Ah, the perils of searching for symbols in old churchyards. I had to almost lie horizontally on the ground to take a photo of this one in the churchyard of St Nicholas, Pluckley, Kent. I was a little nervous that the headstone would fall on top of me but what a headline that would have made!
At the time I had no idea what it represented and just thought it looked interesting. In fact it wasn’t until much later when I’d had a chance to look at it properly that I realised the identity of the figure in the carving. I then wished that I’d also taken a photo of the epitaph.
It is in fact a depiction of Old Father Time. It’s a lovely example. As you can see he’s sitting with one hand holding a fearsome looking scythe with a bent and gnarled stem and the elbow of his other hand is resting on an hourglass. He is a very old man with a white beard, large angel wings on his back and is flanked on either side by two angel heads. What better symbol for a life that had ended?
So far I have only discovered a few other examples. There is a 17th century version on a tombstone in a Hendon churchyard and a huge, modern one again resting on an hourglass within Warzaw’s Powarzski cemetery. I can’t show them in this blog as one is on a stock images library and so not royalty free and I am awaiting permission to use the other image. However I found this one on Wikipedia but its location is not given.
We traditionally associate Old Father Time with the New Year celebrations. He is the representation of the outgoing Old Year welcoming in the New Year which is usually portrayed as a smiling baby. But Father Time has also been described as a gentler version of the Grim Reaper as they share the same accoutrements of a scythe and hourglass.
He is considered to be the personification of age and is related to the ancient Greek god Chronos and also the Roman god Saturn. Father Time’s ageing, worn out body is a reminder that time ultimately devours all things and that none can escape. The grains of sand in the hourglass count out not only his life but all lives. Although he has a long, white beard, a sign of age, it has been interpreted as a reclamation of purity and innocence. But, as the hourglass can be inverted, so can a new generation, the New Year, restore the source of physical vitality. However, time is not always destructive as it can also offer serenity and wisdom.
Cronos, from which chronology derives, was the ancient Greeks word for Time and the Romans knew him as Saturn. According to Wikipedia:
‘The ancient Greeks themselves began to confuse chronos, their word for time, with the agricultural god, Cronus, who had the attribute of a harvester’s sickle. The Romans equated Cronos with Saturn, who also had a sickle and was treated as an old man, often with a crutch. The wings and hourglass were early Renaissance additions.’
The Roman Chronos was originally an Italian corn god known as the Sower and a big festival known as the Saturnalia was held to celebrate the harvest. So there is a link between these ancient gods and Father Time in that they both symbolically harvest, or cut down the mature crops, to make way for the Spring’s new growth.
Father Time appears throughout many cultures and also in art, books and sculpture amongst others. In one of Hogarth’s later work, The Bathos, he appears lying down surrounded by his familiar objects, all now broken.
But in St Nicholas’ churchyard Old Father Time keeps an eternal watch over a life that has ended, resting on a still crisply carved hourglass. It is full, the scythe has harvested and so the endless cycle of life continues.
You never know what little gems you might find in a country churchyard and I discovered one while exploring in Staplehurst. All Saints has a commanding hilltop position and looks down on pretty half-timbered houses. Since 1100 it has stood on this site and has several ancient features such as the remain s of an anchorite’s cell..
The churchyard was far larger than I expected and led to a more modern section at the back of the church. But as I explored the older part of the churchyard I turned around and came face to face with this unusual symbol on a white headstone.
It’s dedicated to Alice Stone, wife of James Stone of Sheerness. There is no date of birth recorded but she died on 5 February 1787 aged 27. Alice may have died in childbirth which was a frequent cause of death for women in past eras or maybe she was a victim of an epidemic. We’ll never know. However, there is some barely legible lettering above the inscription which I have been unable to sufficiently enhance in order to read it so this may well warrant a second visit.
The scene at the top of the tombstone is almost like a miniature Doom painting. My interpretation of it is that it’s Judgement Day and the deceased has awoken from their eternal slumber. They appear to be in a burial chamber and lying on a ledge or on a shelf within a vault. They have partly cast off their burial clothes and appear to be slightly decayed. Ribs are visible and the head appears skull-like.
