D headstone-meanings-and-symbols

Death Head

Firstly, allow me to take you on a wonderful journey of showcasing to you, the changing fashion of the churchyard death head.

An early death head featured on an old headstone
An early 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

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.

A cadaver from Stamullen in Ireland
A cadaver from Stamullen in Ireland

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.

A Green Man Death Head
A Green Man Death Head

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.

Represents the soul of the deceased soaring up to the Heavens and there awaits the Day of Judgement where the bodies rise to the call of the trumpet
Represents the soul of the deceased soaring up to the Heavens and there awaits the Day of Judgement where the bodies rise to the call of the trumpet

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.

Sibling death heads
Sibling death heads?

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.


Victorian Cemeteries

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?