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Memento Mori Verses

St-John-the-Baptist-Keele-Infrared
St John the Baptist church in Keele

Within the churchyard of St John the Baptist in Keele, you will find some wonderful headstones from the 18th century that feature Memento Mori verses.

It was common in the 14th to 18th centuries to feature symbols and/or writings of Memento Mori upon ones final resting place. Back then, it was a lot easier to be fatally struck down with a disease or ill health and therefore, Memento Mori served as a reminder to all that death could arrive within the hour, so make the most of it.

Memento Mori Headstones

As you can see from the headstone below, all of the deceased lived very short lives, so the Memento Mori verse is very appropriate.

Keele-Headstone-William
Keep death and judgement always in your eyes

Keep Death and Judgement always in your Eye;
None are fit to live, who are not fit do die;
Make use of present time, because you must
Take up your Lodging shortly in the Dust.
Tis dreadful to behold the setting Sun,
And Night approaching ere your Work be done.

There are some other interesting headstones that can’t be ignored from the churchyard in Keele and the next Memento Mori headstone makes me reflect with emotion how hard it was centuries ago. It features a verse for Jane who died in the year 1789 from child birth.

The Pains of Child bed over powered me
I did submit to Death my life you see
As my Greater through his heavenly Love
Took me to rest with blessed Saints Above

In regards to the figure blowing a trumpet, I have provided my friend, The Mystic Masque’s thoughts, who had originally visited this location and shared a photograph he had taken that inspired me to visit.

This grave also features a Wildman of the Woods aka John the Baptist caricature, or that’s what it seems to be, on the head of the grave, the church is dedicated to Saint John the Baptist – The Mystic Masque

Keele-Headstone-Childbirth
Wildman of the Woods aka John the Baptist caricature

Finally, this headstone has a beautiful memento mori verse, which is sadly for a child.

Verse on a headstone
Sweet innocency’s form lies here

Sweet innocency’s form lies here,
Lamented by its Parents dear;
Who hope at last in endless Joy,
To Meet again their lovely Boy.

 

Headstones of Cornwall

Our latest holiday took us to Cornwall and we stayed in a lovely lodge near Saltash that I highly recommend.  Click here to view Tamar Lodge.

I’m totally transfixed that centuries later, you can stroll among the dead in old graveyards and they can still have their say. ‘What????’

I hear you scream in horror!!!!

OK, I don’t mean literally that the dead rise and speak in person.

The Dead Do Speak

I’m talking about the symbols on the headstones that, if deciphered can tell you a story about the deceased.  Some symbols are straight forward to work out, but the more symbols on the one headstone, the more difficult it gets.  It’s very fascinating once you believe you have figured out the life story of the deceased, but it’s totally subjective.

Firstly, I want to express how very important it is that headstones like these are preserved for further generations to enjoy.  In different parts of the country, indeed the world, headstones showcase their own style and most beautiful, in my opinion, are the carved Memento Mori headstones in the Scottish city of Edinburgh that showcase the deceased’s wealth and status.

In Cornwall, you will find headstones that are not so elaborate, but the medieval artwork etched into the stone, is so crude, but wonderful to look at.  Below I will take you on a journey of my favourite headstones showing you how the dead do speak.

The Day of Judgement Headstone

Vita-Brevis-Headstone
Vita Brevis translated is ‘Life is Short’

‘And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire: And he had in his hand a little book open: and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth’ Book of Revelation

The graphical account of the day of judgement can be found in the Book of Revelation. The earth is destroyed by seven angels with trumpets and the dead rise to be judged against their deeds in the book of life. I find it terrifying and always have done since a small child attending a Church of England school.  Headstones like these reminded the observer that it was not only there impending death that they had to prepare for, but also a second death at the end of times when they would be judged against their deeds in the book of life. It also shows that the deceased was very much devoted to religion.

And another angel came out from the altar, which had power over fire; and cried with a loud cry to him that had the sharp sickle, saying, Thrust in thy sharp sickle, and gather the clusters of the vine of the earth; for her grapes are fully ripe. – King James Bible

Cornwall is the first time I’ve seen a full skeleton depicted on a headstone that I’ve found in a graveyard. The skeleton holds a dart, which is a symbol of death. One of the angels is holding a scythe or sickle that is commonly associated with the Grim Reaper. It’s a symbol of death because of its used to cut down the harvest (reap). The scythe is also mentioned in the bible, revelation 14.

Cornish-Memento-Mori-Headstone
The Day of Judgement Headstone from Cornwall

Common Headstones of Cornwall

Seeing clock dials on headstones is also new to me, yet it’s quite common in the graveyards of Cornwall that I visited. A clock can represent a passage of time and in some cases if it has hands it can show the time of death.  I don’t know if that’s the case of the first headstone featuring a clock below, but it’s a fascinating thought don’t you think?  It also has a crude skull  above, where the hand points to, so I will stick with the meaning ‘a passage of time’, birth through to death. 

Don’t you think it’s important that we are still reminded today that time is fleeting and we need to live for today instead of worrying about things that might not happen? With the year I’ve had (anxiety – you can read my personal journey here), I know that this long forgotten funerary art should make a return.

