Memento Mori reminds us, the living that the best preparation for a good death, is to lead a good life. Only then will this ensure that we reach Heaven.
Memento Mori – Remember that YOU will die
Memento Mori was taken very seriously back in the 16th and 17th centuries. Today however, I believe that the message Memento Mori portrays, is just as significant, except for the Heaven bit.
The Puritan Belief
After doing some research, I discovered that The Puritans of the 16th and 17th century had strong religious views following the Reformation in England.
The Puritan belief was that only a select few could reach Heaven, with the remaining doomed to be born, live, die and then rot.
Back in the day, burial near the altar within a church was the preferred choice for a Puritan as Heaven was within reach. Unfortunately, churches were running out of space, hence the beginning of artistic expression on headstones within the churchyard.
By placing final reminders upon one’s headstone, this would ensure that others would follow in their path.
The skull and crossbones is a common symbol of Memento Mori. Other common symbols include: –
Hourglass to show that time is fleeting
Wings to show an ascension to Heaven. Typically shown on skulls and hourglasses
Coffins and Sexton tools
Centuries ago with various plagues and diseases, death was always imminent. Thankfully modern advances in medicine and life expectancy have increased.
I do feel disappointed that the art of Memento Mori and its message isn’t popular. COVID is a reminder that life can be fleeting and that we should live life for today!
Why should we be afraid of death?
As a professional tarot reader, it was only the other day that a lady in her 80’s came to see me for a reading.
Sadly, she was experiencing depression as a result of watching her friends die as well as awaiting her own demise.
Of course, it must be very difficult and I have lots of empathy, but I advised her to LIVE LIFE FOR TODAY!
Live life for today!
The message of Memento Mori certainly lives on in me.
Unfortunately, conditioning of our beliefs begins in our childhood and never stops. We are led to believe that most of us won’t live beyond our 70’s, but many of us do.
It was only last year (2021) that there was a report of the oldest lady in the world dying at the age of 135. Ref: The Independent
Sadly, my client was simply waiting for the inevitable. She had full use of all of her senses and she wasn’t in a wheelchair. She did leave me with feelings of positivity.
Death is something that we cannot avoid and therefore we should remember to live our lives, Memento Vivere, as death may arrive within the next hour or day.
Memento Mori Headstones
Memento Mori Headstones in the 16th century usually displayed the following: –
Date of birth and date of death
‘Here lies the body of‘ placed before the name
An image of a skull with or without crossbones
The vision of the skull and the word ‘body’ summed up the expression that we are born to live, die and rot.
Cadaver Stones and Memento Mori
Cadaver stones, a choice of the wealthiest in society in the 14th to 15th centuries, depict a rotting corpse in a funeral shroud. Often they show plenty of creatures eating the flesh. These stones are some of the earliest depictions of Memento Mori.
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.
A coffin symbol on a gravestone symbolises death
Seeing a clock dial on a headstone is also new to me, yet it’s quite common in the graveyards of Cornwall that I visited. A clock dial can represent a passage of time, and in some cases if it has hands it can show the time of death.
During the 17th century, the Puritans were losing their grip on society and attitudes were changing. People now believed in the possibility that there was life after death, and the possibility that one could reach Heaven.
With this changing attitude, imagery on the headstones began to soften. You can read more about death heads here.
Finally, the gruesome imagery of Memento Mori has now softened thanks to The Victorian’s. Their use of urns and flowers have unfortunately, replaced the art I love to see.
The hourglass seen on headstones symbolises that time is passing rapidly and we are one hour closer to our death. If the hourglass depicted on a headstone is on its side, it usually represents that the deceased had their life cut short unexpectedly
A scythe or sickle on a gravestone, commonly associated with the Grim Reaper is a symbol of death because of its use to cut down the harvest (reap). We also see the mention of a scythe in the bible, revelation 14
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.
