Iconographic interpretation of death in different Cultures
Death is life's ending. Because everyone who is born eventually dies, it is the center of many traditions and organisations. Customs relating to death are a feature of every culture around the world. Part of those customs are symbols, which signify or try to make sense of the phenomena.
Death is certain. Are you prepared?
A. Death itself
- Skull, Human
- Calaveras - Mexico, whimsical caricatures
- Skeleton, Human (sometimes animal)
- Calacas - Mexico, whimsical caricatures
- Skull & Crossbones (in Europe also symbol for piracy and poison)
- Decayed Cadavers (medieval Europe, artistic depictions)
- Scythe - a curved, sharp blade at the end of a long handle, held by Grim Reaper
- Tombs, tombstones, grave
- Christian Cross - Christianity, call to mind crucifixion of Jesus
- Wheel - Buddhism, perpetual cycle of death and rebirth that happens in samsara
- Passage of time/fragility of life
- candles (passage of time/burn itself out)
- Animals - some feed on carrion/nocturnal
- Crows / Ravens / Vultures
- Images of Afterlife
- winged angels/ angel-like creatures dwelling among clouds - Christian (Angels)
- black and white ram that will be slain (the death of death) - Islamic (Rams)
B. Death Personified
- Grim Reaper - Since 15th century, Skeletal figure carrying large scythe, clothed in black cloak Banshee - Irish, Omen of death, variety of guises: old, frightening hag; stunningly beautiful woman; Irish Battle goddess; washer woman.
- Ancient Egypt - Gods, Osiris & Ptah = Mummies, governed Egyptian afterlife
- One of the four horseman, rides a pale horse - Book of Revelations, Bible
- Ancient Greece
- Thantos - bearded and winged man (not portrayed as evil)
- The Keres - (Thantos' sisters) the spirits of violent death (battles, diseases, accident, murder) portrayed as evil, feeding on the blood of body; fangs, talons, dressed in bloody garments
- Celtic / Breton folklore
- Ankou - spirit of the last person in the community who died; haggard figure, wide hat, long white hair -or- a skeleton with a revolving head; drives a wagon or cart with a creaking axle, wagon is piled high with corpses
- Giltine - old, ugly woman with long blue nose and deadly poisonous tongue
- Hindu Scriptures/ Buddhist
- Yama ('Lord of Death') rides a black buffalo, carries a rope lasso
- Cherokee - Problems and death
- Western - funerals, death, Halloween (with Orange)
- China - death, mourning
- Japan - white carnation = death
- Eastern - funerals, mourning
- Celtic - death, afterlife
- South Africa - Mourning
- Western - red ribbon = symbol of people who have died of Aids
- Western - red poppies = flower used to commemorate the death from WWI & WWII
- Egypt - Mourning
- Eastern - Proof against evil, for the dead, sacred, imperial
- Thailand - Mourning, widows
- Cypress Tree - planted in graveyards, believed to preserve bodies
- Yew Tree - ancient Europe, planted in graveyards/churchyards all over England and Celtic countries
- Flags at half-mast - sign of mourning
- Season of the dead - Oct. 31-Nov. 2 = opportunity to make peace with the dead
- Beans - Romans used beans as charms connected with dead
- Agnus Dei - Represents the Lamb of God.
- Saint Matthew - one of the four evangelists, was often represented as a winged man.
- Baha'i Symbol - Baha'i Faith, a monotheistic religion.
- Bell - church bell; religion.
- Bible or Book - Often used on the gravestones of ministers or clergymen. However, it is sometimes found on gravestones of very devoted religious people also. Books may also represent a person's good deeds and accomplishments being recorded in the book of life.
- Bird - Peace, messenger of God. Usually doves
- Cohanim Hands (Hands with thumbs - and sometimes forefingers- joined.) This is a Jewish symbol that represents members of the priestly tribe of Aaron.
- Cross - Christianity.
- Crown and Cross - victory and Christianity.
- Eastern Cross Also Russian Orthodox, Greek Orthodox, and Greek Catholic. They have three bars that symbolise the cross Christ was crucified on:
- Top Bar - Title Board
- Middle Bar - Board on which the Lord's hands were nailed
- Bottom Bar - The footrest
- Eucharist - The body and blood of Christ. Usually found on graves of priests and nuns.
- Fish - Christianity.
- Grapes - Blood of Christ.
- Hand Pointing Down - The hand of God descending from heaven.
- Hands Praying - Pious devotion.
- Hands Reaching - Usually the hand of God reaching down from the heavens, and the hand of the deceased reaching up to grab it in greeting.
- Harp - A harp symbolises praise to God. They are often carved with a broken string, representing a break in mortal life.
- IHS - Sometimes looks like a dollar sign. IHS stands for the first three letters of Jesus' name in the Greek alphabet. (This symbol also stands for "in hoc signo", Latin for "by this sign we conquer", referring to the cross. It is actually more involved than that, and apparently also has some fraternal applications. )
- Passion Flower - Christ's passion.
- Pitcher - Often found on graves of prohibitionists. Represents virtue and control. If it is found on a Jewish grave, it symbolises a Levite, a person who was responsible for cleaning the hands of the Temple Priest.
- Rosary - Almost always found on Catholic gravestones. Symbolises devotion to Mary and constant prayer for the deceased person.
- Scroll - scriptures.
- Shih Tzu of Fo - Guardians of Buddha.
- Sunflower - Devotion to God.
- Tablets - Usually two tablets joined, Ten Commandments.
- XP, overlapped - The Chi-Rho, one of the oldest Christian symbols. XP are the first two letters of the Greek word for Christ.