Time-is-Fleeting
Clock on a headstone found in Cornwall
Skull-Time
Very old headstone showing a skull inside a clock
Cornish-Time-Travel
Another headstone from Cornwall featuring a clock dial

Memento Mori Headstone in Cornwall

Cornish-Skull-and-Crossbones
Memento Mori on Cornish Headstone

I adore this funny looking skull and crossbones together with the Latin phrase of ‘Memento Mori‘.

I hope you’ve enjoyed our tour of Cornwall’s graveyards and if you have a place to suggest, please get in touch.

Graveyard Photography for Taphophile’s and Graveyard Tourists

If you’re looking for that special gift for a taphophile or graveyard tourist, please consider purchasing a special framed print, which is also signed from my Etsy Store.

Gothic Wall Art from Amanda Norman
Click to view Amanda Norman Photograph framed prints

By purchasing a framed print, you will be supporting the upkeep of my graveyard photography, which is something I really enjoy doing. I also provide custom requests, so please get in touch if you’re after something totally unique. Please take a look and feel free to share as this also supports my work.

Mememto Mori in Northumberland

Once I had seen the beautiful Memento Mori headstones in Edinburgh, I was hooked and I wanted to find more. As an early birthday present, Mark took me to the wonderful county of Northumberland with an extensive list of graveyards to explore that contained listed Memento Mori headstones.

Northumberland Graveyards
Northumberland Graveyards

Mycroft Studio Cottage in Rochester

Our home for the week was Mycroft Studio Cottage in Rochester near Otterburn, Northumberland. We chose this cottage based on price, good reviews and its location. The cottage is located on the edge of the Gold Tier International Dark Sky Park perfect for seeing the stars without any light pollution. We had a number of clear skies at night and you could see the milky way with our naked eyes. It was absolutely perfect and so was the home made bread and the bottle of bucks fizz that was provided to us when we arrived.

We found the cottage to be exactly what we expected and the owners have thought of everything you should and could require as there was nothing that we needed. 

The cottage is owned by Paul who has an extensive amount of knowledge about the area and when he inquired about the purpose of our visit, I did my usual smile, thinking of what reaction I’m going to receive when I tell him that I love visiting old graveyards to photograph them. To my surprise, he showed genuine enthusiasm and told us of some churches that have skulls on the headstones that we should visit. PERFECT HOST as far as I’m concerned!

Not only is Paul friendly, he has what a good host should have, passion to ensure his guests thoroughly enjoy their stay. If you’re thinking of following in our footsteps, then please consider Mycroft Studio Cottage.

A Taphophiles Memento Mori Headstone Itinerary

Seriously, you’re asking me what a taphophile is?

I would describe myself as a taphophile as I love to visit old graveyards and cemeteries to photograph the headstones and try to capture the beauty of death and what the dead still have to say to us, the living, centuries later – Amanda Norman

Graveyards to Explore – Day 1

St Cuthbert’s Church in Elsdon

Situated approximately a 10 minute drive from Mycroft Studio Cottage is St Cuthbert’s Church in Elsdon. The weather wasn’t great as the rain was barely managing to hold off, but I still remember my excitement of spotting my first Memento Mori headstone, then another, then another until I lost count. It was also here that I discovered to check both sides of a headstone to find Memento Mori symbols as it’s common to see a skull and crossbones on the reverse. Click the link to find out more about St Cuthbert’s Church.

Skull and Crossbones on Headstone Elsdon
A striking skull and crossbones with hourglass on the reverse of a headstone

Mortality Symbols

The above headstone shows a number of common mortality symbols including skull and crossbones with an hourglasswere used in the 18th century to remind the living that we all become dust and bones no matter what our status is in life. The hourglass reminds us that our time on Earth is running out. Memento Mori is the latin phrase for ‘Remember you will die‘.

Winter’s Gibbet

Leaving Elsdon, we headed towards a hill known as Steng Cross to see Winter’s Gibbet, so called after the body of William Winter was suspended in chains after being hung for the murder of Margaret Crozier in 1791. There his body remained with bits of rotten flesh falling to the floor making easy pickings for the creatures that fed upon it. It’s a bleak place and feels like it is out in the middle of nowhere and at one point, there did used to be a replica stone head hanging from the gibbet, but sadly not anymore.

Winters Gibbet in Northumberland
Winters Gibbet in Northumberland

St Giles, Netherwitton Death Head

A ghostly edit of a death head or soul effigy on a headstone from St Giles churchyard in Netherwitton. I particularly like the soft face and sunken in small eyes and it also has a look of the sun. Please visit the Cemetery Death Heads page that also has a gallery of my favourite death head photographs from numerous places.

Netherwitton Death Head
Netherwitton Death Head

St Andrew’s Church in Hartburn

With over 1000 years of history, St Andrew’s Church in Hartburn is one of my favourite churchyards that we visited whilst in Northumberland. I could have spent a full day in this graveyard with the number of Memento Mori headstones found here. They are so beautiful and I highly recommend that you visit. Inside the church is also worth looking at and I found this beautiful verse: –

So when oe’r Springs soft Blossoms, Winter’s breath,
With keen severity diffuses death,
The Bud and Flower in dust promiscuous lie
And cease to bloom beneath the churlish sky.

