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!
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.
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.
On a recent trip to Edinburgh, I was amazed at the Memento Moriheadstones 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
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.
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.
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
A 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.