Birds and butterflies are a common sight in cemeteries. The lush vegetation of many burial grounds offers them an undisturbed habitat. These animals also adorn graves and tombstones. As tomb decoration or carvings, however, the symbolism behind the depiction of birds and butterflies has a long history.
Birds – Symbols From Ancient Times
From ancient times onwards birds always had a powerful effect on people. As mediators between heaven and earth, they are symbols of transcendence and freedom of spirit. Birds also represent the souls of the deceased ascending to the sky. A bird in flight thus represents a soul freed from its body. The tombstone in the picture below shows a bird ascending to heaven, and bears the Latin inscription Omne Bonum De Super – All good things come from above.
“Heavenly bodies are nests of invisible birds.”
― Dejan Stojanovic, The Creator
Most people intuitively understand the symbolism and meaning of birds. For this reason, birds motifs are popular in many cemeteries. The bird in the picture below, with its sparkling tesserae, is a good example of a modern grave decoration conveying an ancient old message.
Ba Bird – Spirit Of The Deceased
The ancient Egyptians considered an individual’s life on earth only one part of an eternal journey. The soul, as an immortal entity, traveled to another plane of existence after death. One of the many aspects of this immortal entity is “Ba,” depicted as a human-headed bird. Ba was able to travel in and out of the tomb, reuniting with its body.
“All things are possible. Who you are is limited by who you think you are.”
― The Book of the Dead from ancient Egypt
Phoenix – Mythological Bird From Ancient Greece
The Phoenix represents a magical bird that lives for several hundred years before bursting into flames and dying. The ancient Egyptians named it Bennu, the ancient Greeks Phoenix. After death Phoenix is reborn, rises gloriously from the ashes and flies away to start a new, long life. This symbol of permanence, eternity, and constant renewal is so powerful that it remains a popular aspect of culture across the world even today.
“Any time, any place? I ask, gazing out across the glittering lake.
A breeze disturbs it’s silver surface. In a heartbeat, Phoenix promises.”
― Eden Maguire, Phoenix
Dove – Bird Of The Holy Spirit
In addition to the spiritual and mythological creatures mentioned, there are species of birds that retain their ancient reputation with them to this day. They are often used in tombstone design to convey images of hope and confidence. One of these birds is the dove. In Christianity, the dove — especially the white dove — represents the Holy Spirit and the resurrection. In the Old Testament, the dove appears as a bringer of peace and bearer of hope. Carved in a tombstone, a dove flying upward symbolizes an aspiring soul. If shown descending in flight, it is considered a sign of the Holy Spirit.
“Oh that I had wings like a dove! For then would I fly away, and be at rest.”
― Psalm 55:6 KJV
A dove with an olive branch in its mouth is a sign of peace. In the Old Testament, it is the dove that told Noah the waters were receding and land had begun to appear after the Great Flood (Genesis 8:11). This was a message of reconciliation sent by God. Thus, the dove became a symbol for confidence and trust in God.
Crane – Symbol of Justice
The crane is another common bird found in cemetery carvings, often depicted with a stone in one claw. In Christian art, it is related to the cardinal virtue of Justice. A crane thus symbolizes good life and works, loyalty, and vigilance. All these positive qualities are derived from the crane’s legendary habits and traits.
The Greek philosopher Plutarch (46-119 AD) states that some cranes gather around their “captain” each night to stand guard while the flock rests. To keep themselves from falling asleep, they stand on one leg, holding a stone in their claws. If sleep would overtake the bird, it would drop the stone, awakening itself and the other sleeping birds. Thus, the crane became a symbol of alertness and duty.
“Faith is the bird that feels the light when the dawn is still dark.”
― Rabindranath Tagore, Poems
Eagle – Symbol For The Strength Of Faith
Few bird species have stimulated the imagination as much as the eagle. In the Bible, we encounter the eagle as a symbol of God’s omnipotence. The Physiologus, an early Christian doctrine of nature written in Greek, ascribes the Phoenix’s legendary properties to the eagle. In the Middle Ages, the eagle symbolized new birth and baptism. An eagle in flight was sometimes also used as a symbol for the ascension of Christ.