But where are they destined to go next? What will be their fate?
There’s only the choice of two final destinations for them – Heaven or Hell which are depicted on either side of the figure.
On the right hand side is a magnificently winged demon, or The Devil himself, standing over a grinning skeleton whose crown has fallen from his head. The crown is a very significant symbol in that it can indicate the passage from the earthly life into the divine and I have written it about in a previous Symbol of the Month. The demonic figure appears to be holding what looks like a besom or maybe it is a three pronged fork or even a large arrow. Although there are no flames, here the Devil is triumphant in his domain.
On the left-hand side, an angel appears to be floating within clouds while blowing a large trumpet in the direction of the newly awoken deceased. Underneath the angel is a brick house with an entrance or a small narrow gateway (I have to say the entrance does resemble a fireplace). I interpret this as being a depiction of God’s House and there are numerous references to it within the Bible such as Matthew 7:13-15:
‘Enter through the narrow gate,
For wide is the gate and broad is the road that leads to destruction,
And many enter through it’
And also in Genesis 28: 16-17:
‘When Jacob awoke from his sleep, he thought,
“Surely the Lord is in this place, and I was not aware of it.”
He was afraid and said, “How awesome is this place! This is none other than the house of God; this is the gate of heaven.”
It was difficult to find a specific Biblical verse that mentioned the Devil and Hell but I did find a reference in Matthew 10:28 :
‘And fear not them which kill the body,
But are not able to kill the soul:
But rather fear him which is able to destroy both soul and body in hell.’
(King James Version)
I am not a particularly religious person but the parishioners of All Saints at the time would have recognised the quotations.
The scene would have been a prompt to the passing viewer or mourner to live their lives in a righteous manner or face the alternative for eternity. It’s very dramatic and, as Alice died at an early age, this reminder would have very pertinent at a time when the average life expectancy was far lower.
So far I have not been able to find out more about Alice or James but for now she rests within part of the quintessential English country churchyard. She’s amongst ancient stones, some protected or obscured by mosses and lichens, and the bright wildflowers of late Spring. However, I would like to know more about her and what may have inspired the little scene on her headstone.
I have always loved the magnificent Lily Cross in St George’s churchyard, Beckenham as it’s such a bold and well carved one. It’s also one of the largest memorials with the churchyard and is dedicated to a prominent local family, the Goodharts. There is a poignant epitaph as well.
The Lily Cross is in the form of a Celtic Cross with the four arms of the Cross each ending in a lily flower.
Lilies have always had a special and long significance with death. In the 19th century their pungent, heady aroma was purportedly used to disguise the smell of the recently deceased’s body when it was the custom to have them rest at home prior to the funeral. But the lily has also been seen as a representation of the soul’s return to innocence after death.
This is because of the lily’s strong associations with purity and innocence and with its colour of pure white it’s especially linked with the Virgin Mary. Hence its other name the Madonna Lily. In Christian Art, the Archangel Gabriel and the Virgin Mary are often depicted as holding a lily.
But there are other variants on the Lily Cross and these are:
The Flore Cross
The Patonce Cross
The Fleur de Lys Cross
These are more stylised versions of the Lily Cross. In the Flore or Fleury Cross the arms end in a representation of flower petals and usually a lily. They often have three points at the end of each arm which represent three petals which is the version that I have usually seen without realising it. A variation may be two points or horns or crowns but I haven’t seen this variation yet.
The Patonce Cross is any form of cross which has expanded end in which each arm ends in floriated points like the Flore or Fleury Crosses. In heraldry, the three petals represent faith, wisdom and chivalry and the four arms of the cross spread these to the four corners of the world. As a Christian Cross, the three petals represent the Trinity and the total of twelve petals symbolise the Apostles.