Skull-Hourglass-Ghost
Beautiful Memento Mori headstone from Hartburn

St Andrew’s Chuch in Bolam

St Andrew’s Church in Bolam is worth a visit. Such a nice graveyard that on the day we visited, was being cleared by the community whilst children played among the headstones, which was very nice to see.

Bolam Graveyard
Bolam graveyard in Northumberland

St Bartholomew Church in Kirkwhelpington

Our final church of the day was the lovely St Bartholomew’s in Kirkwhelpington that had some beautiful Memento Mori headstones. It has fine examples of both types of cemetery death heads e.g. your typical skull and crossbones and cherub face with wings.

Mourning-Face
A face of mourning upon a headstone from St Bartholomew’s graveyard

Graveyards to Explore – Day 2

Unfortunately, it rained so hard on day two of our exploration that I wasn’t willing to take my camera out of its bag. It was actually quite miserable as the graveyards we visited on day 2 just didn’t match the excitement of my first day. Looking back on it now, of course it wouldn’t when the weather is affecting my enthusiasm. We visited, St Mary in Holystone and St Michael in Alwinton, which had a good graveyard. 

Graveyards to Explore – Day 3

St Oswald, St Cuthbert and King Alfwald Church in Halton, Northumberland

We begin today’s journey of exploring graveyards in Northumberland with a visit to a church in Halton that is named after two saints and an ancient king of Northumbria, St Oswald, St Cuthbert and King Alfwald. There is not an abundance of memento mori headstones here, but it is very scenic and peaceful and well worth visiting.  The image below shows the chest tomb that caught my attention due to the number of different mortality symbols shown. 

Mortality Symbols on Chest Tomb
Lots of mortality symbols are shown on this chest tomb

Mortality Symbols and their Meanings

Memento Mori is latin which translates to ‘Remember you must die‘. Drapery seen on headstones in this case, the bag that contains the bones, usually depicts the veil between life and death and the crossing of that plane and to others it can symbolise God’s protection until Resurrection.

St Andrew’s Church in Corbridge

There is an absolute gorgeous church and graveyard to be found in Corbridge, Northumberland.

St Andrew’s Church has its origins in the Anglo-Saxon period and was founded by St Wilfred. Corbridge itself is a really nice village to relax in with numerous coffee shops. The graveyard has an exciting number of good headstones to photograph. The one I have chosen for display here is a headstone with a death head that is dedicated to brothers. I just love the stone engraved lettering and the wonderful swirls, which you don’t see on modern headstones.

19th Century Death Head on Headstone
Beautiful 19th century headstone dedicated to brothers

St John Lee Church in Acomb

Such a beautiful church and graveyard that must be visited. I had an extremely hard time picking just one photograph from this location as I was spoilt for choice.  The image below was chosen as it sums up the beauty and the headstones in this particular graveyard.

Infrared-Headstones-Acomb
Graveyard of St John Lee in Acomb, Northumberland

The church of St John Lee, was rebuilt in 1818 and prior to this there was a medieval church. The graveyard has a lot of medieval headstones that are truly fascinating. The church is dedicated to a local hermit who was reported to be a worker of miracles and it is believed that one miracle occurred in 1765 at the church, when a 90 yr old Northumbrian piper threw away his crutches after using them for 26 years, to walk to church for his wedding to a 25 yr old. Reference Wikipedia.

St Mungo’s Church, Simonburn

As you leave the graveyard of St Mungo’s Church in Simonburn, the headstone below is sure to catch your eye.  It’s a message from beyond the grave and I thought it would be nice to feature it here.  The graveyard itself is another one well worth visiting. There are not many headstones featuring the classic skull and crossbones, but nonetheless, you will find a lot of mortality symbols and cherubs with wings.

Headstone Verse
A message from beyond the grave

St Cuthbert’s Church in Bellingham

It’s certainly worth visiting St Cuthbert’s Church in Bellingham as there are some wonderful headstones in the graveyard and the interior of the church is very nice.  Dating back to 1180, this church certainly has been through the wars and was laid to waste during the border wars with Scotland. In the 1660’s during a restoration, three cannon balls were found in the roof. Trying to pick my favourite graveyard photograph was a difficult choice and in the end I chose a nice scenic shot to show you why you should visit.

Infrared-Graveyard-Bellingham
The graveyard of St Cuthbert’s Church in Bellingham, Northumberland

Graveyard Photography for Taphophile’s and Graveyard Tourists

If you’re looking for that special gift for a taphophile or graveyard tourist, please consider purchasing a special framed print, which is also signed from my Etsy Store.

Gothic Wall Art from Amanda Norman
Click to view Amanda Norman Photograph framed prints

By purchasing a framed print, you will be supporting the upkeep of my graveyard photography, which is something I really enjoy doing. I also provide custom requests, so please get in touch if you’re after something totally unique. Please take a look and feel free to share as this also supports my work.

