Types of headstones and monuments

Simple vertical headstone

The vertical headstone is the most common from of memorial in New Zealand cemeteries. The headstone concept probably stems from Egyptian stelai, which were vertical slabs positioned outside tombs, and inscribed to indicate the requirements for ritual re-provisioning of the tomb.

Stelai appeared in Greek culture by the 9th Century. The simple headstone has become elaborated by decoration with ornamental visual devices, borders and symbols.

Images - simple vertical headstone

Single arch

The single arch can be unadorned, or with side colonettes. In architecture, these miniature columns can frame openings – windows and doorframes. This provides the colonaded headstone with the additional symbolism as a portal for the departed.

Images - single arch headstone


A three-lobed headstone (or arch in buildings) is associated with the Christian Holy Trinity – God, the Son, and the Holy Ghost.


These Gothic Arch forms are often associated with botanical motifs – plant forms with specific Christian associations such as ivy, palm fronds, lilies, roses and others (see symbols listings).

Head- and footstones

Only two graves at Symonds Street cemetery have both a headstone and a footstone. These are in the General and Wesleyan section.

The Cross

The most common and powerful symbol of Christianity. As headstone, crosses are often mounted on three steps, which symbolize faith, hope and charity.

While the Cross (a symbol of Christ’s crucifixion) is a popular headstone form at the Karori Cemetery in Wellington, it is rare at Symonds Street Cemetery.

This is probably related to the loss of many Catholic graves during the building of the motorways.

A variant is where the form of a church in the shape of a cross is part of the horizontal structure of a grave. This version works as simultaneous allusions to the crucifixion, as well as the church being the house of God.As an example, see the grave of Katherine Blanch Daveney in the Anglican section of the Symonds Street Cemetery.

There are different versions of the Christian cross represented in cemetery headstones:

Latin Cross - One of the oldest and simplest symbols of Christianity and the most commonly-used. It has also been called ‘God’s mark.’

Calvary Cross - A Latin cross standing on three steps or blocks, it signifies faith, hope and charity (or love).

Botonee Cross- So named because of its modified trefoil (three-lobed) ends, represents the trinity.
Celtic Cross- The circle around the crosspiece symbolizes eternity. Its origin can be traced to the Celtic cultures of the British Isles.
Eastern Cross- Used in Orthodox (Russian/ Greek) Christian Religions, this cross’ upper horizontal shoulder represents the inscription over the head of Jesus on the actual cross of the crucifiction. The lower slanting shoulder represents the footrest of the crucified Jesus.
Flueree Cross/Gothic Cross - This flowered cross symbolizes the adult Christian by its more opened flared out ends.
Ionic Cross - Similar to the Celtic Cross, with outward-flaring ends. The ionic cross signifies everlasting salvation, love and glory. The circle around the crosspiece symbolizes eternity.

Images - cross-shaped headstone


Obelisks first appeared in the Egyptian middle kingdom, placed in pairs at temple entrances. They represented the sacred symbol of the sun god Heliopolis. Obelisks taken to Europe were then placed on pedestals. They were used in this manner in 18th and 19th Century cemeteries.

An obelisk in the Anglican section is made of black Swedish granite. In the Presbyterian section, there is one (at the grave of Archibald Clark) incorporated into an elaborate Gothic architectural context.

In funerary art, the obelisk’s role is to locate the body in space. Inscriptions are usually placed on the supporting pedestals.

Images - obelisk

The spire

A development of the obelisk. An eight-faced tapering spire in the Presbyterian section of the cemetery is topped with an acorn, which is a symbol of fertility.

Images - spire


An architectural detail that has found its way into funerary ornament. In its clearest form it refers to architecture, representing the house of God in miniature. There are a few pinnacles in the Symonds Street cemetery.

The sarcophagus

Tomb design from the Victorian era usually avoids reference to the body – preferring instead to point to spiritual or emotional aspects such as the passage of the soul, or regret and sorrow among those still living.

Sarcophagus (literally ‘flesh-eating’) tombs are a direct allusion of the body. They date from before Roman times, when limestone boxes were belied to eat the body.

At Symonds Street Cemetery there are several sarcophagi, especially in the Jewish section. They all have a raised, body-size slab, but they are not thought to contain a coffin above ground level.

Images - sarcophagus


Mausoleums are free-standing structures in which a single body – or those of a family – are entombed above, or away from, the ground.

The word comes from the impressive tomb of King Mausolus, the Persian governor of Caria (in Turkey). It was one of the Seven Wonders of the Ancient World.

Historically mausloea were used for deceased people of high importance. By the 19th Century they became popular with the nobility and gentry of many European and Middle-Eastern countries.

There are no proper mausoleums at Symonds Street Cemetery, but at Waikumete Cemetery in west Auckland, there is a section devoted to mausolea of different religions.