Headstone Symbols: Death's Head

The meaning of the symbols commonly found on cemetery gravestones and markers

Death's Head on gravestone
A death's head is a common symbol found on cemetery tombstones and gravemarkers. Photo © Chris Raymond

Depending upon your perspective, a cemetery, church graveyard or memorial park can prove a location to avoid as long as humanly possible or a place of fascination and even enjoyment. For many in the latter camp, visiting the silent stone sentinels and mute metal markers found in a cemetery offers an opportunity to pay homage to the dead, trace their family history and genealogy, capture interesting photographs, or find moments of solitude and contemplation.

If you've visited a cemetery for any reason at some point, you might have wondered about a design you saw carved on an old tombstone and what it means. This article examines the meaning behind the headstone symbols commonly found in cemeteries, church graveyards and memorial parks and, specifically, what a death's head represents.

The Symbol
Depending upon the era during which an individual died, a death's head on a cemetery headstone or monument can assume one of several evolutionary forms. Roughly prior to the American Revolution (1775-1783), a death's head usually comprised a human skull above a human bone -- either a single horizontal bone or two bones forming an X (similar to that found on a pirate flag, i.e. a skull and crossbones).

Later, the death's head symbol started evolving, with subsequent death's heads on tombstones depicting a human skull with bird or angel wings, and, eventually, a human face, with such wings extending directly from the face, chin or neck.

During the 1800s, the wings started to assume a less literal or easily identifiable form and increasingly resembled a bulbous "wreath" that framed the human face (as seen in the photograph above).

Note: It is easy to overlook or misidentify later forms of death's heads in cemeteries. Often, the requisite wings appear to resemble human shoulders, or the collar of a shirt or jacket, rather than wings (especially if the death's head is weathered). In addition, one can easily assume a later death's head form merely depicts an angel or cherub.

The Meaning
The death's head symbol arose from the Puritan view of life and death that existed in England and North America prior to the Revolutionary War. According to Puritanism, death served to punish human beings for the original sin committed by Adam and Eve in the Garden of Eden. Naturally, therefore, Puritans feared death and God's eventual judgment, and the symbols they used on cemetery tombstones and monuments during this period reflect their stark, bleak view of life and death.

A form of memento mori, the initial death's head symbol (a human skull and human bones) served to remind the living of their mortality and the fate awaiting them, i.e., "You, too, will end up this way."

After the formation of the United States, however, Puritanism started to lose its hold on the religious beliefs of citizens. Gradually, shifts in religious and cultural influences triggered a softening of existing Puritanical life-and-death views. Tombstone symbology started to reflect this during the 1800s by "softening" the harsh reminders of human mortality (such as a skull and crossbones) and substituting a more human/angelic look to the previous skull, as well as replacing wings for bones -- a symbolic reference to the growing belief of "flying" up to heaven after death and the promise of an afterlife.

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Massachusetts Book of the Dead: Graveyard Legends and Lore, by Roxie J. Zwicker, 2012. Retrieved August 12, 2015. https://books.google.com/books?id=GtmreHMvUeMC&pg=PA10&lpg=PA10&dq=puritan+view+of+death

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