Cadaver Stones

Cadaver stones were often laid over the tombs of the wealthy during the times of the plague (14th and 15th centuries). They are designed to show what happens to our bodies once buried, hence the opened funeral shroud. A number of creatures like newts, frogs, maggots etc can be seen feasting on the rotting flesh. No matter how much wealth a person had or what their status was in life, we are all equal in death. Latin phrases like Memento Mori (remember that you will die) and Memento Vivere (Remember to live) became popular around the same period of time.

Ireland has two fascinating Cadaver stones that must be seen.

Stamullen Cadaver

Cadaver Stone
Stamullen Cadaver Stone

The cadaver stone pictured above lies within the St Christopher’s Chapel ruins within Stamullen.

This chapel is next to the ruins of St Patrick’s church and it wasn’t easy to find at first, but Mark found it behind a locked gate and all I could do was peer through the bars and admire it from a distance.

I saw a piece of paper on the floor with a name and a phone number to call for the key and after looking up the details on Google as we couldn’t quite see the phone number, I made the call to a Brendan Matthews who agreed to meet us there and then. I was so excited!

Cadaver History

Brendan, a local historian who works at the Drogheda museum was full of historical information about this piece of art and the family of whom it belongs to. It’s very important that information like this is recorded correctly and I knew that I wouldn’t be able to remember everything that he told me. For this reason, I took a photograph of the information sheet that was laminated on the wall nearby so I could replicate here.

St Christopher’s was the family chapel of the Preston family (Viscounts Gormanston), who resided at Gormanston Castle from the late 14th until the mid 20th century. The chapel here dates to the year 1434. The family burial vault of the Preston’s is covered by two interesting tombstones.
The Cadaver stone depicts the decomposing body of a young woman with numerous reptiles and creatures feeding off the corpse. The woman is shown to wear a headdress with the shroud tied back at the head and feet. It is the oldest of only nine cadaver stones found in Ireland and dates to c. 1450. The cadaver stones came into fashion across Europe following the Black Death of the mid 14th century and subsequent plagues.

Stamullen Cadaver Stone
Stamullen Cadaver Stone

Cadaver Stone Keeper

Brendan Matthews is the proud caretaker of this lovely piece of art for the current lord. He maintains the area with a bit of weeding and provides information and access to the graveyard for anyone interested. Once finished with the graveyard photography, we ventured out of the enclosure and I pointed out to Brendan a piece of human skull on the Earth.

Following my recent trip to Lincolnshire and now Ireland, I’m getting used to seeing fragments of bones exposed in some of these old graveyards. Brendan picked it up and showed me these two notches on the inside of the skull and told me that it belonged to a man who was above the age of 50 and it was these notches that provided that information. I was in my element chatting to him and I could have spent a whole day with him. Thank you Brendan if you read this post. It was a real pleasure to meet you and you’ve certainly left me with some very fond memories of my trip to Ireland.

Drogheda Cadavers

Drogheda Skeletons
Cadaver stones came into fashion across Europe following the Black Death of the mid 14th century and subsequent plagues

These two lovely cadavers can be found at the back of St Peter’s churchyard in Drogheda and we highly recommend you visit.

 

Howff Cemetery in Dundee

I was recently contacted by Georgia Goodman, a student studying art and design at Dundee University.

A recent project she had to undertake as part of her studies involved creating a guide for the wonderful city of Dundee and she’s got me sold on visiting Howff Cemetery in 2019.

Flash Cards Project

Georgia created a set of beautiful flash cards detailing the Memento Mori symbols found in Howff Cemetery and wrote to us to let us know that she had credited Headstone Symbols within her project and she also sent us images of Howff Cemetery.

As a thank you to Georgia for letting us know about her project and this wonderful cemetery, I asked her if she would like to be interviewed for an article on Headstone Symbols and the answer was yes. I asked her to send me three of her favourite images of Howff Cemetery and tell me why in particular, these three fascinated her so much and the meanings she learned from them.

Howff Cemetery Memento Mori

What sparked your interest in graveyards and their symbology?

I have an interest for the weird, grotesque and macabre, especially in art, as they’re much more intriguing and have more hidden meanings that typical subjects. Just from my few visits to the Howff in Dundee, I weirdly enjoyed the peacefullness of the graveyard; I was shocked at how quiet it was for such a centrally-placed burial ground.

What if anything during your project, has been the most important piece of information you have learned to take forward with you in life?

I never understood the beauty and skill behind the imagery and typography in headstones so I have really grown to the types of art made possible by carving stone. Also to remember to ‘live’, I think a lot of people do not understand the value of their life until they realise it isn’t infinite.

What do you plan to do with your flash cards, because I think they are absolutely brilliant and I’ll be very happy to promote these for you if required?

That’s so kind, thank you very much! Well this was only a small two week project for my studies and it was also a way for me to easily learn what these symbols meant. It would be amazing to have something I’ve made in production however I think for this one, I will cherish it as a handmade one-off!

What are your top three images and what did you learn from their symbols?