According to seiyaku.com, it’s claimed that the term Patonce is derived from the French word for the paw of an ounce or Snow Leopard. However it looks nothing like the paw print of a leopard but has been interpreted as the French being whimsical or romantic.
The Fleur-de-Lys Cross has similarities to both the Fleurie and Patonce Crosses in that it has liliform ends to the arms of the cross as they do. But these represent barbed fighting spears which are used in French heraldry. The entire cross is a very stylised lily that has heraldic associations especially in France where it was traditionally connected with royalty. When Pope Leo II crowned Charlemagne as Emperor he was reputed to have presented him with a blue banner emblazoned with a golden fleur de lys. However, after the French Revolution the fleur de lys was less obviously associated with royalty. Edward II is said to have used it in his coat of arms to emphasise his claim to the French throne. Iwww.senyaku.com it’s claimed that this cross has been adopted by modern sub cultures such as the Goth movement who know it as the Gothic cross and New Agers who call it the Lotus Cross.
But a brief word on the cross as symbol. It wasn’t always the primary emblem of Christianity and in fact, it wasn’t adopted until after the 2nd century. Prior to this it was the fish symbol, the ichthys, that was used by early Christians to identify fellow believers and often appears carved or written on their tombs.
In Christianity, the cross represents the Crucifixion and is a sign of Christ and faith.
But the cross also appears throughout many cultures and civilisations in several forms. The cross of Horus, or the ankh, was used by the ancient Egyptians and, as it was often held in the hand of a god or powerful person, it’s a symbol of power.
The swastika was another ancient form of the cross. But is now unfortunately associated with death and destruction due to its adoption by the Nazis. But originally it was seen as a sign of good fortune and came from the East as these two examples show:
However, even for Christians, there were uncomfortable connotations to the cross. For centuries, it had been used as a method of punishment, not only for early Christians, but also for wrongdoers such as criminals. However, its adoption as the central symbol of the Christian symbol is attributed to a dream of the Roman Emperor, Constantine, in AD 320. In this he decided to abandon the Roman pagan gods and pray to the Christian god. According to Douglas Keister:
‘During a midnight prayer Constantine gazed towards the heavens and saw a group of star that looked like a huge, glowing luminous cross. After he fell asleep, Constantine had a dream in which he saw Christ holding the same symbol and instructing Constantine to affix it to his standards. He defeated Maxentius. As a result he had the emblem applied to all of his standards and emblems’
When I began researching this post, even I had no idea of how many variants there were on the Lily Cross or, indeed, on crosses in general. It makes a stroll through a churchyard or cemetery even more intriguing now that I can spot the subtle differences between the various types. Although I have often seen lilies carved on headstones and memorials I have yet to see one as lovely as the St George’s Lily Cross.
This month’s symbol is the Church Bell and was inspired by the three bells that I saw on a Mr Judd’s headstone in St Michael’s churchyard, Betchworth, Surrey. It must be an ex-bellringer I thought and sure enough the epitaph stated that Mr Judd was:
‘ for 36 years Captain of the Bellringers at this Church.’
The central bell on the three appeared to be ringing but was it a specific peal? A secret message to other bellringers?
I then found another similar headstone in Beckenham Cemetery which was dedicated to Henry Robert Taylor but with no further information on it. This time all three bells appeared to be static.
So I contacted The Central Council of Church Bellringers (yes it does exist) to find out if they could shed light on the bells. Firstly, they were very interested in my photos as these are rare memorials and they didn’t know that they existed. One of their members, a retired Captain of Bellringers and historian, was kind enough to reply and said that the Taylor headstone was probably the grave of a bellringer which was close to the door of the bell ringing chamber. He added that the bells depicted were inaccurate for English church bell ringing and thought that it might be a standard pattern designed to fit a printed headstone.
However, with the Judd headstone in Betchworth he thought that the bells were a much better representation of a church bell hung for ‘change ringing’.
