NORFOLK : DEATHS HEAD GRAVESTONE SYMBOLISM
Above, the deaths head. From left to right, Wells Next The Sea, Sedgeford and Walpole St Perter. Below right Swanton Morley.
If you have ever been wandering around a church grounds and have noticed some designs featuring a human skull om gravestones you may have wondered what they represent. Gravestones and monuments featuring skull and crossed bones appear the length and breadth of the country, with Norfolk having an interesting selection.
So, what is the symbolism here telling us? Well, these stones were popular during the latter years of the 17th century through to the late 18th century. Times were hard. Life expectancy was low, around 40 years come the end of the 17th century. This was partly due to a very high infant mortality rate. Adults could live a long life still in those days but disease that is easily treated today could be possibly fatal in those days.
Those adults living towards the end of the 17th century would probably remember the English Civil War and outbreaks of plague. Death was all around and it was to be treated very seriously. A message that was put across to the population was therefore, that Man is mortal and will die. Memento Mori, remember that we must die! Therefore, be ready on the day that your own death comes calling and and live a good life to claim your reward of eternal life in heaven. This was an important message to be hammered home; times were hard and it may be later than you think!
This message was emphasized with the use of symbols for the most part. This was due to a large percentage of the population being unable to read or write; symbols were easily understood by all. The main symbol of the mortality of Man used was as already mentioned, the human skull. This could be a stand alone symbol or be part of a series of symbols, which I will come to in a little while.
Sometimes the skull is realistically carved, on other occasions the depiction of the skull is almost cartoonlike in appearance. Occasionally the skull is anything but skull like, depending on the skill of the mason. Sometimes there is a single skull, sometimes two or more.
There are other symbols which also are symbols of mortality. These include the human bone, which are either single, two that are crossed, or multiple, such as the example from Walpole St Peter above right. The coffin is sometimes also used as a symbol of mortality, as is the pick and shovel, these being known as the gravediggers tools. Occasionally, a scythe is used as a symbol of mortality, with sometimes Old Father Time holding it.
Pictured above left, crossed bones at Toftrees. Centre, a cartoon like skull at Burnham Norton. Right, the coffin which is also used as a symbol of the mortality of Man.
When looking at the use of the human bone as a symbol it is worth noting that, in medieval times, the large human bones such as thigh bones and the skull were to be preserved in order for the deceased to be resurrected on the final day. This is why the larger bones such as the thigh bones were kept, along with the skulls, in bone crypts.
So, could it not be possible to suggest that the use of the human bone, in addition to the skull, could be a statement of the faith of the deceased as well as a symbol of mortality? An important component for the 'resurrection of the just' as it often reads on monuments is displayed on these gravestones for others to see. Yes, it is a message to live a good Christian life, but it could also read that the deceased HAD lived a good Christian life.
There are other symbols which also testify to the faith of the deceased. Sometimes, the skull wears a crown or a laurel wreath. Each of these is a symbol of victory; the victory here being over death. True, the person has passed away but death has been beaten in that they have won their reward: eternal life in Heaven.
Sometimes the skull has wings. This symbolises the flight of the soul to heaven after death; this again testifying to the faith of the deceased. In the Leicestershire/Nottinghamshire border area many of the gravestones; well preserved in slate, has the message 'Come Ye Blessed' carved across the top. An invitation to those judged righteous. Here, the soul is ready to take flight; they are also deemed to be righteous!
Two examples of winged skull, this symbolising the flight of the souls of the just to heaven. A testament to the faith of the deceased.
The image on the left is from Heacham with the image to the right being from Wighton.
Another symbol often used in conjunction with the skull is an hour glass, which is often winged. Another symbol of mortality; tempus fugit, time flies! The sands of time have run out for the deceased so take heed, they will also run out for you!
This wonderful example from North Elmham has several symbols of mortality; the human skull sits atop a winged hourglass. To the left as we look at it is the pick and shovel, the gravediggers tools. Sometimes there is a torch accompanying the pick and shovel as sometimes burials were undertaken at night.
The over riding message here is to be prepared. Do not be caught short when your time comes. This is very much a Biblical concept, with some of Jesus' parables having the same message; such as for example the Parable of the Wise and Foolish Virgins, Matthew Chapter 25.
“Then the kingdom of heaven shall be likened to ten virgins who took their lamps and went out to meet the bridegroom. Now five of them were wise, and five were foolish. Those who were foolish took their lamps and took no oil with them, 4 but the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps. But while the bridegroom was delayed, they all slumbered and slept.
“And at midnight a cry was heard: ‘Behold, the bridegroom is coming; go out to meet him!’ Then all those virgins arose and trimmed their lamps. And the foolish said to the wise, ‘Give us some of your oil, for our lamps are going out.’ But the wise answered, saying, ‘No, lest there should not be enough for us and you; but go rather to those who sell, and buy for yourselves.’ And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came, and those who were ready went in with him to the wedding; and the door was shut. “Afterward the other virgins came also, saying, ‘Lord, Lord, open to us!’ But he answered and said, ‘Assuredly, I say to you, I do not know you.’ “Watch therefore, for you know neither the day nor the hour in which the Son of Man is coming.
In the same way, you did not know neither the day nor the hour in which your own time would come, 'Be Ye Also Ready'.
Pictured above left, deaths head from Foulsham with small scythe top left with hourglass. Centre, winged skull at Whissonett. Right, skull with crossed bones and hourglasses at the ruined church at Oxwick.
There are some very interesting church grounds to be found in Norfolk; with many gravestones displaying images such as these. This website is a record of my travels during 2020 and 2021 so photographs are only included from churches visited during that time.