A sexton looks after a church or graveyard, and is typically a grave digger. We often see his tools such as a spade or a turf cutter, together with a ribbon, carved on a headstone
Skulls and skeletons represent death and we see them together with the following phrases: –
Memento Mori – Remember you will die Memento Vivere – Remember to live Vive Memor Leti – Live remembering death Fugit Hora – Time Flies
Torches on a headstone sometimes look similar to a candlestick and shouldn’t be confused. If a torch is seen lit, or upright, it represents life. If inverted a torch denotes the passing of the soul to the afterlife
Winged Skull on Headstones
Feathers or wings on a headstone usually depict the ascent to Heaven.
Firstly, the connection of flowers with death goes back to the dawn of history, and it is quite common these days to find a Lily on a headstone.
In ancient Egypt and during the Roman Era, Lilies were often associated with death and funerals.
Commonly for the Victorian’s, the recently deceased would rest in their home prior to their funeral taking place. The use of flowers surrounding the body served to not only mask the sadness, but also the smell of the body. The lily deserves special prominence as it has a strong fragrance and was a favourite symbol of the Victorians.
Last but not least, their are varying species of lilies, each with their have different symbolic meaning. To decipher the true meaning of a lily on a headstone, you have to look at the other symbols surrounding it.
Lily on a headstone representing Majesty
Juno, Queen of Heaven was a Roman mother-goddess protecting childbirth, marriage and women in general.
Solomon’s temple – 1 Kings 7:19 – The capitals which were on the top of the pillars in the porch were of lily design, four cubits
Luke 12:29 – Consider the lilies how they grow: they toil not, they spin not; and yet I say unto you, that Solomon in all his glory was not arrayed like one of these
Lily of the Valley
In Victorian symbology a lily of the valley represents the ‘return of happiness’. This lily has a look of bluebells and is not to be confused with other lilies. It is also known as the Ladder to Heaven.
Lily representing Purity and Immortality
There’s an old legend about Jove desiring to make the baby Hercules immortal. Whilst Hera, Queen of Heaven was asleep under the influence of a sleeping drug prepared by Somnus, Jove placed the baby to Hera’s breast in order to take the milk that would ensure his immortality. Hercules drew the milk too quickly and some drops fell to Earth, and the white lily was born symbolising purity.
White lilies are also associated with funerals as they represent the soul returning to innocence after death
Lily on a headstone representing Virginity
The white lily also symbolises the Virgin’s purity and is often associated in the Catholic church with the Virgin Mary
Lily representing Resurrection
Finally, the Easter Lily represents new life and hope.
Their white colour represents purity and trumpet shaped bloom corresponds to Gabriel’s trumpet on the Day of Judgement
Varieties of Lily
Lily of the Valley
Bibliography: Flora symbolica; or, The language and sentiment of flowers by Ingram, John H., 1869
Firstly, allow me to take you on a wonderful journey of showcasing to you, the changing fashion of the churchyard death head.
I love visiting old graveyards and searching for stories of the dead. The older the headstone, the more thrilled I am. During my search however, I have come across these fascinating death heads that mostly have a skull or a cherub’s face. You will find them more commonly on headstones dating from the 16th to 17th centuries. Edinburgh and Northumberland to date, are two of my most favourite places to see them.
These death heads are more than a nice, or probably not so nice carving on a headstone. Interestingly, this depends on your view of them. I adore them!
They are a warning to us all that we cannot avoid death, and that no matter what our status is in life, we are all the same in death.
Secondly, another common interpretation of death heads and other mortality symbols, is to inform us to LIVE LIFE FOR TODAY!
Of course, this message is still strong today.
Thirdly, not all death heads are depicted with two crossed femurs (known as the crossbones). Sometimes you may see one femur, or you may see a skull gnawing on a femur of which, I have yet to find. The earliest example of a death head that I have found to date, is a simple circle as pictured above.
The skull itself represents death and is influenced by the ossuary’s or charnel houses of the early centuries.
