It is quite common to find a variety of symbols depicting death and the resurrection placed on gravestones especially in the 16th to 18th century. But why were skull and crossbones so prevalent on gravestones during that time?
The classic dead head symbol, skull and crossbones, were commonly used as memento mori symbols on gravestones during the 16th to 18th centuries. These symbols were a warning to all that we cannot avoid death no matter your status in life. Death is the one equalizer; we are all the same.
The skull and crossbones symbolism dates to the 14th century before gravestones were ever used. The use of both skulls, and of crossbones are commonly referred to as the memento mori symbols used in artwork, wood carvings, clothing, military, literature, the bible, and architecture.
Their usage was influenced by the ossuaries or charnel houses, which were used to house a lot of skulls and bones when there was not enough burial space available.
Skull and crossbones didn’t always have the two bones below the skull, but sometimes depicted as having only one femur bone below the skull or as a skull gnawing on the femur bone.
A winged skull or winged cherub was also an extremely popular symbol carved into gravestones. Even green man dead heads were often found in Scotland graveyards.
The hideous face of the green man represented sinful flesh that decays, and the sprouting greenery represented the resurrection.
Along with the skulls or skull and crossbones symbols, headstones would often have the following Latin phrases carved into the stone.
Even torches were used in combination with skulls. An upright torch represented life, while an inverted torch meant the passing of the soul to the afterlife.
It’s important to note that gravestones or tombstones were not used until the 16th century and often had a variety of different symbols other than just dead heads or skull and crossbones.
I will outline some of the more common symbols used. Some are interesting while others are just creepy.
Winged skull gravestone- that a dead person’s journey is not over, after shedding their physical form, they fly away to another realm. In the United States the winged skull wasn’t initially a religious symbol but rather just to denote a buried corpse.
The winged skull became more popular during the Regency period and was used to represent the soul of the deceased. In the US these are referred to as a soul effigy.
A skull with wings or feathers symbolizes the impending death and regeneration of the soul or the ascension of the soul to heaven.
The winged skull has been used for many years as a strong masonic symbol and frequently appears on gravestones belonging to members who passed away.
Serpent symbol - represents everlasting life. Often depicted in ouroboros form, a circular snake eating its own tail. It is believed that a snake cheats death because it sheds its own skin. A snake wrapped around a cross represents the Masonic brazen serpent. This is a symbol of the 25th degree mason.
Clasped hands– symbolizes unity after death. That though a loved one maybe gone, those left behind hope to see them again. This is often seen on gravestones of shared graves of spouses.
Flying Hourglass- an hourglass with wings symbolizes that time flies and death will come to soon for many people.
A common practice in the 18th century was to bury a person with an hourglass. This represented the sands of time running out for that person.
The flying hourglass is also a masonic symbol that is often paired with a scythe. It symbolizes just how easy it is to cut the boundary between life and death.
Inverted Torch– represents eternal life. Since an inverted torch would normally put the flame out, if you see an inverted torch with the flame still burning it symbolizes eternal life.
Winged Sun Disc– this symbol is usually associated with Egyptian gods. It represents the true light, the life force of all living things which can transcends even death.
Lamb– represents purity and innocence. It is a religious symbol representing the lamb of god, the purity and innocence of children. You will often see this symbol on graves of children and babies.
This symbol does predate Christianity and has been observed in ancient Egyptian culture.
Three Chain Links– this symbol is most common among the freemasons. The chain links can be alone or paired with the letters F, L and T which stands for friendship, love and truth.
The 3-link chain also represents the Independent order of the odd fellows. This order was founded to promote charity and reciprocity.
Open Book-is usually represented as a 3D element on the gravestone. The open book is often used to symbolize the bible, book of life or other religious text.
It is common to see the book open with a corner of the page folded over. This is done to represent a story unfinished, that a life has been taken to soon.
Tree Stump– is a specific symbol usually only found on graves of people who belonged to two fraternal orders: The Modern Woodman of America and the Woodmen of the World.
