Gravestones - winged skulls & memento mori

"Remember man as you pass by.

As you are now so once was I:

As I am now so you must be!

Prepare for death and follow me."

(Memento Mori inscription from the gravestone of Nehemiah Odle, "Philadelphia Style" Marker, New Jersey.)

The words "Memento Mori" can be found all over the world, beautifully inscribed on gravestones. The phrase "Memento Mori" is a Latin phrase commonly translated as "Be mindful of death." It can also mean "Remember that you are mortal," "Remember you will die," or "Remember your death."(1) According to one source, "The decorative images on old gravestones were often deeply symbolic, and their symbolism frequently referred to death and the Christian belief in an afterlife. Skulls and crossed bones stood for the death of the body. The hourglass served as a reminder that time was passing. The scythe (or occasionally the hatchet) represented the approach of death, which would 'cut off life.'"(2)

The three gravestones below, from the cemetery of the First Presbyterian Church in Elizabeth, are especially rich in Memento Mori images (reminders of death). They are strongly reminiscent of New England gravestones of the same period and earlier. The second and third gravestones below suggest the work of a carver known as the Old Elizabethtown Carver II, because of their "curious masklike mortality images with rectangular mouths and arrow-shaped nasal orifices."(3)

Gravestone of Martha Thompson, Elizabeth

Gravestone of Martha Thompson, 1728, Elizabeth.
Gravestone of James Sayre, Elizabeth

Gravestone of James Sayre, 1731, Elizabeth.
Gravestone of Henry Clarke, Elizabeth

Gravestone of Henry Clarke, 1732, Elizabeth. All photographs © Wade Schultz. See Flickr link.

One image that relates directly to the Memento Mori concept is the symbol of the skull and crossed bones. The skull and crossed bones is a widely known symbol of death and can be found on many gravestones from the 18th century and earlier. "Actual skulls and bones were long used to mark the entrances to Spanish cemeteries (the 'campo santo'). The practice, dating back many centuries, led to the symbol eventually becoming associated with the concept of death."(4)

Another symbol that relates to the Memento Mori is the hour glass, which can be found on many old gravestones and indicates the passage of time or that time has run out for the individual buried at the location. "Its use associated with personified figures of Death and Father Time comes out of a long tradition of mortuary symbolism. Rarely used alone, it usually appeared along with hearts, stars, leaves and sacred flowering vines. It was also the frequent companion of winged death's-heads and bones."(5) The symbol of the hourglass reminds the viewer of death and makes them realize that death is coming.

Still another symbol that is often related with the Memento Mori is the scythe. The scythe is carved on gravestones to symbolize the cutting of life or the chopping down of one's life. A scythe is used to cut down crops during the harvest, which has an obvious parallel with the end of a human life. As a result, the scythe is often related to the Grim Reaper; whose main job is to take others' lives. The scythe reminds us of death and how life can be cut short.

The theme of Memento Mori can be found in many different forms of sculpture, but it is most commonly found in funeral art and architecture. Many tombs are carved to show the decaying body of the deceased or skeletons in different positions. "The famous danse macabre, with its dancing depiction of the Grim Reaper carrying off rich and poor alike, is another well known example of the memento mori theme."(6) The Puritans helped influence American carvers in their choice of this theme and its related symbols. "Puritan tombstones in the colonial United States frequently depicted winged skulls, skeletons, or angels snuffing out candles."(7) Today we find the words "Memento Mori" and the many symbols that relate to it carved on many 18th century gravestones.

(Marc Lorenz, Spring 2009)

(1,6,7) "Memento Mori." Wikipedia. 8 Feb 2009. Wikipedia. 10 Feb 2009

(2) Janice Kohl Sarapin, Old Burial Grounds of New Jersey: A Guide (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994).

(3) Richard F. Veit and Mark Nonestied, New Jersey Cemeteries and Tombstones: History in the Landscape (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press/Rivergate Books, 2008), p.44.

(4) Rainie, Prince. "History and Myths." Answer Bank. 25/july/2007. 10 Feb 2009 .

(5) Sprague, Karin. "Gravestone Symbols." Karin Sprague Stone Carvers. 10 Feb 2009 .

About the Authors | Essential Bibliography | NJ Museums & Collections | Acknowledgments