The Evolution of the Death’s Head

Originally, the Puritans in America forbade any decoration on their gravestones.  The earliest markers that still exist show only names and occasionally the death date.  Later, the prohibition eased to the point that ornamentation on gravestones were okay, as long as the churches remained plain.  Carvers began to adorn the crests of grave markers with skulls.

The earliest stone here shows a blank-eyed round death’s head, a winged skull with clenched teeth beneath a simple pair of crossed bones.  The skull’s nose is indicated by a tiny triangle and the contours of bone by incised curves.

The second stone has a more heart-shaped skull with eyebrows and what looks like a mustache.   It’s no more realistic than the first, but the wings look as if they could have been carved from life.

John Palfrey’s stone might date from between those two, but I’m putting it later since the carving is more detailed.  I like the disk that crowns the skull, flanked by its waves and coils.  The eye sockets have a more realistic shape, but the arched eyebrows are attached to the nose triangle.

The next two stones are decorated with soul effigies rather than grinning skulls.  In both cases, the faces are staring and don’t seem to be having a lot of fun.   In place of necks, the heads have triumphantly upraised wings.  Their epitaphs both begin “Here lyes Buried the (or ye) Body,” but the sense is that the soul has flown away.

I’m not sure how to place the two figures that follow, but I suspect that they are later, since the faces seem to be individualized and more life-like than the earlier stones. The first is headed “Memento Mori”: Remember Death, sometimes translated as Remember You will Die.  The epitaph continues “The Remains of Cap Edward Marrett are here interred.”  I like the hair plastered down to the head of Captain Marrett’s effigy, in addition to its narrowed eyes and pinched mouth.

Thomae Marsh Armigeri’s stone has a Latin inscription beneath an angelic effigy with a be-ringed wig.  His eyes seem to frown from the stone, but his face is unlined. The wings are held awkwardly.  If I saw this thing flying at me, I’d be frightened.  It, more than the others here, personalizes the dead man.  I wonder what his story is and why he was so grumpy.

The next stone is in a different style, but I wanted to include it as an example of a portrait stone.  The epitaph curving above it says, “We fall to rise. We die to live.”  Still a deeply Christian sentiment, but amidst the acceptance of death is the hope for a better world.  The bust’s mouth remains an unamused line, but his eyebrows and hairline have personality.

I love the cherub faces atop the final stone.  The wings have a profusion of feathers, so much so that they almost look like Elizabethan neck ruffs.  The mouths and noses seem more lifelike than anything we’ve seen yet — and the hair almost seems to have a life of its own.  The eyes are still blank and clouded, but it seems that life has only recently departed.

All of these stones come from the Old Town Burying Ground in Cambridge, Massachusetts, near Harvard Square.  It will be this week’s Cemetery of the Week.

Gravestone carving isn’t my special interest, so I welcome correction in the comments below. I’d love to learn more.

About Loren Rhoads

I am the author of the essay collection Wish You Were Here: Adventures in Cemetery Travel, co-author of the novel As Above, So Below, and editor of The Haunted Mansion Project: Year Two. My science fiction trilogy begins with The Dangerous Type in 2015. In addition to blogging at CemeteryTravel.com, I blog about my morbid life at lorenrhoads.com.
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7 Responses to The Evolution of the Death’s Head

  1. Totally fabulous post! Your blog is the highlight of my day! Personally, I love the two cherub faces gazing downward (last one on the right). They feel so life-like….as if I could reach out and touch them. They are two dimensional but they have this eerily three dimensional quality….like they are about to acquire a body and fly off of the headstone. It gets creepy if you look at it too long.

  2. Pingback: Cemetery of the Week #81: the Old Burying Ground | Cemetery Travel: Adventures in Graveyards Around the World

  3. Jo says:

    Great post! When I went out to Maine on my two trips, I was delighted to find carvings like this — they really got me interested in cemetery photography and research. It’s interesting to see some of the variations — death’s heads, with or without wings, etc. I found my book on Maine Coastal Cemeteries had information about these, and the general date range for when this type of carving was typical. I noticed that in Maine, the ones I found seemed to be carved on slate stones, and many were still in quite good condition.

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