Strolling along any old New England cemetery (as one does), you’ll most likely find gravestones with winged skulls curling across their crests. I remember staring at these “death’s heads” for too long during elementary school field trips to Boston’s Granary Burying Ground: their hollow eyes and teeth in a row, wings unfurled in cracked yet perfect symmetry. There’s a stark blankness to their gaze, a tiredness in the curved shape where their noses would be.
The death’s heads arose in the 1670s and floated almost exclusively over colonials’ graves for over a century, nearly until the American Revolution. Some scholars have speculated that death’s heads were meant to represent the soul departing from the body after death, an eerie contrast of physical decay and spiritual awakening. However, early European and American carvings suggest that they were more likely a simple reminder of mortality. Cold winters, starvation and disease made death common among colonials. According to Cotton Mather, a prominent Puritan minister, “That Man is like to die comfortably who is every Day minding himself, that he is to die shortly. Let us look upon every thing as a sort of ‘Death’s Head’ set before us, with a ‘Memento mortis’ written upon it.”
Mather didn’t mean that one should be constantly terrified of death. Death’s heads invited Puritans to consider hell’s gruesome horrors and instead hope for heaven. Fear of hell made heaven sweeter; contemplating death, the awe-inspiring transition from the temporal to the eternal (however unpredictable the forked passage toward damnation or redemption would be), was refreshing for the spirit.
Then, as Puritanism relaxed over the 18th century, “soul effigies” began popping up. These winged fleshy faces (no less creepy) displayed distinct hair, clothing and slightly smiling eyes and mouths. Childlike winged cherubs began to emerge, providing comforting security among death’s heads’ cold uncertainty.
By the 19th century, the hot new iconographical image on America’s cemetery scene was the urn and weeping willow. Postrevolutionary culture and attitudes no longer reflected Orthodox Puritanism’s steely obsession with the afterlife. American citizens looked toward ancient Rome and Greece for architecture and imagery. The willow, an ancient symbol for mourning, drooped over the imperial Roman urn which carried ashes, encouraging family members to commemorate the life of the deceased. Instead of “Here lyes … ,” the gravestones read, “In memory of …,” taking on a more personal tone.
All caution of graven images was thrown to the winds: Cemeteries boasted a range of unique carvings such as lambs, wheat, clasped hands for married couples and statues of angelic women, as 19th-century well-to-dos embraced neoclassicism, individuality and ornate design.
I am glad that in America, celebrating the world and life of a person has replaced Puritans’ constant looking up for heaven. At its worst, fear of the devil led to their committing paranoid and abhorrent acts in the name of God (Salem witch trials, anyone?).
Still, while I don’t believe in infinite fiery torment or blissful paradise, I find death’s heads, with their old reminders of life’s end, timelessly chilling.