Waterhouse Symbolism



Symbolism: A Universal Language


The Waterhouse Symbolism Website is my opportunity to share symbols that I have discovered in the last twenty years. My background is in art and art history and I have always been fascinated by symbols.
What is a symbol? A symbol is something that stands for something else in association, convention, or resemblance. Its relationship is something visible becoming invisible.  For example the weeping willow is the symbol of mourning or grief.
Some of the symbols that can be seen in Victorian cemeteries include: dove is the Holy Spirit; weeping willow is mourning or grief, flame is life; open book is bible or religious object related to divine wisdom; rocks piled upon each other is the person’s life built on a firm foundation; wreath is eternity; and palm branch is spiritual victory over death.
Symbols can have different meanings depending on when they are interpreted in history. When visiting these monuments and discovering the symbols, the meanings may be different to the reader depending on what time period they are interpreting the symbols. In many cases, these symbols can become very complex if different religions and time periods are studied.
The photo above is Our Thomas who resides at Historic Oakland Cemetery. Angels on children’s graves, such as the sculpture called Our Thomas, are often depicted as boys or girls. Angels are thought of as guardians and messengers from God.  Boy and girl angels are the symbols of innocence. Also, note that the sculpture of the Angel Our Thomas kneels on a pillow, the symbol of sleep because the word cemetery meaning a sleeping place.

Sacred Symbols of OaklandMy Book, Sacred Symbols of Oakland, has been released:

A Guide to the Many Sacred Symbols of Atlanta's Oldest Public Cemetery

Richard Waterhouse
Photographs by Dinny Harper Addison
Foreword by Mary Ann Eaddy

Cloth: $24.95 | 96 pages | 7" by 9" | ISBN 978-0-9793631-3-9 | August 2010

Read a review of my book using this link


Historic Oakland Cemetery, founded in 1850 by the City of Atlanta, is nationally cherished for the splendor of its monuments, the breadth of its landscape, and the richness of its history.

One of the most beautiful examples in the United States of the Rural Garden Cemetery Movement, Oakland’s parklike expanse still welcomes visitors to escape for a picnic or stroll, and the often sizable, highly embellished gravestones, mausolea, and monuments of the Victorian era encourage – through their elaborate symbolism – reflection on this life and the one beyond.

From scallop shells to tree stumps, to saints, angels, and the anchor & cross, Richard Waterhouse, a longtime Oakland docent and the creator of a popular Oakland symbolism tour, illuminates the symbols’ sacred meanings as intended by the Victorians, while revealing the oftentimes classical and other pagan derivations. The history of Atlanta and the cemetery meanders entertainingly through the book.

Dinny Harper Addison’s striking photographs carefully document the symbols and stand themselves as meditations on the grandeur of Oakland.
Sacred Symbols of Oakland ($24.95, check or money order) is available directly from the publisher (please add $4.00 shipping & handling
and for in-state purchases 8% sales tax, $2.00). For further information, contact Nathan Moehlmann at  nwm@goosepenpress.com

Prevalent symbols seen in art and Victorian Cemeteries:

  • Adult Angel conveys a guardian, messenger and protector of the dead and is the communicator between God and mankind. The angel’s wings are a symbol of divine mission. In cemeteries, the angel may be pointing the soul to heaven with a finger or possible the head looking up to heaven.

  • Cross conveys Christ being crucified for man’s sins. The Latin cross is the most prevalent type of cross in Victorian cemeteries. Some other types of crosses seen in cemeteries include the Celtic, Crusader and Greek.

  • Dove, the most frequently portrayed bird in Christian art, conveys humility, innocence, meekness, modesty, peace, purity, and simplicity.  On a baby’s grave, it represents the end of life, but always under the protection of God.

  • Flowers as a whole convey spring, transitoriness, beauty, the soul, the work of the sun, festivity, joy, and the cycle of life.

  • Ivy conveys abiding memory. Its permanent greenness, no matter what the season is, symbolizes immortality and fidelity. Because it clings and climbs to all surfaces, it symbolizes attachment, friendship, and affection. Since its leaves are three-pointed, it stands for the Trinity Lamb conveys the sacrifice of Christ for our sins. In the New Testament, Jesus Christ is connected to the Lamb of God – “Behold the Lamb which taketh away the sin of the world” (John 1:29). It also symbolizes forgiveness, gentleness, humility, patience, purity, renewal, redemption, and sweetness, the unblemished and young innocence.

  • Oak Leaf represents bravery, eternity, endurance honor, hospitality, humanity, liberty, regeneration, and strength.  Another interpretation of the oak leaf is that life here on earth must end, but if it has been a life of integrity, one may meet death with a calm courage.  The oak leaf is also used as a military insignia in Germany and the United States.

  • Tree stump always conveys a life cut short before Louise grew up and reached her prime. The stump is also associated with the tree of life which conveys stages of life: birth, maturity and death. Wreath conveys resurrection or eternity. It also conveys celebration, mourning, victory, valor and memory. Sometimes the wreath is made out of laurel leaves, which bestows immortality because the leaves never wilt or fade.