Gravestones - winged skulls

"“Sleep after toil,

port after stormy seas,

ease after war,

death after life does greatly please—." -” Edmund Spencer.(1)

Cemeteries have long represented a place of finality and rest - both anticipated and feared - at the end of life. Throughout New Jersey, burial grounds also serve as educational sites, offering historical and artistic windows into times past. Maintaining the records of families from centuries ago, cemeteries are where we meet our loved ones and read the “poetry of the dead.”

Gravestones also represent one of the earliest forms of sculpture found in this country. Markers that bear identifications were generally made of marble, sandstone, slate, or granite. During earlier times and for the poorer family, slaves, servants, and paupers, the material of choice was either wood or fieldstone – with the fieldstone generally left in its original form.(2) Sandstone was most commonly used for graves dating prior to 1850. Marble was more expensive and because of its scarcity, was reserved for those who could afford it; marble is often seen with the ornate carvings of the Victorian era and for large family plots. Marble is also found on the gravestones of soldiers, civic and religious leaders, and statesmen.(3)

The carving of headstones was an occupation that required the skills of the mason or carpenter. Although most carvers were anonymous, some have been recognized for favorite motifs and signature spellings (or misspellings) on their work. A few are even known by name. Among the most notable stone carvers from the late 1700s and early 1800s are Henry Osbourne of Woodbridge, Jonathan Hand Osbourne of Scotch Plains, Uzal Ward of Newark, and Ebenezer Price of Elizabeth.(4)

Ebenezer Price's carvings exhibit his own recognizable version of a “soul effigy” with crossed bones on a tulip-top stone. Jonathan Hand Osborne was known to sign his stones at the top, whereas Henry Osborne signed his stones H.O. or H. Osborne at the bottom. Both stone carvers' works, dating from the years 1770 to 1810, can be found in cemeteries in Springfield, Union, Elizabeth, Spotswood, Cranbury, and Scotch Plains.(5)

The aesthetic design of a headstone could indicate social standing, religious denomination, economic power and position in community. The anchor often indicated the grave of a seafarer; angels symbolized the afterlife in heaven or a heavenly messenger. Birds and doves meant purity and youth, whereas crossed bones and skulls symbolized the death of the body. Cherubs, cradles, lambs, and hearts were often used on graves of children, signifying innocence and life cut short. Sheaves of wheat were “the final harvest”; a thistle identified the grave of a Scot.(6) The “death's head,” a Puritan symbol of the mortality of mankind, was a common design on gravestones prior to 1750. Wings on the side of the death's head came from the Puritan belief that escape from death, sin, and damnation could be avoided through Christian belief.(7)

(Elizabeth Parsons)

(1) (see link below).

(2-7) Janice Kohl Sarapin, Old Burial Grounds of New Jersey: A Guide (New Brunswick: Rutgers University Press, 1994).

Additional reference:

Gravestone of Martha Parson, Morristown

Gravestone of Martha Parson, 1731, Morristown (Morris County). Photograph by K.N. Ogden.
Gravestone of Margreat Rhe, Manalapan

Gravestone of Margreat Rhe, died Nov. 10, 1747 aged one year, Old Tennent Church, Manalapan. Photograph by Jeannette Imperiale.
Gravestones of Phebe and Timothy Peck, Morristown

Gravestones of Phebe Peck (left), dated 1757, and Timothy Peck (right), dated 1790. Morristown Presbyterian Church. Photograph by K.N. Ogden.

The skull is a memento mori or reminder of death, while the wings refer to the eternal life of the soul. In later gravestone carvings (like the third stone above), the winged skull motif evolves into a more cheerful winged soul effigy - less threatening and more face-like, sometimes to the point of portraiture.

The evolution in gravestone imagery shown in the third photo above parallels the development of religious writing in America. The two stones illustrate a development from the stern and threatening texts and images of the 18th century - intended to frighten readers into good behavior - to a more hopeful focus on the benefits of religion in later works. This transition can be seen in the third photograph above: the older gravestone, dated 1757, has a winged skull; the newer stone, on the right, was dated 1790 and was decorated with a winged soul.

The graveyards of Morristown and Westfield Presbyterian Churches (among others) contain impressive numbers of winged souls and deaths heads. Many of those at Westfield have been posted on-line at this URL:


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