Finding the perfect, meaningful place to store a loved one’s ashes can be tough, especially when there are so many (too many, it can feel like) to choose from. When you’re not sure, a little insight into what the symbols on the urns mean can help you find something that expresses your loved one’s personality, and the bond that you share.
That’s where we come in. In this guide – part two of our urn symbolism series – we’ll cover four symbols you might like to consider: doves, dragonflies, wheat and the Tree of Life.
Doves are a symbol of peace and hope – in the Bible, for example, Noah sends a dove out from the Ark to scout for land after the world has been flooded. The dove returns with an olive branch, marking a peaceful end to Noah’s troubles and bringing hope of a new land to settle on. For the same reason, the dove can symbolise a sign from God.
Doves are also a symbol of love and devotion, as these thoughtful creatures mate for life, even taking it in turns to watch over any eggs or hatchlings. Perhaps for this reason, the dove was associated with Aphrodite, the Goddess of Love in Greek mythology, and with her counterpart Venus in Roman. The turtle dove appears in a poem by Shakespeare as an emblem of enduring marital love.
These symbols combined make dove urns – such as the Heavenly Dove Art Urn – fitting homes for ashes, suggesting a peaceful eternal rest, and a love that lasts forever.
European folklore is not always kind to the dragonfly – it’s sometimes called “the devil’s horse” – but other cultures have celebrated this delicate insect for its agile strength and beauty.
Among Native American tribes, the dragonfly was in the past seen as a symbol of swiftness and activity for its carefree flight.
In Japan, the dragonfly was once also known as the katsumushi, the invincible insect, and was considered a symbol of strength among Japanese warriors. Dragonflies were also seen as lucky, with one folktale describing how a dragonfly led a man and his wife to a fountain of wine in a dream.
During the festival of Obon, a certain type of dragonfly is thought to serve as a mount for the returning spirits of family members who have passed. As such, children are told not to shoo dragonflies away on that day.
But the true nature of the dragonfly and what it means to us is best captured in this simple haiku, recorded by Lafcadio Hearn:
Wheat has been a staple crop since around 9600 BCE, so it’s no surprise that it carries strong associations with the bounty of the earth, growth, rebirth and (in a funereal context) the divine gift of life in many cultures.
This is because wheat is reaped at harvest time but returns as a fresh crop in the spring. In Ancient Egypt, wheat was strongly associated with Osiris, God of the afterlife, with the fresh crop sprouting symbolising the resurrected Osiris.
Similarly, in the Gospel of St John in the Bible, Jesus says: “Truly, truly, I say to you, unless a grain of wheat falls into the earth and dies, it remains alone; but if it dies, it bears much fruit”, a reminder that life can continue through death, and of his own resurrection.
In Christian thought more generally, wheat can symbolise the body of Christ (like the bread in Communion) and the spiritual harvest received from sowing the Gospel. On a Christian grave (or urn) wheat may represent the righteous and godly, as reflected in another parable in the Gospel of St Matthew.
In Judaism, Islam and many other faiths and spiritual, wheat represents the bountiful gifts of a god or nature, making an urn with wheat a lovely choice for a person who truly appreciated life and all of its blessings.
The Tree of Life
Many, many cultures across the world and throughout time have celebrated a sacred tree, often called a Tree of Life or the World Tree. Reaching as it does into both the sky and deeply into the earth (maintaining the balance between Heaven and the Underworld), the Tree of Life symbolises the connection between all living things, as well as immortality and the continuity of life.
The Tree of Life features in the bible, in Revelations 22:1-2:
Then the angel showed me a river of the water of life, as clear as crystal, flowing from the throne of God and of the Lamb, down the middle of the main street of the city. On either side of the river stood a tree of life, producing twelve kinds of fruit and yielding a fresh crop for each month. And the leaves of the tree are for the healing of the nations.
But the Tree of Life can be traced back further and found in many more locations. In Chinese Taoist and Ancient Babylonian mythology, the Tree of Life bears fruit that, when eaten, grants immortality. In Ancient Norse thinking, the Tree of Life Yggdrasil granted wisdom to the god Odin after he hung from it for nine days and nine nights. Across many (if not all) of these myths, the Tree of Life is said to extend its branches into all worlds.
Looking for a Tree of Life urn? Try the Eskdale Tree Urn. A rich emerald green, it is inlaid with a delicate mother of pearl Tree of Life design. Meanwhile, the Tree of Life Ashes Pendant is perfect if you’d prefer a small keepsake to wear around your neck.
Want to learn more about what the symbols on urns mean? Don’t forget to check out part one of this series, where we talk about angels, lilies and butterflies.