Winged skull gravestone symbols were common in 18th-century cemeteries. While they may look strange to us today – even morbid or creepy – they held important meaning for our ancestors.
Death became frequent in the 1700s, in a world of poverty with poor sanitation, malnourishment, and scant medical knowledge. Infant and child mortality were high to, while epidemics of smallpox, measles, and whooping cough swept through communities, overcoming the most vulnerable.
When gravestones first appeared, many of the common people were illiterate. Not only could they not read or write, but the stonemasons also who carved the gravestones couldn’t either. As a result, the engraved carvings were not meant as mere decorations but were symbols that the layman could understand. A story from the past.
If we look at this 18th century monument in Tirley, we can work our way thought the symbols that tell us about the relationship people had with mortality.
The winged Skull
Skulls really were a reminder of your mortality and death was inevitable.
“Memento Mori” – “Remember, you must die”.
Over time, the skull and the skull and crossbones gave way to winged skull gravestone symbols. The wings were symbolic of a soul fleeing mortality, a journey to heaven. During the 17th century, the Puritans were losing their grip on society and attitudes were changing. People now believed in the possibility that there was life after death, and the possibility that one could reach Heaven. It added a message of hope and resurrection.
The Green Man
The Green Man is a legendary being primarily interpreted as a symbol of rebirth, representing the cycle of new growth that occurs every spring. The Green Man is most commonly depicted in a sculpture, or other representation of a face which is made of, or completely surrounded by, leaves.
In Christianity the cherubim are ranked among the higher orders of angels and, as celestial attendants of God. They can represent an angel guarding the child’s soul on the way to heaven or a representation of the soul’s rebirth in heaven. Cherubs are often seen on children’s graves from before the seventeenth century.
The drape around the edges represents the veil between the living and the dead.