Symbol of the Month   – The Cadaver tomb

Full length view of John Benet’s cadaver tomb.
©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

This month’s symbol is a cadaver or pardon tomb from St Mary’s in Bury St Edmunds.  These medieval tombs  were an extremely visual  way of reminding everyone that, despite what you had achieved during life, death would make you equal with all men.

It was as I stood in St Mary’s church, Bury St Edmunds after having  admired its magnificent hammerbeam with lifesize angels pinned to it like exotic butterflies that I saw John Benet’s tomb resting against a side wall.

I’d seen two, somewhat worn, cadaver tombs in Winchester Cathedral but not one so close up and so well carved. Even now it’s still crisp and detailed but due to its current location it was difficult to take a full length photo. The tomb depicts John Benet lying on his back as a lifesize corpse with a shroud or towel protecting his modesty.

Another full length from the feet up of Benet’s cadaver tomb with the modesty cloth.
©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

Although St Mary’s guidebook describes Benet’s tomb as a Pardon tomb, they are more often known as a transi or cadaver tomb.  This definition comes from Wikipedia who describe a transi or cadaver tomb, as a ‘memento mori’.  This is Latin for ‘remember you will die’ and a reminder of the inevitability of death.  Wiki goes onto add that this type of tomb is in the form of:

‘…a type of gisant or recumbent effigy tomb featuring an effigy in the macabre form of a decomposing corpse…’

This type of tomb is particularly associated with the Middle Ages which is roughly when Benet’s tomb was created and I’ve always known them as cadaver tombs. However, they’re not always in the form of a decomposing corpse as they can also be in the form of skeletons or the body of the deceased wrapped in a shroud. I am indebted to the flickeringlamps blog which featured transi tombs in the form of ‘double-deckers’.  This is where the top layer of the tomb portrays the gisant of the deceased as they were when alive and then below on the bottom layer as a decomposing corpse.  This is an extremely visual reminder of what the person once was and what they will inevitably become as earthly glory is fleeting and all must die.

Cadaver tombs can be found in several UK cathedrals and parish churches. The earliest surviving one is in Lincoln Cathedral and is dedicated to Richard Fleming. It dates from the 1430’s.  St Pauls’ cathedral has a later example from the 17th century which commemorates the poet John Donne.  Cadaver tombs are also known in Europe and particularly in Italy, France. Germany and the Netherlands.

But who was John Benet?

According to St Mary’s guidebook, John Benet was a medieval cloth trader and one of St Mary’s most important benefactors.  He financed the very ceiling that I’d been admiring and also his own private chancel chapel and tomb. Within his lifetime, Bury St Edmunds was a thriving town built on the local wool trade.  This led to the creation of a rising merchant class who were able to use their money to leave a lasting memorial to themselves in their local church as proof of their good and pious life.  Surely admittance to the Pearly Gates would be assured if you provided your church with some embellishments…. After they couldn’t take it with them but they could definitely prove that they’d had it while alive….

John Benet was a rich and powerful man within his local town  which is why he was able to afford to have a cadaver tomb made for him and one that was so well sculpted.   It originally lay in his own private chapel.  This has now gone but if you look up you can still see its glittering ceiling  which was restored in 1968.   You may just be fortunate enough to see the light glisten on the tiny pieces of concave mirror glass inserted into the gold stars to give the illusion of real stars twinkling.  Benet’s motto, ‘Grace me Governe’, his initials, coat of arms and SS collar are also part of the intricate decoration.  The latter, again from St Mary’s guidebook:

’….was a gift from the Lancastrian kings in recognition of a special or personal services.  It was in the form of a collar or chain in which the letter ‘S’ was engraved.  The letter ‘S’  which presumably stood for ‘Sovereign.’

The restored ceiling of what once was the ceiling of John Benet’s private chapel.
©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

So Benet moved in high circles and wasn’t afraid to shout about it for all eternity.

