetery Cross #15: Latin Cross
The Latin Cross is the most common symbol used by many Christian religions. It represents the crucifixion and/or resurrection of Jesus Christ.
Some Christian religions do not use the Latin cross or any cross at all, even though they believe in Jesus Christ. Jehovah Witnesses believe that using the cross is a form of idolatry. Members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints choose to focus on the living Christ rather than his crucifixion as symbolized by the cross.
A Latin Cross in the cemetery will most often indicate that the departed was Protestant.
Cemetery Cross #16: Military Crosses
US Christian soldiers who die in the service of their country are buried in American military cemeteries in gravesites marked with white crosses. They represent the price of freedom.
There is nothing quite as moving as the first time you see a sea of white crosses in waves of row after row against a backdrop of green grass or blue sky. Knowing that each cross represents a soldier who was someone’s brother, someone’s father, someone’s sweetheart, someone’s son . . . well, it’s just heart-tugging.
Cemetery Cross #17: Cross Pattee
Croix Pattee is a French word, meaning footed cross. The Cross Pattee is a form of Christian cross with narrow centers that broaden at the ends.
Many British sovereigns have had the Cross Pattee on their crowns, often with a diamond or other precious jewel at the center.
The photo above was taken in Bruehl, Germany and features modified Cross Pattee gravestones that flare out at the bottom.
The Cross Pattee has been used by the Knights Templar and the Teutonic Knights, both British Crusading orders. In modern times, the Freemasons have adopted many of the symbols of the Templars, so if you see a Cross Pattee on your ancestor’s gravestone they may have been a Freemason.
Cemetery Cross #18: Tau Cross
The Tau Cross is shaped like a capital letter T and will sometimes flare at the ends because it represents the Greek letter Tau, which has expanded ends.
Tertullian (c. 155 – c. 240), an ancient Christian author from Carthage, wrote that the Greek letter Tau and the Latin letter T are similar in shape to the cross of the crucifixion.
The photo above is from a gravestone in Italy. The T-shaped Tau Cross was more common in earlier centuries than the Latin Cross form we more commonly see today.
Cemetery Cross #19: Tree and Sickle Cross
The unusual gravestone in this photo bears several different symbols. The tree has limbs that have been cut off, representing a life cut short. But the tree now forms a cross, a symbol of hope in the resurrection and reuniting with loved ones.
The cross is covered with flowering vines, symbolic of one who has clung to Christ and to life. The sickle represents death as the last harvest.
The scythe could also indicate that the deceased was a Freemason. Freemasons consider the scythe an emblem of time – cutting the threads of life and sending the departed into eternity. The link to Freemasonry is particularly likely if the scythe is paired with an hourglass, a symbol of time running out.
Cemetery Cross #20: Tree Cross
This tree cross also has limbs that have been cut off, symbolic of a life cut short. It is draped with a laurel wreath, which represents an accomplishment.
Anciently, laurel wreaths were awarded to victors at athletic competitions. When seen on gravestones, laurel wreaths indicate a victory over death.