The churchwarden at St Michael;s, Bernard Hawkins, was kind enough to reply to my questions and said that the Judd tombstone was originally dedicated to Clara Judd by eventually William Henry (Bill) was added to the inscription. He also confirmed that Bill is buried close to the door of the church’s bell-tower. In 1910, Canon Sanders paid tribute to his astonishing 36 years as Captain of the Bellringers by saying that’…the whole parish owes a debt of gratitude.’ And here he is:
Change ringing is an English form of bell ringing and if you wish to know more there is a link in the references and further reading section.
These two headstones and the bellringing references made me think of the links between church bells, the rituals of the church and death. The most obvious one is ringing the ‘death toll.’ which appears in Shakespeare’s Sonnet 71:
‘No longer mourn for me when I am dead,
Than you should hear the surly, sullen bell,
Give warning to the world that I am fed
From this vile world with vilest worms to dwell.’
There is also the often quoted final lines from John Donne’s 1624 Meditation 17, from Devotions Upon Emergent Occasions:
‘Therefore, send not to know
For whom the bell tolls,
It tolls for thee’.
Although only the ‘death toll’ is used today, originally there were three tolls that were rung and they denoted different stages of death. I am indebted to the headstonesymbols.co.uk blog for this:
‘There was superstition that evil spirits would gather around a dying person, trying to catch the departing soul. To give the soul a chance of ascending to heaven, church bells were rung at the time of death to frighten away these demonic forces. It was even added to the rules of the early Church of England that:
…when any is passing out of this Life, a Bell shall be Tolled, and the Minister shall not then slack to do his last Duty. And after the Parties Death (if it so fall out) there shall be rung no more than one short Peal, and one other before the Burial, and one other after the Burial.
Church of England Canon law; 1604
The Passing Bell
The first ringing to indicate an impending death was called the “Passing Bell“. This was to alert the priest that he was needed to perform the Last Rights.
The Death Knell
A “Death Knell” was rung immediately after the death. This was a slow solemn peal and each strike or teller identified the sex and age of the deceased. In small communities they would know from this who had passed and who’s souls to pray for.
From the number of strokes being formerly regulated according to circumstances, the hearers might determine the sex and social condition of the dying or dead person. Thus the bell was tolled twice for a woman and thrice for a man. If for a clergyman, as many times as he had orders, and, at the conclusion, a peal on all the bells to distinguish the quality of the person for whom the people are to put up their prayers. In the North of England, are yet rung nine knells for a man, six for a woman, and three for a child.
Old Church Lore by William Andrews
Lych or Corpse Bell
The last bell, the Lych or Corpse bell would be rang at the funeral, and is the only one that survives today.’
The Funeral Toll was also rung as the procession approached the church and was known as ‘ringing home the dead’.
The Dead Bell
However, in Scotland and parts of Northern England, a hand bell was rung which was known as the dead bell. This was used with deaths and funerals until the 19th century. The dead bells were rung for two reasons; to protect the newly deceased from evil spirits and to also seek prayers for the dead person’s soul. These ‘dead bells’ are often carved on monuments and tombstones in Scotland and Northern England. There are two men ringing dead bells on the Bayeux Tapestry at the funeral of Edward the Confessor:
But there are also superstitions and beliefs concerned with church bells particularly during the medieval period. They were thought to have special protective powers to drive away evil spirits for example and were often baptised. After all, most people know of the Houses of Parliament’s world famous Great Bell in its clock house, Big Ben. The Catholic church still has a blessing for new bells in which they’re given the power to protect those who hear it, repel storms and triumph over evil.
There are also several legends concerning bells that have ended up underwater either due to cliff erosion, a reservoir or hidden in lakes. They are reputed to ring from their watery graves at dead of night and Simon Marsden, the celebrated photographer, mentions them in in his books.
Bells have always been an intrinsic part of church life whether ringing to denote the end of a life or jubilantly pealing at the beginning of a new life in marriage. They have been held in reverence and also awe due to their supposedly magical powers. Even today, they sometimes have names and are seen as part of the community. Both the Betchworth and Beckenham headstones record a connection between man and bell that has lasted for centuries.