There are Latin prayers on the ceiling’s edges which include ‘Pray for the soul of John Benet, ‘Let us praise the Lord gloriously’, Alleluia, Honour and glory to the only God.’, ‘My soul shall delight in the Lord’, ‘Seek only the highest’ and finally ‘May the pure Virgin Mary bless us with issue.’  Benet was not a man who stinted where his soul was concerned.

The tomb has moved around the church interior several times. But not of its own volition as far as I know. It has been surmised that the effigy of him portrayed as a decaying corpse was made during his lifetime.

Now there’s an  interior design feature for you…it would have been intended as a constant reminder of his own inevitable death and the need to make preparations for the afterlife. It’s in remarkable condition and is the best one that I’ve seen.  It may have been created in the  nearby Abbey’s master mason’s workshops.  This seems very likely given Benet’s powerful connections and the quality of the carving would also confirm this.

Originally he was positioned with his feet facing the east but, in 1884, the tomb was turned around so that the side inscription could be read.  In this, Benet’s motto is carved and a small figure of himself is in the middle of it, dressed in his finest clothes, and holding up the word ‘Me’.  Under one hand of the decaying corpse are the words:

‘He that will sadly beholde me with his ie, May he hyd own mirrour (and) lerne for to die. ‘

Full length view of John Benet’s cadaver tomb.
©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell

 A lifesize memento mori if you will. The guidebook, however, describes it as a Pardon Grave’ which isn’t a term that I’ve heard before. It’s meant to indicate that the person who was being commemorated has obtained a pardon or remission from purgatory.  Benet had also left instructions for his papal pardon to be displayed near his tomb for all to see.  I had the impression that Mr Benet was a bit of a show-off but if you don’t blow your own trumpet…. I sincerely hope that all this piety and expense achieved its aim.

The cadaver tomb iconography is based on the medieval Dance of Death or Danse Macabre.

Nobleman & Physician from the Lubeck Totentanz courtesy of UT Southwestern

This depicted a long line of people from Emperors to Popes right down to a beggar, each of whom had death in the form of a skeleton at their shoulder. This was a reminder that Death made all men equal.   The first one was recorded in St Paul’s Cathedral and in Long Melford, Suffolk, according to St Mary’s guidebook, long cloths were displayed depicting ‘the dance of Pauls’

It’s amazing that this survived the Reformation and Cromwell’s wrecking crews and still sits in St Mary’s reminding visitors of their inevitable fate.   But Mr Benet has a further claim to fame as, in 2003, he was loaned out to the Victoria and Albert Museum as part of their ‘Gothic: Art of England’ exhibition. Apparently, during conservation, traces of flesh coloured paint were discovered on the figure which included red and green veins especially in the neck.  So try and imagine Mr Benet in his original colouring – it must have quite a sight to see.    I think that he’d be very proud that his tomb, the hammerbeam ceiling and also his chapel ceiling are still in St Mary’s for all to enjoy and remember him.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated. 

References and further reading: 

St Mary’s, Bury St Edmunds A guidebook, Clive Paine, Honey Hill Publishing 1986.

Metamorphosis of a Death Symbol’ The Transi Tomb in the Late Middle Ages an d the Renaissance, Kathleen Cohen (Berkeley: University of California Press) 1973





Symbol of the Month – The Six Pointed Star

Another view of the 6 pointed star,Brompton Cemetery.
©Carole Tyrrell


This month’s symbol is one that I’ve always associated with the Jewish faith where it’s known as the Star of David. But when I spotted a prominent example in Brompton Cemetery which isn’t a Jewish Cemetery I wondered why it was on that particular monument.  But on a recent visit to St Mary’s church in Bury St Edmunds I saw a six pointes tar in the East window and read in the guidebook of its significance with Christianity.  The window was part of the 1844 restoration and is based on a  14th century example on the nearby Abbey Gate.

Six pointed star in St Mary’s church, Bury St Edmunds
©Carole Tyrrell

According to St Mary’s guidebook the star is an important Christian symbol as:

‘Jesus was descended from David and is the Messiah for both Jews and Gentiles, the star of David is an important Christian symbol.’

