Headstones of Cornwall

Our latest holiday took us to Cornwall and we stayed in a lovely lodge near Saltash that I highly recommend.  Click here to view Tamar Lodge.

I’m totally transfixed that centuries later, you can stroll among the dead in old graveyards and they can still have their say. ‘What????’

I hear you scream in horror!!!!

OK, I don’t mean literally that the dead rise and speak in person.

The Dead Do Speak

I’m talking about the symbols on the headstones that, if deciphered can tell you a story about the deceased.  Some symbols are straight forward to work out, but the more symbols on the one headstone, the more difficult it gets.  It’s very fascinating once you believe you have figured out the life story of the deceased, but it’s totally subjective.

Firstly, I want to express how very important it is that headstones like these are preserved for further generations to enjoy.  In different parts of the country, indeed the world, headstones showcase their own style and most beautiful, in my opinion, are the carved Memento Mori headstones in the Scottish city of Edinburgh that showcase the deceased’s wealth and status.

In Cornwall, you will find headstones that are not so elaborate, but the medieval artwork etched into the stone, is so crude, but wonderful to look at.  Below I will take you on a journey of my favourite headstones showing you how the dead do speak.

The Day of Judgement Headstone

Vita Brevis translated is ‘Life is Short’

‘And I saw another mighty angel come down from heaven, clothed with a cloud: and a rainbow was upon his head, and his face was as it were the sun, and his feet as pillars of fire: And he had in his hand a little book open: and he set his right foot upon the sea, and his left foot on the earth’ Book of Revelation

The graphical account of the day of judgement can be found in the Book of Revelation. The earth is destroyed by seven angels with trumpets and the dead rise to be judged against their deeds in the book of life. I find it terrifying and always have done since a small child attending a Church of England school.  Headstones like these reminded the observer that it was not only there impending death that they had to prepare for, but also a second death at the end of times when they would be judged against their deeds in the book of life. It also shows that the deceased was very much devoted to religion.

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

Cornwall is the first time I’ve seen a full skeleton depicted on a headstone that I’ve found in a graveyard. The skeleton holds a dart, which is a symbol of death. One of the angels is holding a scythe or sickle that is commonly associated with the Grim Reaper. It’s a symbol of death because of its used to cut down the harvest (reap). The scythe is also mentioned in the bible, revelation 14.

The Day of Judgement Headstone from Cornwall

Common Headstones of Cornwall

Seeing clock dials on headstones is also new to me, yet it’s quite common in the graveyards of Cornwall that I visited. A clock can represent a passage of time and in some cases if it has hands it can show the time of death.  I don’t know if that’s the case of the first headstone featuring a clock below, but it’s a fascinating thought don’t you think?  It also has a crude skull  above, where the hand points to, so I will stick with the meaning ‘a passage of time’, birth through to death. 

Don’t you think it’s important that we are still reminded today that time is fleeting and we need to live for today instead of worrying about things that might not happen? With the year I’ve had (anxiety – you can read my personal journey here), I know that this long forgotten funerary art should make a return.

Clock on a headstone found in Cornwall
Very old headstone showing a skull inside a clock
Another headstone from Cornwall featuring a clock dial

Memento Mori Headstone in Cornwall

Memento Mori on Cornish Headstone

I adore this funny looking skull and crossbones together with the Latin phrase of ‘Memento Mori‘.

I hope you’ve enjoyed our tour of Cornwall’s graveyards and if you have a place to suggest, please get in touch.

Graveyard Photography for Taphophile’s and Graveyard Tourists

If you’re looking for that special gift for a taphophile or graveyard tourist, please consider purchasing a special framed print, which is also signed from my Etsy Store.

Gothic Wall Art from Amanda Norman
Click to view Amanda Norman Photograph framed prints

By purchasing a framed print, you will be supporting the upkeep of my graveyard photography, which is something I really enjoy doing. I also provide custom requests, so please get in touch if you’re after something totally unique. Please take a look and feel free to share as this also supports my work.

Mememto Mori in Northumberland

Once I had seen the beautiful Memento Mori headstones in Edinburgh, I was hooked and I wanted to find more. As an early birthday present, Mark took me to the wonderful county of Northumberland with an extensive list of graveyards to explore that contained listed Memento Mori headstones.

Northumberland Graveyards
Northumberland Graveyards

Mycroft Studio Cottage in Rochester

Our home for the week was Mycroft Studio Cottage in Rochester near Otterburn, Northumberland. We chose this cottage based on price, good reviews and its location. The cottage is located on the edge of the Gold Tier International Dark Sky Park perfect for seeing the stars without any light pollution. We had a number of clear skies at night and you could see the milky way with our naked eyes. It was absolutely perfect and so was the home made bread and the bottle of bucks fizz that was provided to us when we arrived.

