Graveyard Mortality Symbols

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 for me 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 amongst the graves.  Unfortunately I was too preoccupied with finding skull and crossbones and I never expected to find a skeleton holding a book.

Greyfriar’s Skeleton Holding a Book

Greyfriars Skeleton Memento Mori

Memento Mori Skeleton of Greyfriar’s in Edinburgh

I’m getting carried away again, simply by looking at this image of a skeleton holding a book and remembering the fascination of just staring at it in awe, wondering how best to capture it, because I’m 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 about the deceased.  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 they could see and what their thoughts were about the deceased.  It was a success as it provoked a fascinating discussion and showed me that I was able to teach them well.  

Greyfriars Skeleton on Wall Memento Mori

Greyfriars Skeleton on Wall

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 stand out graveyard symbol 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.  

Winged Skulls and Hourglasses

Skull Winged Memento Mori Symbol

Winged Skull in Greyfriar’s Graveyard

Still in Greyfriar’s Churchyard, I found this amazing skull with wings.  This is also a very early death head and more can be read about these on my Cemetery Death Head gallery page.

Feathers or wings on a headstone usually depicts the ascent to Heaven and on some of the headstones, the Latin inscription Fugit Hora, which means ‘time flies‘ can be seen. The hourglass can be seen on a lot of headstones within Greyfriar’s and St Cuthbert’s churchyards and symbolises that time is passing rapidly and that we are one hour closer to our death.

Fugit Hora – Time flies

Wheat on a Headstone

Wheat, Skull and Crossbones on a Headstone

What does wheat on a headstone represent?

A sheaf of wheat seen on a headstone can mean a number of things.  Wheat is one of our most basic foods and some say that it is a gift from God as the origin of wheat is unknown.  As wheat is a harvested grain, it can be used to represent immortality and resurrection.  Finally, it can also mean that the person buried has lived a long and fruitful life, more than seventy years.

St Cuthbert’s Graveyard in Edinburgh

Like I said earlier, the most striking and beautiful carved, Memento Mori headstones can be found in St Cuthbert’s graveyard, right in the center of Edinburgh.  This is the graveyard to visit if you love your headstones as much as I do.  On this particular headstone, we see the Latin phrase, Memento Mori and we also see three cemetery death heads.  The old death head of skull and crossbones was being replaced with a softer looking version of a cherub’s face with wings.  Visit my Cemetery Death Head gallery page for further information.

Haunting Carved Headstone

Memento Mori Headstone from St Cuthbert’s in Edinburgh

Can you Decipher this Memento Mori Headstone?

This striking Memento Mori headstone pictured below was also taken at St Cuthbert’s in Edinburgh.  

I’ve spent hours trying to work out who the figures represent and I think that they are known as ‘Putti’, small children.  Most images of Adam and Eve would have a tree between them or could be pictured with a serpent.  These 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.  They both hold inverted torches that denotes the passing of the soul to the afterlife and they are surrounded by lavish drapery.  Drapery 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.

There are elements of this image that I haven’t worked out yet.  I 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?

I would love to read your thoughts on this, so please do get in touch!

Putti Memento Mori

Memento Mori Putti Figures with Hourglass

For information on cemetery death heads, click here and please visit the Memento Mori gallery for further images and information on this wonderful subject.

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