This may account for the apparently Hebrew looking writing in the centre of a six pointed start dating from the 14th century on a window in Winchester cathedral.  Another one in the same building, dating from the same period on a choirstall canopy, was recorded by Pevsner.


6 pointed star from stained glass window in Winchester Cathedral
© – used without permissionThe six pointed star is a geometric shape and is formed from the intersection of two equilateral triangles.  At the centre of the intersection is a regular hexagon.  In Greek it’s known as a hexagram and in Latin it’s called a sexagram.

In Christianity it’s known as the Creator’s Star or the Star of Creation. The six points are alleged to represent the six days of the Creation and also the six attributes of God. These are:

  • Power
  • Wisdom
  • Majesty
  • Love
  • Mercy
  • Justice

But the six pointed star is a universal symbol.  No-one is quite sure where or when it first appeared bit it’s known and revered throughout both Eastern and Western religions and faiths.  For example, in Buddhism it has been found in the Tibetan Book of the Dead and has been used as decoration on Masonic temples, In Freemasonry the star is seen as a representation of the male and female.  This is also an important element  in Hinduism as the combination of triangles are also seen as motifs of male and female and the star becomes an emblem of Creation and divine union.


There is a darker side to the six pointed star as, in Occultism, the star is a powerful symbol for conjuring up spirits and as a talisman.  In this the star is seen as representing the 4 elements:


  • Fire         –             upwards pointing triangle
  • Air           –             opposite upwards pointing triangle
  • Water     –             downwards pointing triangle
  • Earth      –             opposite triangle pointing downwards


But the Rastafarian faith also uses the Star of David or the Magen David as a central motif. Here it’s coloured either black or appears in the Rastafarian colours of red, green and gold.   This is because the Rastafarians believe that their leader, the late King of Ethiopia, Haile Selassie, was a divine being.  He’s always been considered as being directly related to King Solomon’s father, King David, and therefore to Jesus.  This is based on a visit by the Queen of Sheba to the Israelite king, Solomon, as recorded in the Book of Kings 1 Kings 10 1:13. Rastafarians believe that during the visit they slept together and a child was born.  This child led to a direct line of descendants to Haile Selassie.

Although the Star of David is now seen as almost exclusively Jewish it wasn’t always so.  It is reputed to have originated in ancient Arabic Kabbalistic texts in which it was known as the Seal of Solomon and became the Star of David in the 17th century.   The Jews of Eastern Europe in the 19th century adopted it as a representation of their faith and Hitler used it as a badge to identify Jews during the Second World War. Today it is on the national flag of modern day Israel.

But what does it mean in funerary terms and why is it in this particular monument?   I looked more closely at the first epitaph beneath it.

The epitaph underneath the 6 pointed star – note Thomas Bower died.
©Carole Tyrrell

It was dedicated to a Thomas Henry Bowyer Bower, the son of Captain Thomas Bowyer Bower whose epitaph is lower down. Thomas died young, aged 24, at Port Palmerston, Darwin, Australia. I’m not sure if he’s actually buried there but, perhaps in this context, the star has been placed there as a symbol of the spirit that survives death. Over the centuries people have used the stars to guide their way and I thought that maybe the star was placed here as an eternal light guiding the deceased through the darkness back home again. Note the quotation on the epitaph from Deuteronomy 32.12,

‘The Lord alone shall lead him’

This  may be a reference to the to North or Pole Star which is traditionally associated with Jesus.

There is a downward pointing dove placed over the star which is a symbol of the Holy Ghost, part of the Holy Trinity: Father, Son and Holy Ghost.

6 pointed star on the Bower monument, Brompton Cemetery
©Carole Tyrrell


In the King James version of the Bible in Luke 3:22 :

‘And the Holy Ghost descended in a bodily shape like a dove upon him, and a voice came from heaven, which said, Thou art my beloved Son; in thee I am well pleased.’

 I wondered if the last words of this biblical verse referred to the father and son relationship.

My own interpretation of the star and the dove is that it may have been a final goodbye from a father to a son who died far from home and wanting him to know how much he was loved.

