Cadaver Stones

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.

Stamullen Cadaver

Cadaver Stone
Stamullen Cadaver Stone

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!

Cadaver History

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.

Stamullen Cadaver Stone
Stamullen Cadaver Stone

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.

Drogheda Cadavers

Drogheda Skeletons
Cadaver stones came into fashion across Europe following the Black Death of the mid 14th century and subsequent plagues

These two lovely cadavers can be found at the back of St Peter’s churchyard in Drogheda and we highly recommend you visit.


Meaning of Skeleton on Grave

On a recent trip to Edinburgh, I was amazed at the Memento Mori headstones 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

Greyfriars Skeleton Memento Mori
Greyfriars Skeleton Memento Mori

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.

Deciphering Headstones

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.

Greyfriars Skeleton on Wall Memento Mori
Deciphering Memento Mori Headstones

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

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.  

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.