Due to a major mistake by my internet provider I have been offline for over two weeks but shadowsflyaway is back again!
Animals increasingly appear on modern memorials and I’ve often wondered if they are a totem for the deceased or maybe they just like them or maybe they had a pet. Cats are very common and I’ve seen them either in 2D carved on a headstone or in 3D form as a small statue.
But this one is unusual as it’s very personal, almost in a code, and is on a memorial stone in Brompton Cemetery’s Garden of Remembrance. Most memorial stones are small and people use calligraphy or a very small motif due to the limited size. The family name isn’t stated on this stone and the images are almost playful.
I was lucky enough to meet the widow of the man commemorated on the plaque. She is Maria Kacandes-Kamil and the mommy cat represented her. The two her cats were her daughters and the camel depicted her husband, Steven, who died in 2011. The significance of the camel is a reference
to the family name (you may have guessed it already) which is Kamil. Also note that the mommy cat, Maria, is pointing at the camel to possibly denote the marital bond.
It was lovely to find a modern memorial which had a touch of humour as well as being very personal.
How many casual passer-bys like myself would have guessed the significance of the animals?
This month’s symbol is the Mourning Woman who is derived from Classicism and its association with ancient Greece and Rome. I would hesitate before describing their presence in Victorian cemeteries and churchyards as a monstrous regiment but they have mostly been on duty for over a hundred years. They patiently watch over and grieve for the departed. An eternal mourner, often with a veil covering her head and swathed in flowing robes, she keeps vigil.
The Mourning Woman can be a free standing statue on top of a monument or plinth looking sorrowfully down on the viewer. She can also be in the form of a 3D relief weeping over an urn containing the beloved’s ashes as in these examples:
At West Norwood cemetery there is this example of one resting on a lifesize cross (I hate to say it but whenever I see her I’m always reminded of the George Formby song ‘I’m Leaning on a lamp post…etc.).
Classicism held sway when London’s Magnificent Seven cemeteries were created. The anti-Catholic movement from the Georgian era was still a major influence with the cry ‘No Popery!’ loudly shouted. So no crosses, no statues of Jesus or any angels were permitted. Instead the clear cool lines of the ancient world were used as well as some of their traditions.
Mourning women were one of these as women played an integral part in the funerary ritual in ancient Egypt, Greece and Rome. In the latter they were paid professional mourners as the more mourners there were at a funeral the more wealthy and prestigious the departed had been in life. In the funeral procession which took place prior to the cremation the professional mourning women, who were not part of the deceased’s family, would loudly wail, rip out their hair and also scratch their faces in mourning according to contemporary records. It was felt that women could more easily express emotions as it was unacceptable for a man to weep in public.
There are several Biblical references to the mourning women. They are mentioned in Amos 5:16, Chronicles 35:25 and also in Jeremiah 9:17 as below
Thus saith the LORD of hosts,
Consider ye, and call for the mourning women,
that they may come;
and send for cunning women, that they may come: King James Bible
The reference to ‘cunning’ women means ‘skilled’ women.
They would often weep noisily and copiously spilling their tears into vessels known as tear catchers or lachrimosa. At the recent excellent Museum of Docklands exhibition, The Roman Dead, there were some on display. They were small glass vessels and were placed in tombs, presumably overflowing, after the funeral was complete. Again, if many tears were collected, it signified that the deceased was held in high esteem and those crying the most would receive a higher payment.
Incidentally the tear catchers became fashionable again in the 19th century with the Victorian cult of death. But this time the bottles had special stoppers that allowed the tears to evaporate and when they did the mourning period would be over. There is also a Biblical association with the practice of collecting tears in bottles in Psalms 56:8:
Thou tellest my wanderings:
put thou my tears into thy bottle:
are they not in thy book?
King James Bible
In ancient Greece it was again women who prepared the body and then laid it out ready for viewing on the second day.
