Emblems of Mortality

Extracted from Understanding Scottish Graveyards by Betty Willshire


The Death's Head
On medieval monuments the death's head was used to represent Death, a reminder that death comes to everyone, as indicated by the words that later accompanied it, Momento Mori, meaning "Remember that you must die". [See example] On monuments of the seventeenth century the death's head was usually portrayed either in partial profile of facing front and gnawing on a femur, or as a full round face carved above or on crossed bones. The masons of the eighteenth century carved the skull in all manner of ways; with or without bottom jaw; full face, three quarters or half profile; noses triangular, U-shaped, heart shaped; eye sockets deep or shallow, large or small. Each mason found his own versions, varying them from stone to stone.

The Winged Skull
Carved full face, with wings outspread on either side of the head, it may be found on some seventeenth century stones, but is very rare on later examples.

The Skeleton
It sometimes appears lying down, or on a bed or in a hammock-like object; here it represents the passive figure of Death, which comes to all men. [See Example] When it is portrayed standing, with the weapons of Death, the dart, spear, scythe or lance, it is the personification of Death, the King of Terrors, an ever-present menace. The anatomical details are carved according to the skill and the knowledge of the mason.

The Angel of Death
This is rare, and is shown as a putto, with dart and/or hour glass, and/or scales. It may have wings.

The Bones
In the seventeenth century the Death's head was often accompanied by crossed bones, usually femurs, or else a single bone. [See Example]. However, by the eighteenth century there were many more variations, including such items as jawbones. The bones were sometimes shown in trophies, or suspended in ribands.

The Hour Glass
This indicates the passing of time, and is portrayed either in a vertical or a horizontal position. It is usually carved realistically (well known to all who watched it during the long sermons); its plump shape lent itself to carving in high relief. [See example]. Occasionally it is incised and geometric in design.Sometimes a flaming hour-glass was carved to represent Eternity.

The Coffin
The shape is realistic and is normally recognisable. In the seventeenth century the device used was crossed coffins, but in the eighteenth century one coffin was often placed in a row of emblems, or occasionally as a sole emblem [See Example]. The spokes of the coffin may be shown.

The Weapons of Death
These are the scythe, the dart, bow and arrow, lance and axe.

The Sexton's Tools
These are the spade and the turf cutter, the latter has a triangular blade. Very often the two tools are crossed; the pick is a less common emblem [See Example].

The Deid Bell
This was rung to give notice of funerals, and at the funeral itself; a small handbell, it was a favourite emblem north of the Tay [See Example].


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