Cemetery Death Heads

Cemetery death heads in one form or another have appeared on headstones for centuries.  This page is a look at Amanda’s favourite cemetery death heads together with some information that you may find interesting.

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Photographs of Cemetery Death Heads

Often referred to as Memento Mori symbols, the earliest cemetery death heads are depicted as skull and crossbones and in later centuries a cherubs face with wings or soul effigy. Cemetery death heads are reminders to the living that you will die and that death is not too far away, so live life for today.

Cemetery Death Heads Through the Centuries

Skull and Crossbones

Tombstones 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.

After doing some research, I 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 last as the churches were running out of space, hence the dead being buried outside of the church walls, which led to tombstones and artistic expression.

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.

Headstones began to depict skulls with wings that conveyed the message that life was fleeting and the belief that ascent to Heaven was possible.

Cherubs Face with Wings or Soul Effigy

During the late 17th and early 18th centuries, attitudes started to soften and headstones started depicting a cute cherubs face with wings either side to replace the skull and crossbones version. The cherubs face is also known as a ‘soul effigy‘.  If you’re in Edinburgh, Scotland, you must visit the graveyard of St Cuthbert’s and have a look at the beautiful carved Memento Mori headstones that show this transition in all of its glory.  

Memento Mori Headstone

Haunting Carved Headstone

In the image above, this Memento Mori headstone shows three cemetery death heads.  Two are the cherubs face with wings/feathers (soul effigy) either side and you also can see the classic skull and crossbone symbol with the latin phrase, Memento Mori.  I’m in love with this graveyard and as I’m writing this page now, I have such a strong yearning to return.  Greyfriar’s Cemetery is also in the centre of Edinburgh and is also beautiful, but I do prefer this one for the amazing headstones.

If you would like to see more Memento Mori images, please visit my Memento Mori gallery page.

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