Historically, symbolism on stone tombstones was carried out in three different ways: incising, carving in relief, or by using free-standing, three-dimensional portraiture or ornaments. The actual shape of the monument itself can be symbolic, such as a cross (religious), broken column (end of life), or obelisk (from Egyptian use as burial monuments to the sun god).

Incised carving usually is used for lettering or a geometric shape.

Relief carving on tombstones can range from the family crest of the deceased to a symbol of death, resurrection, subjects of nature, animals, birds, or simply religious figures. Symbols are quite specific, however, and choices are made by the family of the deceased for reasons such as aesthetics, religious beliefs, sentiment, or characterization of the individual. Relief carvings can illustrate almost anything the carver could imagine or the client requested. Frequent symbols are the winged death head, upside-down torch, weeping willows, praying hands, hand with a finger pointing up to heaven, open book, lily, cross, lamb, dove, and the like.

Three dimensional carving can be portraiture (weeping woman, angel, lamb, etc.) or ornaments (urns, crosses, crowns).

Early German immigrants carved folk art symbols derived from their religious beliefs on local stone used for headstones. The most frequently used folk motifs are the plant life, tulip, rosette, heart, crown, and astronomical symbols, such as sunbursts, stars, and moons.

Many good web sites exist with detailed explanations of particular symbols:

 Winged Death Head   Winged Death Head
 Torch   Torch
 Flower and Geometric Sunburst   Flower and Geometric Sunburst
 Tulip, Heart, and Geometric Sunburst   Tulip, Heart, and Geometric Sunburst
 Sunflower and Geometric Sunburst   Sunflower and Geometric Sunburst
 Flowers and Geometric Sunburst   Flowers and Geometric Sunburst
 Geometric Sunburst   Geometric Sunburst
 Bible and Finger Pointing to Heaven   Bible and Finger Pointing to Heaven
 Hand of God with Garland   Hand of God with Garland
 Bible and Leaves   Bible and Leaves
 Trees, Angel and Flowers   Trees, Angel and Flowers
 Weeping Willow   Weeping Willow
 Weeping Willow   Weeping Willow
 Weeping Willow   Weeping Willow