An ossuary is a building that contains lots of skulls and bones, and was used when burial space was scarce. Back then, someone had the job to retrieve skeletal remains once the body had decomposed.
Importantly, fashion and religious beliefs dictated such imagery and largely depended on the craftsmanship of the local stonemason. Sources of reference included wood carvings, architectural motifs, plaster work, and books including the Bible.
The changing fashion of a churchyard death head
Since the reformation in the 16th century, few headstones now exist, which I feel is a real shame.
As I previously mentioned, the look of a cemetery death head was highly influenced by fashion, religious beliefs, and attitudes of the times. Obviously, my taste in fashion isn’t popular.
During the 16th and 17th centuries you had a choice of the following: –
A winged skull
Skull and crossbones
A cherub’s head with wings
Interestingly, wings represent the ascension of the soul into Heaven, or regeneration of the soul. Consequently, I have found more cherub’s faces with wings than skulls. Edinburgh has some amazing winged skulls to see.
On a side note though, In Ireland, County Meath, there are some beautiful stone sarcophagi that you must see. These feature rare examples of cadavers from the 14th and 15th centuries and can be found in Stamullen, and Drogheda.
Green Man Death Head
In Scotland’s, Greyfriars Kirkyard, you will find a wonderful cemetery death head resembling the Green Man. Following research from the British Association for Local History, I read that the Green Man when used as a death head, is seen as a dual emblem. It’s hideous face may represent sinful flesh that decays and the sprouting greenery represents the resurrection.
Winged Head and the Soul Effigy
With the introduction of the Regency period, we can clearly see the skull and crossbones fall out of fashion. This results in the image of a cherub that represents our soul becoming more common. Interestingly, in America, they call it a soul effigy.
In addition, the winged cherub relays an important message. Those who find grace, may win Heaven.
In England, the cherub’s face is similar to the face of a Renaissance putti, which is child like. [Ref: BAHL]
If you look closely at the image below, you will see that the feathers have been replaced with foliage.
Indeed, this is one of my favourite images. I simply adore their two faces and I do wonder what story they tell. Without a shadow of a doubt, this image has a neoclassical feel to it.
The Neoclassical period in Europe for visual arts began c. 1760 and was influenced by the arts of Rome and Ancient Greece. This period also coincided with the 18th century, Age of Enlightenment, which was an intellectual and philosophical movement that dominated the world of ideas in Europe. Many art students ventured on a grand tour of Europe and returned home from Italy with newly discovered Greco-Roman ideals.
Last but not least, we arrive in the Victorian era, which was the period of Queen Victoria’s reign starting in 1837, and lasting till her death in 1901.
Allow me to take you back to a time prior to Victorian cemeteries and their magnificent splendour.
Taking a walk in, or past your local churchyard is not a pleasant experience. I’m taking you back to a time of disease, plagues and poor sanitary conditions. Consequently, our life expectancy isn’t long and unfortunately, your local churchyard is bursting at the seams with rotting corpses. Imagine the putrid scent in the air and the horrific sight before you?
Thankfully, the answer came in the form of Victorian cemeteries.
From 1800 onwards, numerous companies built dedicated gardens to dispose of the dead away from our cities. Moreover, these new gardens became places of beauty where the Victorians liked to take a walk as well as enjoy a picnic. In addition, they created a whole new language of funerary art, which subsequently resulted in the death head falling out of fashion.
In particular, flowers and draped urns, along with various animals are common place for the Victorian dead. Today, and at a glance, you can certainly tell a persons status in life simply by looking at the grandeur of their final resting place.
Places I recommend visiting
To end with, I recommend that you visit Edinburgh so that you can come face to face with its death heads. As I write this now, I have a strong urge to simply book myself a ticket and hotel so that I can go exploring. I feel Edinburgh’s calling.
Therefore and finally, it’s time for you to grab your camera and visit your local cemetery, or churchyard.
What story can you uncover about some of your local inhabitants?