Kinswomen, wrapped in dark robes, stood round the bier, the chief mourner, either mother or wife, was at the head, and others behind. This part of the funeral rites wasthe prothesis. Women led the mourning by chanting dirges, tearing at their hair and clothing, and striking their torso, particularly their breasts.
Here is a 6th century depiction of ancient Greek professional mourning women in full flow:
So for centuries women have been associated with, and played a major part, in the funerary process which may have been one of the reasons for the Mourning Woman appearing in cemeteries.
I feel that these women could be seen as a forerunner of the winged angels that flew into cemeteries towards the end of the 19th century. Both of them were guardians of the dead protecting them for eternity.
To end on, here is an lovely example that I unexpectedly discovered while on a Sunday afternoon stroll in the ‘secret’ graveyard behind St Nicholas’s church in Sevenoaks. She stands, surrounded by back gardens, and is a particularly elegant version. The memorial beneath her feet is dedicated to Elizabeth Dick and was erected by her sorrowing husband.
Sleep well for eternity Elizabeth and all those guarded by the mourning women.
This month’s symbol is a rare one and I discovered it in my local churchyard, St Nicholas in Sevenoaks. It’s on the grave of the Beckley family.
However, I have also previously seen crosses with real cloth draped on them in two big London cemeteries One was in the Greek Section of West Norwood. At that time I thought that perhaps it was to commemorate an anniversary or a particular religious festival. However, during my research for this post. I have discovered that the colour of the West Norwood cloth, white, is associated with Easter Sunday.
As you can see from the above photo of the Beckley headstone, the cloth is wrapped loosely around the cross and, according to my research, it’s a resurrection symbol. In fact it’s known as the Resurrection Cross or the Shrouded Cross. Some of its other names are: the Draped Cross, the Empty Cross, the Risen Cross or the Deposition Cross. The latter is a further reminder of Christ’s descent from the cross
It’s intended to be a representation of Jesus no longer being on the cross. Although there are also plain crosses on graves unless they have the cloth they are not Resurrection crosses. The cloth is a supposed reference to Christ’s grave clothes or shroud that were found in the tomb after he rose from the dead. It emphasises to the bereaved left behind that death isn’t the end.
Within the church calendar, the cloth draped around a cross during important dates in the Christian calendar particularly Easter has special significance according the colours of the fabric. These are white, purple – the colour of royalty, and black. The latter is used from Palm Sunday (the week prior to Easter) until Good Friday and denotes mourning after Christ’s death on the cross.
The shrouded cross on the Beckley headstone is a striking image which caught my attention and really stood out in a churchyard containing several headstones with fascinating symbols on them.
So this one may be an affirmation of faith on behalf of the deceased or a strong belief in the afterlife with death being seen as the beginning of a new life.
At last the endless sorting out of boxes is over after the move. I’ve found some money I’d forgotten about, family photos and a lot of books. The Cancer r Research charity shop in the High Street is groaning under the weight of my donations and I have recycled a lot of stuff.
And now down to the important things in life – shadowsflyaway! I didn’t have an internet connection for a few weeks which was probably a good thing as it made me concentrate on emptying boxes and organising rooms.
But let’s begin with Symbol of the Month!
This month’s symbol comes from a post on Facebook’s Folk Horror Revival page and I was intrigued enough to make this one Symbol of the Month. I would describe it as a memento mori which is Latin for ‘Remember you must die.’
It’s a carving on a tombstone featuring a skeleton and a woman or girl facing the viewer. She is holding three flowers in one hand. In this photo, although the skeleton almost seems to be rising from the ground, he is actually holding a scythe in one hand and an hourglass in the other. This can be seen more clearly in the clipping from Northumberland’s Hidden History by Stan Beckensall which another reader on the strand of the post kindly attached.
She is wearing a tightly belted dress, perhaps fashionable in her time, and seems carefree despite having Death standing next to her in all his glory. I had the impression that this might have been on the grave of a young girl due to her dress and the flowers.
They reminded me of roses and I immediately thought of the famous phrase, ‘Gather ye rosebuds while you may’ which is a quotation from a poem by Robert Herrick, a 16th century poet.
