Headstone Symbol- The Sun
Posted 17/05/19 in The Headstone Guide
We are often asked to carve a gilded sun disc on our headstones. The sun has rich symbolic meaning. I shall explore some of its symbolism in this post.
Loveliest of what I leave behind is the sunlight….. Praxilla of Sicyon
The sun’s splendour captivates us all, shining down on us. Flowers turn their faces to the sun, as we turn ours towards it too. Indeed headstones in many churchyards traditionally face East, reflecting the Christian belief that Christ will come again from the East. Matthew 24:27: “For just as lightning comes from the east and is seen as far as the west, so will the coming of the Son of Man be”. In addition in the Pagan tradition, graves are often positioned facing East towards the rising sun.
The sun is rich with symbolism, and it is hard to deny its affects on us. We can’t help but feel its power, nourishment, and warmth. At my mother’s funeral, when we walked out of the church down the aisle, the sun shone in through the stained-glass window and as it fell on her coffin I could not help but feel its divine associations.
The sun is the source of heat, light, and life, and its rays may represent the celestial or spiritual influences received by the Earth.
The sun has been worshipped for centuries.
In ancient Egyptian mythology, Aten the Sun God was often depicted as a simple sun disc, with rays of light emanating from it. Below is the last part of a poem to the sun deity Aten composed in the 14th century BCE.
You are in my heart,
There is no other who knows you,
Only your son, Neferkheprure, Sole-one-of-Re [Akhenaten],
Whom you have taught your ways and your might.
[Those on] earth come from your hand as you made them.
When you have dawned they live.
When you set they die;
You yourself are lifetime, one lives by you.
All eyes are on [your] beauty until you set.
All labor ceases when you rest in the west;
When you rise you stir [everyone] for the King,
Every leg is on the move since you founded the earth.
You rouse them for your son who came from your body.
The King who lives by Maat, the Lord of the Two Lands,
The Son of Re who lives by Maat. the Lord of crowns,
Akhenaten, great in his lifetime;
(And) the great Queen whom he loves, the Lady of the Two Lands,
Nefer-nefru-Aten Nefertiti, living forever.
The cycle of the sun may represent the cycle of life, death and rebirth. The sun is regarded as a symbol of resurrection and immortality. In Hindu mythology, the sun is Atman, the universal spirit, and has also been termed the Heart of the Eye of the World. Hindu writers describe the sun as the one which nourishes, from which all things in existence begin.
The sun is Vishnu’s emblem, as well as that of the Buddha and of Christ too. The rays of the sun may represent the twelve apostles of Christ. Jesus has been described as the “Sun of truth”. The Jewish high priests in ancient times wore a golden disc on their chest, a symbol of the divine Sun.
When the sun is represented on a headstone we often use Gold leaf to gild it. Gold has been described as the sun among metals.
In astrology, the Sun is the symbol of life, heat, day and light, authority, the male sex, and all things radiant. On the other hand in most pastoral societies the Sun is female (mother sun). Irish and Welsh writers use the sun to characterize not only light and brightness but also all things beautiful, pleasant and splendid.
The Sun and its rays have been symbols of enlightenment. The sun reveals the reality and truth about our world and ourselves. The Sun sharpens our awareness of our limitations; it is the light of knowledge and the spring of energy.
I love the reference to the sun in the Persian poem, The Conference of the Birds. Below is a short passage:
“The home we seek is in eternity;
The Truth we seek is like a shoreless sea,
Of which your paradise is but a drop.
This ocean can be yours; why should you stop
Beguiled by dreams of evanescent dew?
The secrets of the sun are yours, but you
Content yourself with motes trapped in its beams.
Turn to what truly lives, reject what seems --
Which matters more, the body or the soul?
Be whole: desire and journey to the Whole.”
― Farid Attar, The Conference of the Birds
A pinnacle of Sufism, the poem narrates the allegorical journey of a group of birds and the moral learning they encounter along their way.
The story, enchanting like few others, begins with a meeting of all of the world’s birds to decide who will be their sovereign, because, at the moment, they’re without a leader.
Finally, the birds understand that the Beloved is like the sun in that it can be reflected in a mirror. In other words, we all reflect God because we are God’s shadow and reverberation: nothing is separated from its creator.
Here are some beautiful epitaphs suggestions with reference to the sun:
The sun on my face, even on the shortest day.
Keep your face to the sun and you will never see the shadows.
Some people are so much sunshine to the square inch.
Laughter is a sunbeam of the soul.
Thomas Mann, The Magic Mountain
A flower cannot blossom without sunshine, and man cannot live without love.
She was like the sun,
She knew her place in the world -
She would shine again regardless
of all the storms and changeable weather
She wouldn't adjust her purpose
for things that pass.
I'll be your sun, I'll shine on you.. I'll make you happy; I'll smile to you.
Sunsets require sunshine
Just living isn't enough," said the butterfly, "one must have sunshine, freedom and a little flower.
Hans Christian Anderson
Warm Summer Sun
Warm summer sun,
Shine kindly here,
Warm southern wind,
Blow softly here.
Green sod above,
Lie light, lie light.
Good night, dear heart,
Good night, good night.
Dictionary of Symbols, a Penguin Reference Book
The Book of Symbols by Taschen
For further examples of gravestone symbols and their history, visit this blog post.