Headstone Symbols: Gates Ajar

This popular Victorian headstone symbol is found throughout Union Cemetery, located at 650 Bee Street in Placerville, CA. Its origins trace to a book titled The Gates Ajar, by Elizabeth Stuart Phelps.

Published in 1868, just three years after the end of the Civil War, The Gates Ajar tells the story of a young woman grieving a brother who died in the war. Her faith is challenged by the loss. She questions the actions of God. Critics denounced the book as heretical. The ensuing controversy made it a best seller and fueled the nation’s first mass marketing campaign.

In the story, a wise aunt explains to her niece that the gates to heaven are never closed, but left slightly ajar, allowing departed souls to pass back and forth between heaven and earth. The dead are still with us, quietly observing … like Patrick Swayze in Ghost.


Phelps’ fictional afterlife is a pleasant place. People remain in human form and enjoy their existence. These ideas provided great solace to a nation recovering from the extraordinary loss and devastation of the Civil War.

Despite the controversy, or perhaps because of it, Phelps’ book triggered Gates Ajar swag including clothing, cigars, patent medicines, songs, and yes, headstones.

This example can be found in Masonic Section 19 in Placerville Union Cemetery. Gates Ajar symbols can also be found throughout this and other 19th century cemeteries.

Interpretation by Mike Roberts, 2023