Mystics compared the soaring eagle to prayer. Since the eagle (according to Aristotle) looks directly into the sun when rising, it was also considered a symbol of contemplation and spiritual knowledge. Symbolizing courage and service to the country as well as freedom, the eagle is the national bird of the USA, and is prominent on many military graves, monuments, and memorials.
“There is an eagle in me that wants to soar.”
― Carl Sandburg, American poet
Hummingbird – A Powerful Spiritual Messenger
Although more rare than other birds, hummingbirds have assumed an important role in sepulchral culture and art. Hummingbirds represent life and death. Their ability to hover in mid-flight appears to stop time and serves as a reminder to live in and enjoy the moment. The hummingbird is also a symbol of comfort after the loss of a loved one. It indicates that the departed soul is trying to reconnect with the living. In Christianity, the hummingbird symbolizes the Holy Spirit, who often hovers over Jesus, indicating his divine power.
“The bird of paradise alights only upon the hand that does not grasp.”
― John Berry, Flight of White Crows
Owl – Symbol Of Wisdom And Bird Of Death
The owl is also a common motif in cemetery art. The symbolism behind this bird varies greatly. In ancient Greece, it indicates wisdom, science, art, and clarity of vision. Many depictions of the Greek goddess of wisdom Athena show her with an owl on her shoulder.
Because owls can see in the dark, people erroneously believed they had the ability to create light with their eyes. And because wisdom is seen as light, that casts away darkness, the association between owls and wisdom was born. Thus, owls often adorn graves and tombstones of scholars, sometimes accompanied by books – symbols of education, learning, and knowledge – underlining this message. Even today, scholars are playfully classified as “owlish.”
Owls are also associated with death because of their nocturnal habits, predatory lifestyle, and haunting cry. While ancient cultures saw the bird as a wise ruler of the night, who saw souls and helped spirits move to the next life, those in later times perceived the owl as the herald of death.
The owls nightly “kuwitt” call seemed to say “come with me.” Relatives of the dying understood the owl as a bird that came to fetch the person’s soul. So, the owl is a symbol of transition, indicating change as well as wisdom. This wisdom includes the knowledge of one’s own finitude.
Butterfly – Personification Of The Soul
Albeit not as common as birds, butterflies are an equally powerful metaphor in cemetery art. They fluttered through many ancient cultures as symbols of the human soul. In Greek mythology, Psyche is the personification of the breath of the soul. Depicted as a beautiful young woman with butterfly wings she is also linked to Eros, the Greek god of love. Many sculptors created statues of Psyche, some of which adorn graves and graveyards.
“I almost wish we were butterflies and liv’d but three summer days – three such days with you I could fill with more delight than fifty common years could ever contain.”
― John Keats, Bright Star
In the picture below, Psyche is depicted as little fairy with a butterfly. She also represents the female, sensual, and graceful aspects of the human soul.
“Love and the Soul (for that is what Psyche means) had sought and, after sore trials, found each other; and that union could never be broken.”
― Edith Hamilton, Mythology
Symbol Of Metamorphosis And Resurrection
A butterfly undergoes four stages in the course of its life: egg, larva (caterpillar), pupa (chrysalis), and finally the adult butterfly. This transformation or metamorphosis turns it into a symbol of resurrection. Just as caterpillars change into winged creatures, the deceased will rise from the grave, changing into a new being. Earthly life (caterpillar) must pass away so that a new, more beautiful life (butterfly) can follow.
This article is but a short glimpse to uncover the fascinating symbolism behind birds and butterflies in cemeteries. I end it with another symbol that unites both, birds and humans as well as the living and the dead: Sprinkling birdseed on or nearby a grave represents the words you never got the chance to say to the departed.
If you’re a fan of birds and mythology, I recommend the book, Birds: Myth, Lore and Legend, by Rachel Warren-Chadd and Marianne Taylor. It brings into focus the close, and often ancient, links between humans and our feathered friends.
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