Winged Heads and Three Kings

Weavers Headstone Howff Cemetery
Weaver’s headstone showing three crowned heads with shuttles in their mouths

I absolutely love this one. The weeping face of the angel and the three kings with strange mouths. It was also great to illustrate for my guide as the faces were unique to the Howff.

Omnes Eodem Cogimur

OMNES EODEM COGIMUR translates to WE ARE ALL DRAWN TO THE SAME PLACE
OMNES EODEM COGIMUR translates to WE ARE ALL DRAWN TO THE SAME PLACE

The skulls are so crisp and vibrant on the grave, the moss is a great addition also. My main reason for this one is the phrase “omnes eodem cogimur” meaning We Are All Drawn To The Same Place. Its such a chilling quote to remind you that we all inevitably die so live your life fully and also treat everyone equal as we all end up in the same place.

Glover/Skinner Tools

Gloves Skinners Tools Howff Cemetery
Gloves Skinners Tools Howff Cemetery

The Nine Trades in Dundee covered all of the different occupations in the city during the 19th/early 20th century. I found out the meaning from this from the small chunk of information the cemetery gives you on the noticeboard. I really love the patina and clarity of these shapes even though the tombs are so old. The hands especially intrigue me because of their peculiar shapes.

The Grave of George and Kitty in Billinge

Whilst researching the coffin grave of George and Kitty Smith, which is a marvelous example of Memento Mori from St Aidan’s Church in Billinge, I came across a wonderful legend that has to be repeated here. Of course if you’re a regular reader, you will know that this beautiful winged skull with a snake eating its own tail, has a different meaning, but let’s get lost in a romantic tale of love and death. I will also reveal George and Kitty Smith’s message from beyond the grave to YOU.

GY103 Billinge Kitty Smith
GY103 The Grave of George and Kitty Smith

Billinge Legend of George and Kitty Smith

One day in 1720, Kitty Smith was bitten by a snake upon Billinge Hill and lost her life.  George Smith succumbed to grief over losing his Kitty and he took his own life following her to the grave with a broken heart. Over the centuries, the legend has been altered and sometimes you will hear that it was George Smith who was bitten by a snake and died, whilst taking a break from his work in the quarry. Kitty Smith subsequently lost her life and the grave of George Smith was re-opened for them to be re-united in death.

Isn’t this such a lovely example of eternal love that has lasted centuries?  It’s a wonderful legend that has the making of an excellent tale of Gothic horror.

Coffin Tomb at St Aidan’s Church in Billinge

This coffin shaped tomb has the date of 1720 and a lot of the writing is illegible apart from the words ‘George & Kitty Smith‘. It’s beautiful how a legend has developed and I’m not surprised, because this particular coffin tomb is striking. There are no other examples of memento mori in the graveyard of St Aidan’s Church in Billinge, so it’s no wonder the tomb of George and Kitty Smith has attracted so much attention.

Memento Mori in Billinge

Memento Mori in Latin means Remember that YOU will die and I’m guessing that considering this is the only example of memento mori in the graveyard, George and Kitty Smith must have been wealthy to afford an ever lasting reminder. Their message to the living is…

GY102 Billinge Winged Skull
GY102 Winged skull with snake on grave in Billinge

No matter what our status is in life, we all receive DEATH and our souls will be resurrected in the afterlife. 

Broken down, each individual symbol is listed below together with its meaning.

Winged Skull Meaning

  • The skull represents death that comes to us all and the wings represent the ascent to Heaven or the afterlife. 

Ouroborus (Snake eating tail)

  • snake eating its own tail is called an ouroboros and is an ancient symbol for eternity and the cycle of life and death

Drapery or Curtain on Headstone

Above the winged skull motif you can see a curtain or draperyDrapery seen on headstones usually depicts the veil between life and death and the crossing of that plane and to others it can symbolise God’s protection until Resurrection. Drapery remained a favourite symbol of the Victorians and is often seen covering urns.

GY100 Coffin Tomb
GY100 Coffin tomb in the graveyard of St Aidan’s Church in Billinge

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You will receive an A4 print (210 x 297 mm) on quality ultra mat photo paper mounted on A3 (297 x 420 mm) thick black card with backing protected in a plastic see through envelope.

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Flaybrick Hill Egyptian Tomb

The Victorian age was marked by discovery!

Scientists and missionaries set off around the globe bringing back stories of far-away lands and ancient cultures. The discovery and translation of the Rosetta Stone in the mid-19th century unlocked the secrets of ancient Egypt.

Advances in railways and steam ships meant that wealthy tourists could also sail the River Nile and see the newly discovered sites for themselves.

The elaborate Egyptian rituals for their dead struck a chord with Victorians and Egyptian symbols entered fashion and mourning jewellery. The new cemeteries being constructed, such as Highgate in London, incorporated Egyptian architecture and the wealthy built their tombs adorned with Sphinx, ankh and hieroglyphics displaying that they had visited the country and knew of its secrets.

With the architecture of this new land being so impressive, it was incorporated into Masonic history, and on some headstones, Egyptian symbols can be seen alongside Masonic symbology.

