Memento Mori Symbols

Memento Mori – Remember that YOU will die

It was common in the 14th to 18th centuries to feature Memento Mori symbols and/or writings of Memento Mori upon ones final resting place. Back then, death was part of everyday life as mortality rates were higher and the deceased would rest at their home until the funeral. Lack of knowledge of the causes of disease meant anyone could be fatally struck down or suffer ill health at any time and therefore, Memento Mori served as a reminder to all that death could arrive within the hour, and that all must prepare for a ‘good death‘.

Memento Mori Headstones Gallery

Origins of Memento Mori

Danse Macabre or Dance of Death

Danse Macabre GuyMarchant

Danse Macabre Guy Marchant

The Danse Marcabre or translated into English, the Dance of Death is a medieval allegory that reminded folk about memento mori. No matter what one’s status was in life, the dance of death unites all and was often depicted showing the highest rank of medieval living i.e. pope through to child, walking with the dead into Hell.

The world’s oldest woodcut print of the Dance of Death can be found in Heidelberg’s Dance of Death 1455-1458. I’ve included the text Death to the Child: –

Crawl over here. You must learn to dance here.
Weep or laugh, I hear you just the same.
Even if you had the teats in your mouth
it wouldn’t help you in this hour.

Oh my dear mother.
A black man drags me away.
How can you leave me now?
Now I must dance and can’t yet walk.

In the early 15th century, the dance macabre was depicted on woodcuts by Guy Marchant.

The earliest recorded visual was painted on the wall of the Charmel house in the Saints Innocents Cemetery in Paris sometime between August 1424 and Lent 1425, which sadly no longer exists. The mural was destroyed in 1669 when the wall was demolished. Interestingly, overuse of this cemetery lead to the corpses being exhumed in 1786 and the bones being moved to the Paris Catacombs.

After the Black Death in Germany and Spain, the dance macabre is depicted via plays.

Legend of the Three Living and the Three Dead

Pre-dating the Danse Macabre, there is a legend that has been included in frescoes and murals that have survived from the 13th century. Three young gentlemen on horses meet three cadavers who warn them of the following: –

What we were, you are;

what we are, you will be

There where books also dedicated to ‘ars moriendi’ (The Art of Dying), that were popular at the time due to the strong religious beliefs of the people. As death could come at any moment, Memento Mori reminded the viewer that the best preparation for a good death, was leading a good life and only that would ensure that they would reach Heaven. By placing final reminders upon their headstone they could ensure that others would follow in their path.

After doing some research, Amanda found out 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 and the remaining were doomed to be born, live, die and then rot. Those buried nearest to the alter within a church would make it to Heaven. This couldn’t be sustained as the churches were running out of space, hence the dead being buried outside of the church walls, which led to headstones and artistic expression.

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Memento Mori Symbols

Amanda absolutely adores the art of Memento Mori symbols shown on headstones and she honestly thinks that this is an art form that is lost to us today. She remembers being informed by someone older when first starting to explore graveyards that a skull and crossbones either represented a pirate if near to the coast or someone who had died of the plague. She believed this for years, but it’s not particularly true. If indeed the deceased was a pirate, it could represent this, but more commonly, a skull and crossbones is a Memento Mori symbol.

Centuries ago with the various plagues, it was expected that death was imminent, but with modern advances in medicine and life expectancy getting longer, does this mean that we still shouldn’t be reminded that one day, death will catch up with us, so let’s live life for today?

As you may well gather, Amanda would love to see the Memento Mori art return to today’s cemeteries.

How many times do you hear people tell someone to do exactly this when a loved ones life has been cut short unexpectedly?

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.

Mortality Symbols and Death Heads

Mortality symbols are images that represent death on a gravestone and the most gruesome imagery is featured on this page.

Memento Mori Headstones in the 16th century usually displayed the deceased’s name, date of birth and date of death and either a skull, skull and crossbones or a skull gnawing on a femur. Usually the words ‘Here lies the body of‘ where placed before the name. The vision of the skull and the word ‘body’ summed up the expression that we are born to live, die and rot.

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. The skull was replaced with a cherub or soul effigy and the crossbones were replaced with wings or foliage. Whatever is used, skull or cherub etc, they are known as cemetery deathheads or headstone death heads and you can see some of Amanda’s favourite examples on her own website, Cemetery Death Heads gallery page.

Moving forward through Victorian to the modern era, gruesome imagery has been replaced with symbols that are easier on the eye such as draped urns and weeping willow trees. 

Coming soon, we will dedicate a new page to modern mortality symbols as the list is vast. If you would like to read Amanda’s thoughts on modern day cemeteries, please visit Victorian Cemeteries and Death.

Deciphering Headstones – Memento Mori Skeleton of Greyfriar’s

Greyfriars Skeleton Memento Mori

Deciphering Headstones

The Memento Mori skeleton pictured here, together with the other symbols seen on the headstone, tell a story about the deceased’s occupation. Read how this headstone was deciphered.

Cadaver Stones

Stamullen Cadaver

Found in Stamullen in Ireland, this cadaver depicts a decomposing body. Read more

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.  

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Official Amanda Norman Photography Store

Coffin Symbol on Gravestone

A coffin symbol on a gravestone symbolises death

Clock Dial on a Headstone

Skull Clock Dial Time

A clock dial with a skull on a headstone can represent a passage of time

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

Drapery on a Headstone

A draped urn

A draped urn from St Cuthbert’s in Edinburgh

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.

Hour Glass Symbol on a Headstone

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.

Scythe or Sickle on a Gravestone

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). The scythe is also mentioned 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. – King James Bible

Sexton Tools on Gravestones

A sexton is a person who looks after a church or graveyard, typically a grave digger, hence the tools of the trade, a spade and turf cutter crossed and tied together with a ribbon as pictured below are your most commonly seen tools on gravestones.

Skull and Crossbones with Tools

Sexton tools Memento Mori Symbols

Skulls, Skull and Crossbones and Skeleton Symbols

Skull and Crossbones on headstones together with skulls and skeletons are often seen with the following Latin phrases are are your classic Memento Mori symbol: –

Memento Mori – Remember you will die
Memento Vivere – Remember to live
Vive Memor Leti – Live remembering death
Fugit Hora – Time Flies

Torches on a Gravestone

Torches on a gravestone can look similar to candlesticks and shouldn’t be confused. If a torch is seen lit or upright, it will represent life and if inverted a torch denotes the passing of the soul to the afterlife

Winged Skull Symbol on Headstones

Feathers or wings on a headstone usually depicts the ascent to Heaven. Therefore a winged skull is a perfect representation of the ascension into Heaven.

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