The poem is entitled: To the Virgins to make much of time and the quotation comes from the first verse:
Gather ye rosebuds while ye may,
Old Time is still a-flying;
And this same flower that smiles today
Tomorrow will be dying.
So this little scene could be saying Enjoy life while you can as death will soon be here.’ It sounds a little depressing but life was shorter in earlier times. In the 19th century, for example, the average life of a working man was until their late 40’s and women often died in childbirth. I wander around cemeteries a lot as you can imagine and there are many monuments and memorials to wives and often children who have died young as a result. On the other hand it can be seen as uplifting in that it encourages the onlooker to enjoy life to the fullest.
Sadly I don’t know who’s buried here but she or he was obviously much missed to have such an impressive scene carved on their tombstone.
This month’s symbol is one that you frequently see in cemeteries. In fact, in most Victorian cemeteries you’re never more than a few steps from an urn… or two… or three……
These elegant sculptures are usually placed on top of a monument or can appear in 2D relief on a tombstone.
In marble, stone or plaster, they may also be draped with a sculpted piece of cloth or a flower garland. Urns may also have two handles, no handles or what looks like a lid to emphasise its use as a container. In Nunhead Cemetery there is a particularly elegant example with a lovely tassel on the sculpted drapery.
The Victorians loved urns which is why their cemeteries are clustered with them. They are examples of the Classical movement which was very much in vogue at the time when these large municipal cemeteries were created. This was an echo of the Greek and Roman eras but the urn as a funerary symbol was known long before them. However, according to theartofmourning website:
‘…the word ‘urn’ comes from the Latin word ‘uro’ which translates as ‘to burn’ so no matter what shape the vessel was, its title was always ‘urn’.
Urn was, therefore, the umbrella name for containers of ashes. It may have been a small box or an elegant vase but as the above quotation says, it was always known as an urn. Cremation was an early form of preparing the dead for burial as ancient civilisations cremated their dead and put the ashes into containers. In fact, some urns found in China have been dated to 7000BC. In Central Europe there was what has been described as an Urnfield culture from 1300BC – 750BC which is due to the large cemeteries of urn burials that have been excavated.
The Greeks adopted the use of urns in around 1000BC and the scattering ashes blog has suggested that this may have been:
‘because of soldiers dying abroad in wars or campaigns abroad and this was the only way to return their bodies home to their loved ones.’
After the Greeks, the Romans used cremation as a method to bury the dead until it was superseded by interment within a sarcophagus. But, even then, the urn maintained its status as a symbol of death and the body’s decay into dust. A reminder that, ultimately, we will return to the dust from which we were originally created. So the urn is also a link to the ancient world and its burial practices However, there is an alternative theory put forward on the Lakewood cemetery website in which it’s suggested:
‘The urn is also a symbol of a house or dwelling. When it’s draped this indicates a house of mourning.’
But, ironically, the Victorians weren’t all that enthusiastic about cremation, despite their love of urns, until at least the late 1880’s. This is when it was introduced into large London cemeteries such as Kensal Green and West Norwood.
But why are some urns draped? I often feel it’s almost as though the folds of the drapery are protecting the deceased from the world until Judgement Day although there’s nothing in the urns. The artofmourning website considers it to be an indication of the death of an older person but I’m not sure that I’d agree with that due to its prevalence in Victorian cemeteries.
The draped cloth has also been seen as the division, the impenetrable curtain if you like, between life and death. Some drapes can almost resemble shrouds and this can indicate that the soul has departed from the shrouded body.
The urn also appears as a popular motif in mourning jewellery and George Hepplewhite also used it as a symbol on neo classical influenced furniture. It was an indication of taste and of a classical education.
So the next time you’re in a Victorian cemetery why not try and count how many urns you can see or how many times a draped urn appears? It’s a simple symbol to sculpt with and calls down the millennia to our Prehistoric forefathers as they buried their dead in the same way that we do. The ones that I featured in this blog post nearly all came from West Norwood cemetery and were within a short distance of each other. I was spoilt for choice as to which ones I decided to feature.