Most of these symbols are merely decorative, placing the same grandeur on the recently deceased as that granted to the ancient Pharaohs. Occasionally within Victorian cemeteries, one tomb will stand out as different, using more unusual Egyptian symbols and its layout seems to want to tell a story. We will look at one of those now that stands proud in Flaybrick Hill Cemetery on the Wirral.

Egyptian Headstone of Isaac Roberts

Isaac Roberts Headstone Monument
Isaac Roberts Egyptian Headstone Monument

This is the tomb of Isaac Roberts who was a pioneer in astrophotography and noted for taking the first photograph of the Andromeda galaxy. He died in 1904, but his ashes were buried in this monument around 5 years later.

Egyptian Symbols

There are many Egyptian symbols emblazoned upon his tombstone monument and we will work from the bottom to the top:

Row of Ankhs

It was difficult to make out the meaning of this row of ankhs until I found a picture of an almost identical relief from the Temple of Horus in Edfu. The temple was discovered in the 1860’s so would have been well known at the time of this memorial.

These symbols read together, translates as ‘all power over eternal life‘.

  • Ankh is a well know symbol of the key to eternal life
  • Was are dog headed staffs that represent power
  • Nebet means everything or all

Egyptian Headstone Symbols
All power over eternal life

Snakes and Staff

The image of the caduceus related to healing comes to mind here, but it is not quite right and also it was not an Egyptian symbol.The staffs are tapered, the snake has a sun disk above its head and it is not wrapped around a staff, but holding it with its tail.Further digging on the Internet produced wadjet. Wadjet was a snake goddess of protection and her sacred amulet was a papyrus stem.Looking at the staffs the tops look bushy like these amulets.

Wadjet held the power of life and death as her bite was the only thing that could kill pharaohs.

Pair of Galaxies

Pictured on the headstone monument are nebulae M41 and NGC 1499, the Andromeda Galaxy and the California Nebula.

They were first photographed in detail by Isaac Roberts.His wife Dorethea was also an astronomer and was born in California, so linking her to the monument.

Egypt Headstone
Galaxies displayed on Egyptian Headstone

Phrase in the Center of the Galaxies

The phrase ‘HEAVEN WITHIN US IS‘ appears to be enclosed by WAS (dog headed staffs). Above the phrase are two stars and the Egyptian cobra rearing up, the Uraeus, as in a Pharaoh’s headdress. The 2 stars represent Isaac and Dorethea. If you look closely at the very bottom of the lettering, you can see what looks like the number 8 on it’s side. This is a mathematical symbol representing infinity.

HEAVEN WITHIN US IS’ looks simple enough and the phrase isn’t taken from the bible. The quote can be found in Emanuel Swedenborg’s, Heaven and Hell:-

“for heaven is within us, and people who have heaven within them come into heaven.The heaven within us is our acknowledgment of the Divine and our being led by the Divine.”

Further research indicates that Emanuel Swedenborg was an 18th century scientist who struggled with the link between scientific discovery and religious theories. He started writing after an enlightenment linking the opposing views and emphasised that one’s actions, and not faith, were the key to heaven. These works influenced new forms of religion such as Methodism, Theosophy and Mormonism that were flourishing in the Victorian era.

Two Comets

The two comet looking images above the text are representations of the sun. The upper image is being eclipsed by the moon. Isaac and Dorethea met and fell in love on a scientific cruise to observe a total eclipse.

Epitaph

The epitaph is bordered on each side by a column of stars. Written in the detail of the epitaph are words that provide an insight into the couple’s values.  

“who spent his whole life in the search after TRUTH, and the endeavour to aid the happiness of OTHERS.”

Apparently the space below was left for when Dorethea died and her ashes were supposed to be interned in a recess in the monument, but she never joined him in death.

Representation of the Egyptian God Horus
Representation of the Egyptian God Horus

Winged Sun Gods

The images towards the top of the monument depict Horus as a winged sun disc with two serpents signifying his divinity.

This image is also copied from the Temple of Edfu. They are a form of protection with the wings representing the sky spread out over the world and apt for an astronomer.

Row of Owls

It’s hard to tell if the animals are cats or owls, but looking closely they do resemble birds. This is a bit confusing because we can’t find any Egyptian owl gods with a sun disk. With a bit of guess work that the sculptor took a bit of artistic licence, these animals could represent Horus as god of the skies. Instead of a falcon that is usually used to portray him, these have mixed metaphors and have used the owl for its association with learning and ability to see at night.

Reverse Side of the Tomb

On the monuments reverse, there is another somewhat art deco styled winged sun god, above what looks like a pyramid and a row of stars.
Then in English and Welsh the following is written: –

“Heaven is within us, and we have the power to dwell in it all the days of our life in full happiness, or we may decline and make ourselves miserable with `cibau gweigion ffol’ Bydded inni `ddewis y rhan dda.’.”

It finishes with another carved astronomical image. This time the Whirlpool Galaxy

Conclusion of Flaybrick Hill Cemeteries Egyptian Monument

The monument shows the value held by Isaac Roberts in both learning and astronomy. The ancient Egyptians were admired for their astronomy.

Both Isaac and Dorethea bequeathed large amounts to scholarships to improve the education of others and the advancement of astronomy.