©Carole Tyrrell text and photos unless otherwise stated.


References and further reading:









Symbol of the Month – The Chalice

Rev Murray’s chalice – note Communion wafer above it. St Nicholas churchyard, Chislehurst
©Carole Tyrrell

The first symbol of 2018 is the chalice.  It’s traditionally associated with the Church and the Communion and is often found on rectors and priests headstones for obvious reasons.   Almost like having the tools of their trade close at hand so to speak.

I found the fine example above in the churchyard of St Nicholas in Chislehurst.   Note the communion wafer on top of the well sculpted 3D sculpture of the goblet.   This headstone is dedicated to a former rector of the Church, Rev Francis Henry Murray and this little corner is almost an ecclesiastical enclave.  There are three other former Rectors buried here as well as a former Bishop of Singapore and an Archdeacon of Bromley. Rev Murray’s wife is buried alongside him under the grapevine and crown of thorns symbols and behind them is buried their son, Lieutenant  Herbert  Francis Murray  who was lost at sea on 7 September 1870 on the HMS Captain and his monument features a large anchor. There are two gleaming brass wall tablets inside the church dedicated to each of them respectively.

Chalices, goblets or cups – whatever you want to call them –  have been used in religious and other important ceremonies for thousands of years and are also associated with the Last Supper and the Holy Grail.  In Matthew 26:27:

While they were eating, Jesus took bread, and when he had given thanks, he broke it and gave it to his disciples, saying, “Take and eat; this is my body.”

Then he took a cup, and when he had given thanks, he gave it to them, saying, “Drink from it, all of you..”

During the Communion worshippers drink wine from the chalice as a representation of Christ’s blood and then eat the communion wafer

From Salinas, Spain
Shared from wikipedia. Creative Commons

after it has been dipped in the wine as an interpretation of his body.  Chalices are often made from gold or silver, hexagonal in shape and can be decorated with semi-precious stones as with this example from Spain.  It’s very ornate with the inscription ‘Sanguinis meus vere est petus’ . This translates to ;My blood is drink indeed’ from John 6:55.  This was made for the church of John the Baptist, Salinas Spain.



They can also be heavily decorated in other ways as with this one from 6th century Italy.

Etruscan chalice from Bucchero – 6th century BC.
Shared under Wikipedia Creative Commons


In the Sufi faith the chalice takes centre stage as it represents the sharing of blessings such as water and milk and this brings the desert nomad and steppe peoples together.  It also appears within Wicca and Paganism where it represents the Goddess as water is a feminine element.  In some Byzantine and Gothic imagery, the chalice can also be a protective symbol as, anyone holding a chalice is demonstrating that they are God’s servant and they have turned away from evil.

The Holy Grail is traditionally assumed to be the cup that Christ drank from during the Last Supper.  It remains unidentified although many chalices have been suspected as being the Grail.

The chalice can also appear with other symbols such as, for example, a white circle to represent the consecrated Eucharist. Also, a chalice with an X shaped cross on its front is an emblem of one of the disciples, Andrew, and a flaming chalice is the 

The flaming chalice – the symbol of the Unitarians.
Shared from Wikipedia Creative Commonsemblem of the Unitarian movement.

Chalices also feature heavily in heraldry and in some vanitas paintings.  These were still life paintings of the 16th and 17th centuries from Flanders and the Netherlands.  They invited the observer to ponder on the transcience and meaninglessness of earthly life and used symbols to indicate this. In Allegory of the Eucharist by the Flemish painter Alexander Coosemans (1627 – 1689) the chalice is the

Allegory of the Eucharist Aleaxander Coosemans
Shared under Wiki Creative Commons

centrepiece. But the items surrounding it have a deeper meaning.  The cornucopia is a symbol of creation and divine bounty, the wheat stalks and grapes are obviously representations of the Communion wine and bread and the pomegranate and quince are representations of plenty as well as fertility and immortality.

