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Headstone Symbols- The Boat

Posted 22/01/19 in The Headstone Guide

The image of a boat has been used on headstones for centuries by many civilizations. The boat lends itself well to carving, as it can be simplified and stylised. It is a romantic symbol, a symbol of a journey but also a symbol of safety and refuge.

Carving of boat on headstone

Peace! Peace!
To be rocked by the infinite!

Stanley Kunitz, The Long Boat

The boat as a symbol of security

If you imagine life as an often-perilous journey, then the boat can represent a symbol of security. The boat carries us through life’s shifting currents. We are moored, and we lose our moorings. We sail with and against the tides. The boat holds us secure above the chaos of life.


The boat and Christianity

The boat was a very early Christian symbol. It has been used to represent the Church itself reaching a safe haven with its Christian souls onboard, thus a symbol of safety. This echoes Noah’s ark and also the story of Jesus protecting Peter and his apostles on the stormy sea. (Mark 4:35-41)

A fishing boat might represent the Kingdom of Christ and his followers. Jesus told his disciples to “follow me and I will make you fishers of men”.

The central seating area of the church is called the Nave which derives from the Latin for Ship.

The mast of the boat itself often formed a cross and thus represented the cross especially in times of persecution when the cross needed to be disguised.

Headstone symbol boat


The boat as a symbol in ancient Egypt

In ancient Egypt, the boat was the vehicle that enabled the sun’s journey across the sky as it was “conveyed each night in a bark over the abysmal ocean of darkness toward sunrise and rebirth, just as consciousness is conveyed over the nether seas of sleep”. Ancient carvings can be found of a boat with the sun god Ra.

The boat as a symbol of riches

The boat can represent those things that appear on our horizons and come to shore. It might represent the fruits of our labours: “My ship has come in.”

The boat as a symbol of a journey, a voyage of life

The boat immediately evokes a passage, carrying you over the watery depths. The boat can symbolise a spiritual journey on the sea of life; one cannot get anywhere by remaining on an island.

A boat without a pilot might also suggest that God guides the soul’s journey.

The boat is an important symbol in Greek Mythology, for example, Homer’s Odyssey is a spiritual journey by boat.

Boat on headstone


The boat as a symbol of our last journey

The boat embodies the voyage of life, of coming full circle and also the last journey, taking us back to the waters of our beginning. Eric Neumann describes the ship of death “leading us back to the swaying, gliding somnolent rhythms of earliest childhood, of the primordial ocean and the night”.

The boat as a symbol of a love for the sea and for sailing

People often choose a boat to be carved on a headstone for the simple reason that their loved one loved the sea or loved sailing. The boat might be a source of great joy and freedom.

Bespoke headstone with boat

Follow this link for further examples of symbols on gravestones.

Epitaphs and poems

Below are some epitaphs and poems which might be used on a headstone alongside a carving of a boat.

Nothing gives me as much Joy as the sailing boat of my Silent Heart. Rumi

Exploration is in our nature. We began as wanderers, and we are wanderers still. We have lingered long enough on the shores of the cosmic ocean. We are ready at last to set sail for the stars. Carl Sagan

Boat symbol on headstone

May the winds be gentle, may the waves be calm.

On the seashore of endless worlds, the children meet with shouts and dances. Rabindranath Tagore

So we beat on, boats against the current, borne back ceaselessly into the past. F Scott-Fitzgerald

Fair winds and following seas.

Boat gravestone carving
This carving was not done by us, I found it on a headstone in Norfolk.

So the lively force of her mind
Has broken down all barriers,
And she has passed far beyond
The limited hold of human existence;
Forever now, in mind and spirit...
She traverses the boundless universe.

Adapted from Lucretius


If I take the wings of the morning and dwell in the uttermost parts of the sea.
Psalm 139:9 King James Version (KJV)

Oh night spread thy wings over me as the imperishable stars. From Howard Carter’s gravestone.

We are all in the same boat.