And you’ll be pleased to know that I’ve managed to refrain by working in the classic Morecambe and Wise joke on a Greek urn….
However, despite it being a common shell and also an invaluable food source, I have only found it gracing 3 monuments so far. There are several flat 2D versions on a tomb in Nunhead Cemetery and two examples within Brompton Cemetery; one is a more decorative touch and the other is this lovely 3D beauty. So well carved and tactile – I just wanted to reach out and touch it. But I’m keeping a look out for any other shells adorning memorials.
Shells have been with us since time immemorial and who hasn’t picked one up from a beach to take home as a souvenir?
The scallop is inextricably linked with the Christian religion and its use in funerary rites pre-dates the Egyptians. In pre Christian times, the Celts in particular, used it as an emblem of the setting sun and note that in the above example it is placed in the centre of the supporting Celtic Cross. The nimbus of the Cross is considered to be a sun symbol. In Christianity baptismal fonts were often shell shaped and a shell was used to scoop water up and then pour it over the person being baptised’s head. This emphasises the shell’s association with water as it’s thrown up by the sea onto the shore. But there is another link in that it’s seen as representing the final journey from the world of the living to that of the dead by the crossing of a body of water such as the River Styx and so is also a motif of rebirth. This is how the early Christian church used it.
Another funerary use for the shell was being placed, often with stones and coins, on tombstones or at gravesites. The artofmourning website says:
‘It has been suggested that this refers to the ancient tradition of burying the dead under a cairn of rocks as protection from scavenging animals or as a reminder of the deceased.’
But there’s also a more meditative side to the scallop as its grooves can also be seen as representing many paths leading to one point such as searching for God or a path in life. So this ancient motif can be seen as representing a journey through life itself or indeed to St James’ shrine.
It’s also associated with fertility and, in particular, the goddess of love, Venus. In Botticelli’s celebrated painting, ‘The Birth of Venus’, the goddess is portrayed as standing on a large scallop shell.
Sandro Botticelli The Birth of Venus shared under Wiki Creative Commons
Incidentally, it also features in Palladian architecture which flourished 1715 – 1760 which was built on the heritage from Greece and Rome. Here the shell was used in a concave form and usually within a niche. In this example, also from Brompton, the shell is less obvious and more of a decorative feature.
The link with St James is that scallop shells are very common in Galacia where the shrine is located. But there are also 3 very famous myths and legends that reinforce the link. According to the hillwalktours website:
St James, together with his brother John, one of Christs’ disciples. After Jesus’s death, James went to Iberia, which is now Galacia in the north of Spain with the intention of converting the pagans there to Christianity. However, in roughly 44AD, after returning to Jerusalem, James was beheaded by order of King Herod. This made him the first disciple to be martyred. James’s body was then carried by ship to Galacia where the three myths arose.
In the first, the ship carrying St James’ body was lost and destroyed in a severe storm. After an unspecified length of time, his body washed ashore completely covered in scallop shells. In the second myth, a knight fell from a clifftop as St James’ ship passed beneath. The saint’s influence was felt as the knight emerged from the sea unharmed and covered in scallop shells. The third and final one features a wedding in which the horse carrying the bride bolted into the ocean as St James’ ship passes by. But the bride and horse were saved as they emerged from the water covered in scallop shells. Hence the link between St James and the shell.
Pilgrims were big business in medieval times and the scallop was a badge of honour for pilgrims to display that they had made the journey. They often had their shells buried with them or carved on their tombs.
And so the humble scallop shell reveals itself as an important symbol with several significant meanings. A fertility symbol, evidence of a seeker exploring many oaths towards their goal or a passenger on Charon’s boat towards eternity? Myself, I would incline to the final river journey but I also like the idea of exploring many paths in life. We will probably never know the actual significance of the shell to the deceased but it was important enough to be placed on their memorial to be enjoyed by any passer-by.