However, there is also a negative to the holiness of the chalice with the phrase ‘the poisoned chalice’.  This where a situation or item appears to be good on the surface and then turns out to be the opposite. Shakespeare refers to this in Macbeth Act 1 Scene VII as Macbeth contemplates the murder of King Duncan:

We still have judgment here, that we but teach

Bloody instructions, which, being taught, return

To plague th’ inventor: this even-handed justice

Commends the ingredients of our poisoned chalice

Seek and ye shall find is an old adage and it can often be applied to looking for symbols in a churchyard or cemetery.  I think I’ve found just one example of one and then they’re everywhere.  And so it was with St Nicholas – I found 4 examples within the churchyard.

Side view of Rev Murray’s chalice, St Nicholas churchyard, Chislehurst
©Carole Tyrrell

This is dedicated to a former rector of the church, Rev Francis Henry Murray (1820-1902). He was an energetic Rector at St Nicholas for over 56 years and wasn’t afraid to push forward church alterations or change styles of worship despite opposition from Diocesan Bishops.  The parishioners were inspired by him to agitate for the establishment of St Katherine’s Rotherhithe.  Rev Charles Fuge Lowder, the first vicar of St Peter’s, London Docks and Rev Murray were great friends as they were both leading members of the Society of the Holy Cross.  This was formed in February 1855 by a group of 6 Anglo-Catholic clergy.  Rev Murray was also responsible for the first publication of the now classic Hymns Ancient and Modern.


Rev Charles Lowder also has a memorial in the churchyard with a chalice portrayed on its other side.  He was another energetic, pioneering priest who devoted 24 years of his life to working with the poor in one of the most deprived dockland areas of East London.  In 1856, aged 36, he founded the St George’s Mission.  This was in response to a request for assistance to the Society of the Holy Cross from the vicar of St George’s in the East.  The Society is still in existence worldwide with a membership of over 1000 priests.  Every year, on the date of his death in 1880 on the 9 September he is commemorated.

A more modest chalice is on the Greatheed monument which is dedicated to Ellen and Stephen Greatheed.  The latter is merely recorded on the epitaph as ‘Priest’ but he wasn’t mentioned on the list of St Nicholas’ rectors inside the church so perhaps he was based at another local church..

This is dedicated to Edward Herbert Fuller  Jenner and he is also recorded on his epitaph as ‘Priest’ but isn’t  listed on the list of previous rectors. Again note the communion wafer above the chalice.

Finally, as I explored St Nicholas’ interior I looked up at the 19th century stained glass windows and there at the bottom of one window were two angels holding a chalice between them. The Holy Grail perhaps?

Detail from Victorian stained glass window of possibly the Holy Grail/ St Nicholas church Chislehurst
©Carole Tyrrell


©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.

References and further reading:

Some graves of interest within the churchyard – St Nicholas Church Chislehurst publication




Symbol of the Month – The Agnus Dei

Close-up of Agnus Dei symbol on tombstone. Sadly the epitaph is no longer visible so I can’t confirm if it’is to a child or young person.
©Carole Tyrrell

This month’s symbol is the Agnus Dei, which is a Latin term and can be translated as The Lamb of God.  The Lamb is usually portrayed sideways on and is often depicted with a variety of accoutrements such as a cross, a banner and a halo or a combination of these elements.  In the example above, the Lamb is carrying a cross which represents the Crucifixion as well as a banner which, according to J C Cooper, is an emblem of the Resurrection.  It has also be depicted with other motifs such as a shepherd’s crook, Chi-Rho crosses and the alpha/omega.

I have seen The Lamb several times as it is common throughout Christian art and I saw a fine example within a stained glass window in Augustus Pugin’s private chapel at his former home at Ramsgate, Kent.  William Morris also created a memorable one, now sadly faded, in a window at St Martin’s church, Scarborough.  The Agnus Dei is known as a Paschal Lamb within heraldry and is the regimental emblem of the Queens Royal Surrey Regiment.  I found this example in the military war graves section of Brompton Cemetery.