These were groups founded to offer private financial services to its members, such as insurance. It represents a way to clear away any financially security problems for the members.
Draped Urn – the draped fabric over an urn represents the veil between life and death.
Square and Compass – is one of the most common symbols found in Masonry. It denotes the architect’s tools which are used in masonic rituals for teaching symbolic lessons. These symbols are often found on deceased members of the masons.
Open Gates - symbolizes the pathway from one realm to another. The pathway from life to death.
X P – Chi-Rho – is a lesser known symbol that is a monogram, in Greek, for the word of Christ. A wreath around the symbol represents the victory of the resurrection over death.
Researchers believe this symbol originated from the 14th century with Emperor Constantine. He added this heavenly symbol on the shields of his soldiers as protection.
Alpha and Omega – these are the first and last letters of the Greek alphabet symbolizing the beginning and the end. They are usually overlapped and paired with a cross or the Chi-Rho. This was also used as a title for Christ in the Book of Revelation.
The symbols used on gravestones are often very sentimental and you can see this represented in tattoos as well. This is a more modern representation of skulls, and skull and crossbones but can be just as sentimental to the wearer as a gravestone is to the loss of loved ones.
Skull tattoos are some of the most popular modern tattoos that are often full of symbolism and meaning to the wearer. They represent both a positive and negative connection with death and mortality.
Skull tattoos are used to commemorate a friend or lost loved one, to look cool and rebellious or even to be considered scary and intimidating.
Skull tattoos used to be only popular among people who wanted to be thought of as dark and menacing. But these tattoos are far more mainstream now and tattoo artists love them because of there versatility.
Tattoos are a form of artwork and skulls are used in combination with animals, banners, dice, flames, reapers, playing cards, weapons, wings, etc – its endless. Some of these tattoos are just breathtaking.
Here is a list of some of the more popular skull tattoos and what they symbolize to people.
Sugar Skull Tattoo – from the Mexican festival Day of the Dead. They are more popular with women and are worn to honor the death of loved ones.
These are also referred as candy skull tattoos or Mexican skull tattoos. These are often decorated with colorful flowers and can be visually stunning.
Skull & Leaves Tattoo – symbolize that you live by your own terms and will make your own path in life.
Skull & Rose Tattoo – symbolize the struggle between good and evil, the beautiful and ugly. This design is more popular with women and can look very striking when contrasted with colorful flowers or roses. These are also used to memorialize a lost friend or loved one.
Human Skull Tattoo – that death does not scare you and do not let the fear of your mortality dictate the quality of your life.
Celtic Skull Tattoo – symbolizes a higher form of power, knowledge and understanding, the seat of your soul.
Grim Reaper Tattoo – symbolizes the circle of life and lack of control you have over it. It also represents courage in the face of death.
Serpent Skull Tattoo – a gothic symbol representing the persistence of knowledge after death.
Tribal Skull Tattoo – are worn to commemorate a loved one whom has died and the ongoing presence of their spirit.
Skull & Wings Tattoo – are worn to represent growth in your character. These are also worn to represent the passing of a loved one.
Longhorn Skull Tattoo – a native American symbol representing everlasting protection of earth’s natural elements, and the courage and strength to fight against evil.
Deer Skull Tattoo – usually worn to represent the balance between life and death. The transition from the physical to the spiritual.
What does a skull ring symbolize? A skull ring is worn to represent strength, confidence, individuality and one’s mortality.
Skull rings symbolize the wearer’s bravery and resilience in the face of death and the freedom for self-expression.
Are skulls good luck? In Celtic culture skulls represent the seat of power and the house of the soul. Skulls are used to celebrate the memory of the dead as a good luck charm.
More recently, some people prefer to carry tiny stone skulls in their pockets as a good luck charm.
Why are skull so popular in fashion? Skulls have a universal appeal, and everyone can identify with skulls and their inevitable mortality. Skulls will remain stylish since they are a universal and iconic symbol that existed long before established fashion trends. Whether its jewelry, boots, or tops skull fashion is here to stay.