- Snake with Apple- sin.
- Angel - A guide to heaven.
- Anchor - Hope or eternal life.
- Ankh - An Egyptian symbol of eternal life.
- Apple - salvation, sometimes sin.
- Arch - The passage to heaven.
- Boat - A voyage; crossing over to the other side.
- Century Plant - immortality; everlasting life.
- Crown - Victory or triumph over death.
- Dogwood - Resurrection, sacrifice, and eternal life.
- Garland - Victory in death.
- Gate - Passage from earth to heaven.
- Hand Pointing Up - Hand pointing up to heaven.
- Hand writing - Writing names in the book of life.
- Morning Glory - the Resurrection; also beauty, youth, and love.
- Palm Tree or Frond - Victory over death.
- Star of David - Divine Protection.
- Sun - The soul rising to heaven.
- Winged Solar Disk - Egyptian, the journey of the sun and the spiritual attributes of the heavens.
- Wreath - Victory in death.
- Anvil - the creation or forging of the universe.
- Hammer - the power of creation.
- Lotus - creation and rebirth.
- Moon - Rebirth.
- Scarab - Egyptian, spontaneous creation;the renewal of life.
- Shell - Baptism or rebirth.
- Star - A six-pointed star represents creation.
- Arrow - mortality and martyrdom.
- Bones - Death, decay.
- Broken Wheel - end of life; a break in the circle or wheel of life.
- Butterfly - resurrection, and also the soul leaving the body/flesh.
- Clasped Hands - Farewell to earthly existence.
- Column - Mortality. A draped or broken column represents the break in earthly to heavenly life. The draped arch also symbolises mourning.
- Fallen Tree - Mortality, Death
- Flame or Torch - Eternity. An upside down torch represents the end of life.
- Horse - Death. White horses represent good, while black horses represent evil.
- Coffin - mortality and death.
- Lyre - Often have a broken string, symbolizing the end of life. Lyres are usually found on the graves of musicians.
- Plow - the harvest; the reaping of life.
- Poppy - eternal sleep.
- Rooster - an awakening, or calling attention to the person's death. It also symbolises vigilance.
- Sickle - Reaping of life.
- Skull - Death and mortality. A winged skull symbolises the ascension into heaven.
- Skull and Crossbones - Mortality, Death.
- Sleeping Child - Victorian symbol for death.
- Spade - mortality and death. Also used as a Masonic symbol.
- Wheat - harvest, usually found on older peoples' gravestones.
- Alpha and Omega - First and last letters of the Greek alphabet. Symbolises the beginning and the end.
- Circle - Eternal life - no beginning, no end
- Clock - Mortality, death; the passage of time.
- Hourglass - Passage of time.
- Man with Hourglass and Sickle - Father Time. An old man with a beard, holding a hourglass and/or sickle.
- Snake, hooped - eternal life - no beginning, no end.
E. QUALITIES OF PERSON
- Beehive - human industry, faith, education, and domestic virtues; Often used by the Freemasons and Independent Order of Odd Fellows
- Calla Lily – beauty
- Corn - Rebirth, fertility.
- Cornucopia - Also known as the "Horn of Plenty." Symbolises an abundant, fruitful life. Also a symbol of the harvest, which in turn symbolises the end of life.
- Daisy - innocence; usually found on graves of young children.
- Dog - Loyalty, fidelity, watchfulness, and vigilance.
- Easter Lily - Purity, Chastity.
- Fern - Humility and sincerity.
- Lamp - Wisdom, faithfulness.
- Lion - Strength.
- Menorah - Jewish symbol. It usually marks the grave of a righteous woman.
- Oak Leaf - Longevity (long life).
- Owl - Wisdom, watchfulness.
- Ox - Patience, strength.
- Rabbit - Humility, gentleness, self-sacrifice.
- Rose - beauty.
- Sphinx - Guardian; represents strength and protection.
- Tulip - love and passion.
- Woman Holding Anchor - hope.
- Woman Holding Cross - faith.
F. ABOUT DESEASED
1. The Person
- Heart - Person's spirit or soul.
- Urn - The soul.
- Artillery – (ie ) cannons, military service.
- Comedy and Tragedy Masks - drama and theatre. Also known as theatre masks.
- Eagle - Civil War veterans.
- Flag - Usually found on veterans' graves.
- Mortar and Pestle - Usually found on the gravestones of pharmacists, and sometimes doctors.
- Music - Usually found on the graves of musicians. The music can be from a song the musician wrote, or it could be the deceased person's favourite hymn.
- Palette and Brushes - Usually found on artists' gravestones.
- Piano - Most likely symbolises someone who was fond of playing the piano.
- Rifle - Usually found on the graves of military members and hunters.
- Scales - Often marks the grave of someone who was in the legal profession.
- Ship - usually found on the graves of sailors. Many times they are found on graves of people who died at sea.
- Sword - Crossed swords are often seen on the gravestones of veterans, especially officers.
- Broken Bud or Branch - Someone who died an untimely or premature death.
- Hummingbird - infants
- Lamb – child; innocence.
- Empty shoes - loss of a child. Usually one shoe is overturned.
- Vacant Chair - death of a child.
G. RELATIONSHIP/ MOURNING
- Broken Chain Link - loss in the family.
- Drapery - Mourning.
- Laurel - the "evergreen" memory of the deceased.
- Ivy - Friendship.
- Knot - A tied knot symbolises marriage and unity.
- Thistle - earthly sorrow
- Weeping Woman - Mourning, sorrow.
- Willow Tree - Sadness or mourning.
1) Gravestone Symbolism & Meanings
2) Death Symbolism & Meanings