But the origins of the Lamb go back much further into antiquity. In John 1:29, it’s seen as a direct allusion to Jesus:

‘The next day John seeth Jesus coming unto him, and saith, Behold the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sin of the world.’

This verse emphasises Christ’s sacrifice for humanity’s sins and there are several references in the Old Testament to lambs as sacrificial objects.  For example, the Israelites sacrificed one as a representation of a human sinner.  In this way, its death signified the absorbing of original sin. This  painting, The Sacrificial Lamb, is by the 16th century artist, Francisco Zurbaran.

Francesco Zurbaran (1598 – 1664) The Lamb of God, Prado Museum, Madrid
shared under Wiki Commons

Sheep have been also been worshipped as deities by several ancient civilisations the Sumerians and throughout the Bible there are numerous references to sheep with God as the shepherd of a vast flock of sheep representing humanity.

But as a funerary symbol within cemeteries and graveyards the Lamb represents gentleness, innocence and the unblemished life of the deceased.  In this context, it is supposed to mark the grave of an infant or child.  However, the epitaph on the example that I found in Brompton Cemetery had completely vanished which made it difficult to disprove or support this theory. However, I particularly like this one with its black background emphasising the light rays emanating from the Lamb.  These highlight its divinity within the unusual lozenge shaped tombstone.  But it’s a real shame that we don’t know whose buried there.

However. as the Lamb is also associated with resurrection, I feel that it appears in this perspective at the back of the Doulton mausoleum in West Norwood Cemetery.

Doulton – damaged relief panel on back roof but Lamb of God is still visible.
copyright Carole Tyrrell


I’m surprised that it doesn’t appear more often within cemeteries and graveyards and I will be looking out for more examples.  Although I was aware that the symbol was called the Lamb of God I didn’t know of its association within major religions  and civilisations and it has been fascinating to research this.


© Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.




Stories in Stone; A Field Guide to Cemetery Symbolism & Iconogrpahy, Douglas Keister, 2004, Gibbs Smith


An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, J C Cooper, Thames & Hudson 1979 reprinted 1983.–saved-soul-the-soul-leaving-the-body-water-animals-terrestrial/lamb-agnus-dei.aspx



Symbol of the Month – Mizpah

A close-up view of the MIZPAH on Emma Williams headstone.
©Carole Tyrrell

This month’s symbol features a single word, MIZPAH, but it is a term and an emblem of an emotional bond that goes beyond the grave. However, it doesn’t appear to be a common symbol and so far I have only discovered three instances of in in nearby cemeteries.

I often used to see Mizpah inscribed on old fashioned jewellery such as brooches during the 1970’s and ‘80’s when browsing  in charity shops and jumble sales. At that time I thought that it might have been Hebrew, or a similar language, and might have stood for Mother.

However, during this year’s Open House I visited St Nicholas church in Chislehurst as I’d read somewhere that Napoleon III was buried there.  Alas, it was the wrong church and he has long since been re-interred elsewhere. However, on a churchyard tour that afternoon, led by Peter Appleby, I finally learned what it actually signified as he indicated Mizpah on the Campbell monument.  He said that it came from an Old Testament phrase ‘I will set around you a mountain which will keep you and protect you.’ I haven’t been able to find this particular Biblical quotation although Psalm 27.5 seems to be the likeliest source.

The word appears in the Old Testament in Genesis 31:49 :

‘And Mizpah, for he said, the Lord watch between you and me, when we are out of another’s sight.’  King James Bible

In other words the one left behind is still protected and watched over even though their loved one has gone.  The touching link between two people or an entire family who have been separated by death or another force.

But there is another version, according to Wikipedia, in which it’s claimed that Mizpah stands for ’Lord watch over me’ and relates to the story of Jacob and Laban. Jacob fled with from Laban’s house in the middle of the night with all of his earthly possessions including animals, wives and children and Laban was soon in pursuit.  But the two men came to an agreement and built a watchtower or Mizpah.  This would be a border between their respective territories and neither would pass the watchtower, which was reputed to be merely a pile of stones, to visit the other to do evil. God would be the only witness to their pact and would protect one from the other.  Today a modern village stands on the supposed site called Metullah which means lookout.

