The Stories That Crosses Tell

The Stories That Crosses Tell

In any cemetery, some of the most evocative and impressive monuments are in the shape of a Cross; they can be simple, complex and enigmatic, all at the same time. This article looks at the thinking behind why some people chose a cross as their memorial.

I don’t think there’s a collective noun for a group of headstones; perhaps it should be “A Storytelling,” as headstones (especially crosses) can tell a story about the deceased person. The symbols used are almost a secret language that most people don’t recognise, but when you start looking, it all makes sense. There are good reasons for including a particular flower, ornament, shape or lettering: they mean something special.

Of all the different stone memorials in Foster Hill Road (Bedford) Cemetery (FHRC), you’d hazard a guess that those in the shape of a cross are one of the most common, ranking just below the ones like a vertical slab. The vertical line crossed a third of the way down by a shorter, horizontal line is a simple design that we immediately associate with Christianity. Known as the “Calvary Cross” it’s been used for centuries.

But you might find it surprising that before it became a Christian symbol, it was used as a powerful pagan symbol. In ancient Celtic culture, Druids would supervise the cutting of branches from large Oak trees so that just two would be left at the sides, thus creating a living cross. Where the two “lines” met they might mark the name of a particular deity to be celebrated.

Bedford cemetery has several stones that are related to this pagan creation of a “living tree cross.”

The stone is sculpted to look like the branches of a tree, but as the branches have clearly been cut (a common symbol on memorials, signifying a life cut short) the tree is both dead and alive…just as the person buried there is dead but (hopefully) alive in Heaven. In this case, clinging Ivy has been added, symbolising how the family clings on to the memory of the deceased, or how the deceased clung to his Christianity, or how he tried to cling on to life, or perhaps to show that he depended on his Christianity/family for support. Who knows?

So, just as in the days of the Druids when the pagans lent mystical meanings to their symbols and celebrations, in other days centuries afterwards, Christians borrowed the same symbols and gave them importance in their beliefs.

All symbols on graves can be interpreted in different ways, depending on what message is to be given.

Although there are dozens of different kinds of memorial cross, they are all variations on just three: the Latin (such as the Calvary Cross), the Greek (shaped like a plus sign) and the Celtic (which has a circle connecting the arms). If you look carefully, you’ll find that Bedford cemetery has many different styles of cross, and others that combine several aspects of these different styles.



The Crucifix is a typically Catholic style, with very few in the cemetery, but they are very common in predominantly Catholic countries.





The Celtic Cross is normally on a tall column, and has elaborate carvings showing a circle connecting the arms. This is, unsurprisingly, often the choice for someone of Irish or Scottish descent.

Many have the initials “IHS” at the centre. This represents the first three letters of the name Jesus in Greek (iota.eta.sigma). The letters are at the heart of the cross, to indicate that Jesus is at the very heart of a good Christian’s life or the centre of the way to heaven/forgiveness. The IHS lettering is found on many stones, not just Celtic crosses.




Some Celtic crosses are very elaborate, with many symbols.



The Labarum Cross includes the Greek letters chi (X) and rho (P), normally at the centre of the cross. They combine the first two letters of Christ’s name in Greek. The Roman emperor Constantine put this symbol on his soldiers’ shields and flags. Mostly, this is a choice of Catholics.





Another design is to have the three arms of the cross come to a fairly sharp point. This is intended to signify the point of a nail, and hence the name “Agony Cross” or “Passion Cross.”


The Conge Cross is a conventional cross, but with the ends of the arms flared out slightly.







The Botonee Cross is another variation on a conventional cross. The ends of the arms have three button-like shapes. (This is the closest to a Botonee I could find).



The Glory Cross has rays of sunlight shining from the centre of the cross, symbolising Christ bringing Light into the world.





Some crosses are“custom-built” as opposed to “off the shelf” and can be very effective. Father Warmoll was the priest who brought formal Catholic worship to Bedford in 1863. At the centre of his cross is the shape of a chalice, as this this was the most important feature of his life.



The large cross for Joshua and Hester Hawkins is full of symbolism. Apart from the Latin style cross itself and the inclusion of X and P, the number three stands out. In the language of headstones, three can refer to Faith, Hope and Charity, or God the Father, God the Son and God the Holy Ghost, or three nails on the cross. Similarly, the use of a three-leafed shamrock or fleur-de-lys is meant to give the same message on many stones. Taking the numerology further, at all four points of Hawkins’ cross there is the number three, including the “three steps to Heaven” at the base. There were four Evangelists, and three times four equals twelve (twelve disciples)…so this cross has twelve “points” overall, three at the end of each arm.


Some are deliberately obscure in meaning, perhaps because the person wanted to remain an enigma.

You might like to wander round the cemetery and try to find examples of the different crosses. There are very few in the newer section of the cemetery, probably because tastes and preferences have changed over the generations, but there aren’t many in the oldest section either, the extreme Western edge near the wall. This is because it is un-consecrated ground, where many Dissenters are buried, and they tended not to choose the popular Latin Cross as it indicated the person had a Protestant, especially Anglican, background.

Perhaps ultimately it’s just a matter of what people feel is nice and right for the deceased.


But in Bedford cemetery you won’t find one of the strangest: the Russian or Eastern Cross. It has a very imaginative “meaning.”


The middle horizontal line represents Christ. The top line represents the good thief Dismas crucified at the same time, but who repented and was saved. The bottom line is for Gestas the thief who did not repent….and his line slants downwards, to Hell.



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