A boat at midnight sent alone to drift upon the moonless sea, a lute, whose leading chord is gone, a wounded bird, that hath but one imperfect wing to soar upon, are like what I am, without thee. Thomas Moore

Boats in the harbour are safe but that is not what they are meant for. Zig Ziglar

Home is the sailor, home from the sea,
And the hunter home from the hill. Robert Louis Stevenson

I have heard the song of the blossoms and the old chant of the sea,
And seen strange lands from under the arched white sails of ships;
But the loveliest things of beauty God ever has showed to me
Are her voice, and her hair, and eyes, and the dear red curve of her lips. from "Beauty" by John Masefield

Truth by John Masefield
"Truth"by John Masefield

How still,
How strangely still
The water is today,
It is not good
For water
To be so still that way.

Langston Hughes


Blessing the boats (at St. Mary’s)

May the tide
that is entering even now
the lip of our understanding
carry you out
beyond the face of fear
May you kiss
the wind then turn from it
certain that it will
love your back
May you
open your eyes to water
water waving forever
and may you in your innocence
sail through this to that


Crossing the Bar

Sunset and evening star,
And one clear call for me!
And may there be no moaning of the bar,
When I put out to sea,

But such a tide as moving seems asleep,
Too full for sound and foam,
When that which drew from out the boundless deep
Turns again home.

Twilight and evening bell,
And after that the dark!
And may there be no sadness of farewell,
When I embark;

For tho' from out our bourne of Time and Place
The flood may bear me far,
I hope to see my Pilot face to face
When I have crost the bar.

Alfred, Lord Tennyson


My Beautiful Cruise

I borrowed a poem from the sky,
And music from a bird,
I stole a chime out of the wind,
And from the clouds a word.

I borrowed a song from the waves,
A prayer from the silver rain,
I took the whispers of angels,
To fill the jib and the main.

As each little thing was added,
It really could not fail,
With God's help I put in my mind,
A wonderful relaxing sail!

Marion Schoeberlein


As if the Sea should part

As if the Sea should part
And show a further Sea --
And that -- a further -- and the Three
But a presumption be --
Of Periods of Seas --
Unvisited of Shores --
Themselves the Verge of Seas to be --
Eternity -- is Those –

Emily Dickinson


Navigator's Blessing

May you see the way wherever the journey takes you,
sailing safely over rough water
and weathering the waves' dips and crests.
May you find treasure in Earth's infinite variety,
beauty and surprise.
May you hear the ocean's music in every shell you hold to your ear.
May your boat fill with insight, laughter, generosity and love
as you discover new landscapes and explore the wide expanse of memory


Requiem

Under the wide and starry sky
Dig the grave and let me lie.
Glad did I live and gladly die,
And I laid me down with a will.
This be the verse you grave for me;
"Here he lies where he longed to be,
Home is the sailor, home from sea,
And the hunter home from the hill.

Robert Louis Stevenson


From the dream of the dust they came
As the dawn set free.
They shall pass as the flower of the flame
Or the foam of the sea.

Marjorie Pickthall


The Cloud (third verse)

... I am the daughter of Earth and Water,

And the nursling of the Sky:
I pass through the pores of the ocean and shores;
I change, but I cannot die.
For after the rain, when with never a stain
The pavilion of heaven is bare,
And the winds and sunbeams with their convex gleams
Build up the blue dome of air,
I silently laugh at my own cenotaph, --
And out of the caverns of rain,
Like a child from the womb, like a ghost from the tomb,
I arise, and unbuild it again. .

Percy Bysshe Shelley

Boat Song

The stars forever
Swim the river
Ferry me over!
We who move thither,
Wind in our hair
Are here forever.

Pearl Andelson Sherry


HOW COULD the love between Thee and me sever?
As the leaf of the lotus abides on the water: so thou art my Lord, and I am Thy servant.
As the night-bird Chakor gazes all night at the moon: so Thou art my Lord and I am Thy servant.
From the beginning until the ending of time, there is love between Thee and me; and how shall such love be extinguished?

Kabir says: 'As the river enters into the ocean, so my heart touches Thee.'

Rabindranath Tagore

References:

The Penguin Reference Book of Symbols, by Jean Chevalier

The Book of Symbols by Ami Ronnberg



wording symbols boats epitaphs