However I prefer the more poignant reference to the affectionate ties between the departed and the bereaved and the wish to leave them with the feeling that they were still being supported and protected as exemplified by the one simple word.

MIZPAH jewellery is still available and is often in the form of a coin shaped pendant, cut in two, with a zig-zag line bearing the words that I quoted in the first paragraph.

Here are two examples that I found online; one is vintage and the other is contemporary.

This first example is from Beckenham Cemetery and the Victorian epitaph is an affectionate tribute to a much loved and missed wife, Emma.

The second is from the Campbell monument in St Nicholas churchyard.  The Celtic cross above the grave has strapwork made from entwined snakes, themselves symbols of eternity and mortality.  The Campbells had two famous sons; Sir Malcolm Campbell and his son Donald.  Note the small motif of a bluebird in one corner above the epitaph.  This was the name of the vehicles on which both Sir Malcolm and Donald achieved several world speed records during their lifetimes. Donald was tragically killed in 1967 when another world speed record breaking attempt on Coniston Water went tragically wrong and both he and Bluebird sank the bottom of the lake.  It wasn’t until 2001 that his remains were discovered and buried in Coniston cemetery.  Nick Wales, his son, maintains the grave and also holds the world record for the fastest lawnmower. He has also tested a new Bluebird over Bewl Water.

The final one is a modern version, again from Beckenham Cemetery, and is edicated to a Kathleen Sabine and dates from 2000.

A modern version dating from 2000, the Sabine memorial, from Beckenham Cemetery/ Note that it’s on a Book of Life.
©Carole Tyrrell

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise stated.



Symbol of the Month – the square and compass

This example is from Brompton Cemetery and is dedicated to a woman.
©Carole Tyrrell

The Square and the Compass is a symbol which is traditionally associated with the Freemasons and appears on their insignia. It’s also an important part of their teachings.  The two elements together form a hexagram which often has the capital letter G inside it to denote God.  However, the ones that I found didn’t have this so perhaps it is a regional or international variation.  But there is a another interpretation of the motif which may be more appropriate to a funerary emblem and let’s not forget that these are also an architect’s tools of the trade

The Freemason association is the most obvious and common.  They’re often seen as quite a secretive and shadowy organisation. ‘It’s all leather aprons and funny handshakes.’ seems to be the opinion of many people.  But according the Freemasons UK website they define themselves as’

‘the world’s largest and oldest non-religious, non-political, fraternal and charitable organisations…rooted in the traditions of the medieval stonemasons who built our cathedrals and castles.’

 They also claim to ‘make good men better’ by encouraging to live their lives according to the Freemasons Five Values of Integrity, Kindness, Honesty, Fairness and Tolerance.’

They use the Square and Compass in Masonic rituals to teach symbolic lessons.  Wikipedia says ‘

‘they have been defined as lessons in conduct  as in Duncan’s Masonic Monitor of 1866

 in which he defines ‘The square to square our actions and the compass to define boundaries and to circumscribe and keep us within the bounds of mankind.’

 There is also a further, somewhat florid definition on the Masonic Lodge of education website which may make for further reading. As they point out, the square is often used in everyday language such as in ‘getting a square deal and, possibly a mason’s comment, ‘squaring off.’ It also appears in earlier texts such as Confucius. However, the square and the compass aren’t exclusive to the Freemasons as they are also used by several other fraternal organisations both in the UK and abroad.

But I prefer the definition of the symbols project in which they point out that both the square and the compass are measuring instruments and so represent judgement and discernment. The compass draws circles which are a symbol of eternity and also infinity. However the square can be viewed as being material and representing ‘fairness, balance, firmness’ and also:

something that is stable and a firm foundation to build upon’

They are a union of the material and of the spirit represented by the hexagram that they form.  So perhaps this is the spirit leaving the earthly plane and going into eternity i.e. from earth into heaven. It’s certainly another way to look at it.