We found the cottage to be exactly what we expected and the owners have thought of everything you should and could require as there was nothing that we needed. 

The cottage is owned by Paul who has an extensive amount of knowledge about the area and when he inquired about the purpose of our visit, I did my usual smile, thinking of what reaction I’m going to receive when I tell him that I love visiting old graveyards to photograph them. To my surprise, he showed genuine enthusiasm and told us of some churches that have skulls on the headstones that we should visit. PERFECT HOST as far as I’m concerned!

Not only is Paul friendly, he has what a good host should have, passion to ensure his guests thoroughly enjoy their stay. If you’re thinking of following in our footsteps, then please consider Mycroft Studio Cottage.

A Taphophiles Memento Mori Headstone Itinerary

Seriously, you’re asking me what a taphophile is?

I would describe myself as a taphophile as I love to visit old graveyards and cemeteries to photograph the headstones and try to capture the beauty of death and what the dead still have to say to us, the living, centuries later – Amanda Norman

Graveyards to Explore – Day 1

St Cuthbert’s Church in Elsdon

Situated approximately a 10 minute drive from Mycroft Studio Cottage is St Cuthbert’s Church in Elsdon. The weather wasn’t great as the rain was barely managing to hold off, but I still remember my excitement of spotting my first Memento Mori headstone, then another, then another until I lost count. It was also here that I discovered to check both sides of a headstone to find Memento Mori symbols as it’s common to see a skull and crossbones on the reverse. Click the link to find out more about St Cuthbert’s Church.

Skull and Crossbones on Headstone Elsdon
A striking skull and crossbones with hourglass on the reverse of a headstone

Mortality Symbols

The above headstone shows a number of common mortality symbols including skull and crossbones with an hourglasswere used in the 18th century to remind the living that we all become dust and bones no matter what our status is in life. The hourglass reminds us that our time on Earth is running out. Memento Mori is the latin phrase for ‘Remember you will die‘.

Winter’s Gibbet

Leaving Elsdon, we headed towards a hill known as Steng Cross to see Winter’s Gibbet, so called after the body of William Winter was suspended in chains after being hung for the murder of Margaret Crozier in 1791. There his body remained with bits of rotten flesh falling to the floor making easy pickings for the creatures that fed upon it. It’s a bleak place and feels like it is out in the middle of nowhere and at one point, there did used to be a replica stone head hanging from the gibbet, but sadly not anymore.

Winters Gibbet in Northumberland
Winters Gibbet in Northumberland

St Giles, Netherwitton Death Head

A ghostly edit of a death head or soul effigy on a headstone from St Giles churchyard in Netherwitton. I particularly like the soft face and sunken in small eyes and it also has a look of the sun. Please visit the Cemetery Death Heads page that also has a gallery of my favourite death head photographs from numerous places.

Netherwitton Death Head
Netherwitton Death Head

St Andrew’s Church in Hartburn

With over 1000 years of history, St Andrew’s Church in Hartburn is one of my favourite churchyards that we visited whilst in Northumberland. I could have spent a full day in this graveyard with the number of Memento Mori headstones found here. They are so beautiful and I highly recommend that you visit. Inside the church is also worth looking at and I found this beautiful verse: –

So when oe’r Springs soft Blossoms, Winter’s breath,
With keen severity diffuses death,
The Bud and Flower in dust promiscuous lie
And cease to bloom beneath the churlish sky.

Beautiful Memento Mori headstone from Hartburn

St Andrew’s Chuch in Bolam

St Andrew’s Church in Bolam is worth a visit. Such a nice graveyard that on the day we visited, was being cleared by the community whilst children played among the headstones, which was very nice to see.

Bolam Graveyard
Bolam graveyard in Northumberland

St Bartholomew Church in Kirkwhelpington

Our final church of the day was the lovely St Bartholomew’s in Kirkwhelpington that had some beautiful Memento Mori headstones. It has fine examples of both types of cemetery death heads e.g. your typical skull and crossbones and cherub face with wings.

A face of mourning upon a headstone from St Bartholomew’s graveyard

Graveyards to Explore – Day 2

Unfortunately, it rained so hard on day two of our exploration that I wasn’t willing to take my camera out of its bag. It was actually quite miserable as the graveyards we visited on day 2 just didn’t match the excitement of my first day. Looking back on it now, of course it wouldn’t when the weather is affecting my enthusiasm. We visited, St Mary in Holystone and St Michael in Alwinton, which had a good graveyard. 

