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.
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!
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.
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.
These two lovely cadavers can be found at the back of St Peter’s churchyard in Drogheda and we highly recommend you visit.
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
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.
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.
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.
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…
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)
A 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 drapery. Drapery 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.
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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
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.
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‘.
Ankhis a well know symbol of the key to eternal life
Wasare dog headed staffs that represent power
Nebet means everything or all
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.
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.
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.
Winged Sun Gods
The images towards the top of the monument depict Horus as a winged sun disc with two serpentssignifyinghis 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 asgod 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.
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?
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!