The site as well could have some meaning. Isaac had moved from this area long ago, but his successful career as a builder funded his research into astronomy. One of his first projects after setting up his company was across the road at Birkenhead Water Works on Flaybrick Lane. Could this example of helping others with sanitation in the area be part of his legacy?

The welsh words on the reverse of the tomb is translated as “foolish empty vessels. May we choose the good part”
Foolish empty vessels can be seen as those who do not fill their lives with learning and worthwhile activities. The good part is used to represent the soul and everlasting life.

Although Roberts saw no place for religion in his observations, it implies that he still held that leading a good life, looking after others and the pursuit of knowledge was more important than faith in a god.

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Memento Mori Headstone Help

This striking Memento Mori headstone pictured below was taken at St Cuthbert’s in Edinburgh.  

There are elements of this image that we haven’t worked out yet. We don’t know what is above the hourglass and it looks like a modern day light bulb, but it can’t be. Also, is the vase that supports the hourglass significant?

Petto Putti Headstone
What is the meaning of this Memento Mori headstone from Edinburgh?

Who are the Two Figures on this Memento Mori Headstone?

We’ve spent hours trying to work out who the two figures represent and we think that they maybe small children known as ‘Putti’.  We have come to this conclusion because most images of Adam and Eve would have a tree between them or could be pictured with a serpent.  

Below are some of the elements that we have worked out, but when deciphering the true meaning of a headstone, you have to be confident with every visible symbol and this is why we are asking for your help.  We would love to read your thoughts on this, so please do get in touch!

Click here to read more about Memento Mori symbols.

Memento Mori Hourglass

These two figures hold up a hourglass to represent the passing of life on Earth. They each stand on a skull that reminds us all of what we become.

Inverted Torches

They both hold inverted torches that denotes the passing of the soul to the afterlife and they are surrounded by lavish drapery.

Drapery on Headstone

Drapery on a headstone usually depicts the veil between life and death and the crossing of that plane and to others it can symbolise God’s protection until Resurrection

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Deciphering a Masonic Grave

Meaning of snakes on a masonic headstone
Deciphering the meaning of a masonic headstone featuring snakes or serpents

Mark and I came across this wonderful headstone in the graveyard of Bakewell Parish Church in the heart of the beautiful Peak District in Derbyshire. It’s a clear example of a headstone with a meaning as it has a story to tell about the deceased and their beliefs and way of life.  

Before reading any further, both Mark and I would like to point out that we are not experts on free masonry. We have simply researched various symbols depicted on the headstone to come to our conclusion.  We have included sources of reference and we don’t to have interpreted it correctly.  Please feel free to comment below with your thoughts and knowledge.

Masonic Symbol on Headstone

Firstly, this headstone has the ‘all seeing eye of God‘ at the very top, which is a commonly used Masonic symbol on a headstone therefore denoting that the deceased is a free mason, but what about the snakes or serpents appearing on the headstone with hands pointing to a wavy sword?

Snakes or Serpents Headstone Meaning

The snake or serpent as a symbolic symbol on a headstone is fascinating to try and decipher.  You have to think about the characteristics of a snake, how they coil their bodies and spring into attack with a venomous bite or squeeze the living life out of its victim.  Snakes regularly shed their skin, bringing a new lease of life and lots of different cultures use these characteristics to tell informed stories to each other.  

One example is the bible that features the snake as a symbol of temptation and evil in the story of Adam and Eve due to the snake being the servant of Satan.  

Another example is the Egyptians ancient belief that the world was formed when a cosmic egg was inseminated by a God who took the form of a snake coming from the water.

The Chinese mythology sees the world being guarded by two snakes that are intertwined and symbolise Ying and Yang (power and wisdom of the creator) and if you study mythology from different cultures, you will see that the snake has a a dual purpose. It can represent good by creation of the world and life, but can also bring death and destruction.

Pillars on Headstone Meaning

The snakes sit upon a pillar on either side of the headstone.  

The headstone pillars represent the Temple of Solomon, the first holy temple mentioned in the Hebrew bible which is the base for the Old Testament.  Masonic rituals often refer to King Solomon and the building of his temple and masonic lodges where meetings take place are called ‘temples’ in reference to this.

Within the Kabbalah, these two pillars at the entrance of the temple are called Boaz and Jachin and represent the active and passive elements of the world of Atziluth.  Boaz represents ‘in him/it [is] strength’ stood on the left while Jachin ‘He/it will establish’ stood on the right. (Reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Boaz_and_Jachin)

Wavy Sword (Tyler’s Sword) Headstone Meaning

On the headstone, you can see hands adjoined to each tail of the snake that points to the wavy sword, therefore highlighting this aspect of the deceased and lets not forget that swords also have a dual purpose.  You can live by the sword, justice, honour, power etc.. but you can also die by the sword.

