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


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.

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.


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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