Symbol of the Month – The Spring of Life is Broken

A unique symbol in Nunhead Cemetery - a carriage spring. copyright Carole Tyrrell
A unique symbol in Nunhead Cemetery – a carriage spring.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

This is one of the most intriguing and baffling symbols to be found in any cemetery.  Visitors are mystified as to its meaning and inspiration and there has been a lengthy discussion about it recently on a cemetery related Facebook page.

It’s tucked away in Nunhead Cemetery and, despite being given directions by Robert Reinhardt, a Facebook friend, I couldn’t find it.  He had posted images of it online and I was immediately intrigued.  But I couldn’t locate it despite making several visits.

But, as luck would have it, I was in Nunhead Cemetery again, looking for another memorial altogether when there it was, hiding in plain sight.

Epitaph on Catherine Cook's tombstone - beloved wife of James Cook. copyright Carole Tyrrell
Epitaph on Catherine Cook’s tombstone – beloved wife of James Cook.
copyright Carole Tyrrell

It’s a memorial to Catherine Cook, beloved wife of James Cook as it says on the epitaph, with the motto ‘The Spring of Life is broken’ and   the carving above it with a lovely border of carved ivy leaves  representing ‘evergreen’ or ‘eternal.’

But let’s digress for a moment.  This is a well carved leaf spring which is one of the earliest forms of suspension in a wheeled vehicle. Leonardo da Vinci used them in his own design for a self-propelled car.   The one of Mrs Cook’s tombstone is an example of a multi-leaf spring in which leaf springs of varying lengths have been stacked on top of each other, sometimes up to 20 at a time, to enable the vehicle’s load to spread more widely.


I found the above diagram of a leaf spring online on various sites and it explains how it works.

But why is it depicted on an obviously much missed wife’s tombstone?

My own theory, and it is only my theory  is that it’s a variant on the  broken column.

This is an example of a broken column from Nunhead Cemetery.

copyright Carole Tyrrell
copyright Carole Tyrrell


The column isn’t the result of vandalism but has been deliberately created like this.  It indicates that the departed, often a male, was the head of the house and now the support of the family, or its backbone, had gone.

So I feel that this could be a female version.  Mrs Cook was obviously the support to her husband and family in that the suspension, the object that made the family load easier to manage, has gone.

Since finally discovering it, I’ve come to admire it as a unique and affectionate tribute to a much loved woman.

You are completely free to disagree and to offer your own interpretation and I’d be very interested to receive them.

Text and photos copyright Carole Tyrrell



2 thoughts on “Symbol of the Month – The Spring of Life is Broken

  1. While I have no theories, it seems simply appropriate that this woman was so honored as if she carried the load of the family even if she did not provide the financial support. But I agree with your theory that it is a variant of the broken column. I have never heard of or seen this broken spring symbol. Your posts are always a pleasure!


  2. I’m glad that you enjoyed it.. The broken spring seems to be unique to Nunhead as far as I know. That is part of the fun with symbols in that you sometimes discover a totally unique and unexpected one.


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