In the 17th and 18th centuries, Christian graves and monuments were often carved with images on them symbolising man's mortality. Often the symbol of mortality was in the form of a skull. These symbols were to remind the onlooker that Man is mortal and his time is fleeting.
Sometimes the skull is carved alongside an hourglass, and the hourglass sometimes has wings. All to remind the onlooker that where the deceased has gone, you will follow.
Surviving examples of these kind of gravestones are relatively unusual in the churches covered in this site. Graveyard clearance over the years would have seen many of these destroyed. However, in certain parts that I have visited they are still plentiful, with some still in very good condition given their age. There are many in parts of Norfolk for example.
On this page I have grouped together a collection of images of deaths head stones. Some from churches local and others from further away. I hope that you find these of interest, and that this page doesn't depress you too much!
An epitaph is graven here,
To warn thee Reader, death is near,
Now thou art reading mine.
Then watch and pray, for in short space,
Some stranger standing in thy place,
May ponder over thine.
Taken from the grave of Elizabeth Freeman who died in 1843 aged 20. Morton near Bourne, South Lincolnshire (Not pictured).
A tomb at St Mary, Stilton near Peterborough. Old Father Time holds a broken hour glass, from which he has poured an image of the deceased. Man’s mortality is also symbolized by two human skulls at Father Time’s feet whilst a plant springs to life at the back of one of the skulls. Georgian I believe.
Pictured above, two beautifully carved gravestones, which stood side by side, in the church grounds at Burnham Overy in Norfolk. Mid 18th century and work of the very highest quality.
Pictured above left, fabulously carved deaths head stone from All Saints, Elton near Peterborough. To the right of that, a more basic carving, and in damaged condition. This one, from Cley in North Norfolk has crossed bones to the left of the skull and the gravediggers tools of Pick and Shovel to the left.
Above, deaths head close up from Wakerley.
Above left, Cley in Norfolk again and the skull this time is perched atop a winged hourglass. Above right and a superb example from Buckworth near Huntingdon. This stone is sheltered from the elements under a tree. The skull here is wearing a laurel wreath. According to my I Spy book of Gravestone Symbolism a laurel wreath symbolises victory or someone who has excelled in his pursuits.Look carefully and you will notice crossed flames of life underneath.
Pictured left, and a grave from the tiny village church of Cockthorpe in North Norfolk. As well as the skull and the coffin we also have, to the left of the skull, a snake with its tail in its mouth. This symbolises eternity. Above and an engraving in slate from Deene near Corby in Northants.
Above, skull and bones from Walpole St Peter in Norfolk. Interesting to see the symbolism of the corn either side of the skull. This symbolises a life lived to a ripe old age. To the right of that, a very curious set of carvings from Burnham Westgate, again in Norfolk. These basic cartoonlike depictions of skulls can be found engraved all over this grave. Very curious this one.
Above left and Old Father Time rests his sythe on a human skull. This carving comes from Peterborough Cathederal. To the right of that a close up of a grinning skull, with tooth missing, which is part of a monument to the Apreece Brothers, which can be found in Lutton church, East Northants.