Could the deceased be a Tyler who would protect the Masonic Lodge from unauthorised access and ensure that candidates for ceremonies are properly prepared?  (Reference: https://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Tyler_(Masonic))

The Tyler’s sword should traditionally be one with a “wavy” blade, to symbolize the flaming sword that was placed at the east of the garden of Eden, which turned every way to keep the way of the tree of life (Genesis 3:24). It should also never be sheathed, as it is the Tyler’s duty to keep off, at all times, “Cowan’s and eavesdroppers.” (Reference: http://www.glbet-el.org/masonictexte/Symbolism%20of%20the%20Sword.pdf

Headstone Meaning – A Freemason Tyler’s Grave

Like I said, this is mine and Mark’s interpretation and we might not be correct, but the information we have gathered here maybe beneficial to those of you who are interested in researching more.

We believe the deceased to be a Freemason Tyler who was an outer guard of a Masonic Lodge. Such duties of a Tyler can include the following: –

  • Examining the Masonic credentials of anyone wishing to enter the lodge
  • Keeping unqualified persons out

This position is usually given to a deserving Mason who has fallen on hard times or to a senior lodge member who can help and advise those kept waiting outside.

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Meaning of Skeleton on Grave

On a recent trip to Edinburgh, I was amazed at the Memento Mori headstones that I found in Greyfriar’s Churchyard, but the headstones I found in St Cuthbert’s graveyard are simply the best that I’ve ever seen.  The graveyard mortality symbols carved into these magnificent and beautiful headstones led me to write up the meanings of such graveyard symbols and to make an attempt to decipher some of the stories they tell.  Trust me, I’m not an expert on this subject, but it fascinates me and if you have an opinion, suggestion or indeed a correction, please comment below, or get in touch with me.

Memento Mori Photography in Edinburgh

Edinburgh was my choice of city break purely based on the magnificent old kirkyard of Greyfriar’s.  I wasn’t disappointed with the abundance of skull and crossbones with the Latin phrase Memento Mori carved into the stone work.  Wondering around this ancient graveyard was like a dream come true and I should have taken more photographs to show how beautiful and peaceful it was with people sitting around in the sun having their lunch among the graves.  Unfortunately I was too preoccupied with finding skull and crossbones and I never expected to find a large skeleton holding a book.

Greyfriar’s Skeleton Holding a Book

Greyfriars Skeleton Memento Mori
Greyfriars Skeleton Memento Mori

I remember looking up in awe at this skeleton holding a book, wondering how best to capture it, because I’m such a short ass and this was high up.  It’s only a year or so later that I realised that such imagery on this grand Memento Mori headstone tells us a story about the deceased. For further reading, please visit Memento Mori symbols.

Deciphering Headstones

It all came to light when I studied a teachers course and I had to provide a presentation on a subject that I was comfortable with.  

I decided to talk about my love of photographing headstones and graveyards and why graveyard mortality symbols are fascinating.  I used the full image of the skeleton holding a book for my assessment that followed a brief talk about graveyard symbols.   The assignment for the students was to tell me what symbols they could see and what does the headstone reveal about the deceased?

It was a success as it provoked a fascinating discussion and showed me that I was able to teach them well. Read on to decipher this headstone and see if you agree.

Greyfriars Skeleton on Wall Memento Mori
Deciphering Memento Mori Headstones

Skeletons, Skull and Crossbones Headstone Meaning

First of all, what stands out most is the skeleton itself holding a book and if you look closely you will also see that it holds a scythe like the Grim Reaper.  A scythe on a headstone represents the reaping of life.

Either side of the skull and crossbones at the base are coffins with gravediggers tools and bones.  These together with skeletons represent the burial of the deceased and the bones represent decay and remind us all of what we will become.  There is no escaping death so isn’t it best to live life for today?

Memento Mori – Remember that YOU will die

Open Book on Headstone Meaning

Looking at this image, the book is a prominent symbol upon this headstone and an open book usually symbolises the Bible and faith.  A book on a headstone can also represent knowledge or the Book of Life.  In order to decipher this, we have to look at all of the elements together.

The skeleton is standing on something that maybe a skull, but it is hard to tell.  Is there also a crown underneath the scythe?

Crown on Headstone Meaning

crown on a headstone can represent triumph, righteousness or victory over death. Again, we have to look at the full image as sometimes it can also represent the Crown of Life

Are They Scissors?

They look like scissors to me!

On the left of the skeleton, you can see a number of tools that look like they’re bound by ribbon. On the right of the skeleton there’s further tools with a skeleton of a leg. Graveyard symbols will tell us about the deceased’s occupation as well as their beliefs.  I doubted that hairdressers would have been of significance back in the 17th century, but surgeons were. There are other tools, not just scissors and I could only conclude that the occupation of this gentleman could be a surgeon.

Skeleton Holding a Book Conclusion

The deceased was a surgeon and I confirmed this by searching for ‘surgeon Greyfriar’s grave‘, which lead me to Gravestone Pix.  His name was James Bothwick and he joined the Incorporation of Surgeons as a Master Surgeon in 1645. He was appointed for the sole purpose of teaching anatomy and he was the first person in the history of the college to do so. Therefore the book in this case represents knowledge and that he was a teacher.  

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Please add your comments and feedback if you can add to this article or any others that feature in the category of ‘Deciphering Headstones‘. If you would like help deciphering a headstone, please get in touch.