Graveyards to Explore – Day 3

St Oswald, St Cuthbert and King Alfwald Church in Halton, Northumberland

We begin today’s journey of exploring graveyards in Northumberland with a visit to a church in Halton that is named after two saints and an ancient king of Northumbria, St Oswald, St Cuthbert and King Alfwald. There is not an abundance of memento mori headstones here, but it is very scenic and peaceful and well worth visiting.  The image below shows the chest tomb that caught my attention due to the number of different mortality symbols shown. 

Mortality Symbols on Chest Tomb
Lots of mortality symbols are shown on this chest tomb

Mortality Symbols and their Meanings

Memento Mori is latin which translates to ‘Remember you must die‘. Drapery seen on headstones in this case, the bag that contains the bones, 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.

St Andrew’s Church in Corbridge

There is an absolute gorgeous church and graveyard to be found in Corbridge, Northumberland.

St Andrew’s Church has its origins in the Anglo-Saxon period and was founded by St Wilfred. Corbridge itself is a really nice village to relax in with numerous coffee shops. The graveyard has an exciting number of good headstones to photograph. The one I have chosen for display here is a headstone with a death head that is dedicated to brothers. I just love the stone engraved lettering and the wonderful swirls, which you don’t see on modern headstones.

19th Century Death Head on Headstone
Beautiful 19th century headstone dedicated to brothers

St John Lee Church in Acomb

Such a beautiful church and graveyard that must be visited. I had an extremely hard time picking just one photograph from this location as I was spoilt for choice.  The image below was chosen as it sums up the beauty and the headstones in this particular graveyard.

Graveyard of St John Lee in Acomb, Northumberland

The church of St John Lee, was rebuilt in 1818 and prior to this there was a medieval church. The graveyard has a lot of medieval headstones that are truly fascinating. The church is dedicated to a local hermit who was reported to be a worker of miracles and it is believed that one miracle occurred in 1765 at the church, when a 90 yr old Northumbrian piper threw away his crutches after using them for 26 years, to walk to church for his wedding to a 25 yr old. Reference Wikipedia.

St Mungo’s Church, Simonburn

As you leave the graveyard of St Mungo’s Church in Simonburn, the headstone below is sure to catch your eye.  It’s a message from beyond the grave and I thought it would be nice to feature it here.  The graveyard itself is another one well worth visiting. There are not many headstones featuring the classic skull and crossbones, but nonetheless, you will find a lot of mortality symbols and cherubs with wings.

Headstone Verse
A message from beyond the grave

St Cuthbert’s Church in Bellingham

It’s certainly worth visiting St Cuthbert’s Church in Bellingham as there are some wonderful headstones in the graveyard and the interior of the church is very nice.  Dating back to 1180, this church certainly has been through the wars and was laid to waste during the border wars with Scotland. In the 1660’s during a restoration, three cannon balls were found in the roof. Trying to pick my favourite graveyard photograph was a difficult choice and in the end I chose a nice scenic shot to show you why you should visit.

The graveyard of St Cuthbert’s Church in Bellingham, Northumberland

Graveyard Photography for Taphophile’s and Graveyard Tourists

If you’re looking for that special gift for a taphophile or graveyard tourist, please consider purchasing a special framed print, which is also signed from my Etsy Store.

Gothic Wall Art from Amanda Norman
Click to view Amanda Norman Photograph framed prints

By purchasing a framed print, you will be supporting the upkeep of my graveyard photography, which is something I really enjoy doing. I also provide custom requests, so please get in touch if you’re after something totally unique. Please take a look and feel free to share as this also supports my work.

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.

The Grave of George and Kitty in Billinge

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.

GY103 Billinge Kitty Smith
GY103 The Grave of George and Kitty Smith

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…

GY102 Billinge Winged Skull
GY102 Winged skull with snake on grave in Billinge

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)

  • 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 draperyDrapery 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.

GY100 Coffin Tomb
GY100 Coffin tomb in the graveyard of St Aidan’s Church in Billinge

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Memento Mori Headstone Help

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?

Petto Putti Headstone
What is the meaning of this Memento Mori headstone from Edinburgh?

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!

Click here to read more about Memento Mori symbols.

Memento Mori Hourglass

These two figures hold up a hourglass to represent the passing of life on Earth. They each stand on a skull that reminds us all of what we become.

Inverted Torches

They both hold inverted torches that denotes the passing of the soul to the afterlife and they are surrounded by lavish drapery.

Drapery on Headstone

Drapery on a headstone 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

Your Feedback

Please add your comments and feedback if you can add to this article or any others that feature in the category of ‘Deciphering Headstones‘. If you would like help deciphering a headstone, please get in touch.