But who knows? The people who chose to use the Square and the Compass on their tombstone may have been Freemasons or maybe not.  There was only one that I felt might have been one because of the quotation above the motif on his cross but this turned out to be a quotation from an 18th century hymn. With the others it was impossible to say.

You don’t see this symbol all that often although I discovered one in Brompton Cemetery and a sprinkling of them in Beckenham Cemetery recently. Interestingly, this is also a cemetery with several Salvation Army burials as well. Here is a gallery of the ones I found within Beckenham Cemetery:

I enjoyed researching this symbol as, although it seemed to be have an obvious association, it was also fascinating to find out other suggestions.

 ©Text and photos unless otherwise stated Carole Tyrell

Further reading and references:

Long-winded but worth a look



Symbol of the month – the wheatsheaf

Another view of the Milnes monument, Kensal Green Cemetery.
©Carole Tyrrell

I was on a summer stroll in early July of this year in Kensal Green Cemetery when I noticed this symbol.  From where I was standing it resembled a mop head which had dried out and been left on top of a grave.  I was planning to carry on stalking obliging butterflies but curiosity got the better of me and I made my way over to the monument. It was then that I realised that the supposed mop head was in fact a beautifully sculpted wheatsheaf.

‘Had the deceased been a master baker?’ was my first thought as it’s a traditional symbol associated with them or perhaps a pub owner as you do see a lot of pubs called The Wheatsheaf. The epitaphs on both side of the tomb were virtually unreadable. However, on one side I could make out ‘Sarah’ and on the other ‘Milnes’. But more of the Milnes later as this family has a strong connection to Kensal Green Cemetery

A sheaf is a tied bunch of grain stalks after they have been harvested by hand with scythes. However with the advent of agricultural mechanisation it is now a bygone image. No-one has ever known the origins of this staple crop and so it has been regarded by many cultures as a gift from God.

The wheatsheaf and resurrection

However, the wheatsheaf symbol has always had strong associations with the theme of resurrection.

This seemingly humble grain has played its part in many funeral cults and mourning rites throughout ancient cultures. For example, the ancient Greeks and Romans regarded it as life springing from death or immortality. Priests are reputed to have sprinkled wheat flour on their victim’s head prior to sacrificing them.  Ceres and Demeter, the Greek and Roman goddesses of harvest and agriculture, often carried either a wheatsheaf or a harvester’s sickle.  Ancient Egypt was seen as the breadbasket of the ancient Mediterranean due to the volume of crops that it produced and Osiris, god of the underworld, was strongly associated with wheat within the context of a representation of rebirth.

Wheat is also important to the Christian religion with the Eucharist bread which represents the body of Christ and his sacrifice and also in remembrance of the Last Supper. There is the famous biblical quotation from Luke 22:19:

‘and he took bread and gave thanks, and brake it, and gave unto them, saying, This is my body which is given for you: do this in remembrance of me’ King James Bible.

When wheat is harvested the ground is left to lie still during the winter and then re-sown in the spring to begin the cycle of life again. Here it represents renewal and renewal as the cycle of seasons has once more given grain for bread.  There is also the association with the harvesting of years in that Death and his scythe prepare to reap at the end of life.

So there has always been an association with the wheatsheaf of resurrection and remembrance. This is where it is at its most powerful as a funerary symbol. However, Douglas Keister has also suggested that a wheatsheaf on a tombstone can indicate someone who

‘lived a long and fruitful life of more than seventy years and one that was harvested by the Reaper when it was time’

 The wheatsheaf and the Victorian cult of mourning

This is a lovely example of a wheatsheaf motif within a piece of Victorian mourning jewellery.
I found it on Pinterest and could not find the source of the image.

According to the art of mourning website, the wheatsheaf was also a very popular motif in Victorian mourning jewellery.  In fact they have suggested that it could be seen as a memento mori in that it denotes life cut and renewal or resurrection of the soul.  Its heyday was during 1820-1860 and it also survived into early 20th century mourning jewellery just as it was going out of fashion.  The wheatsheaf was often found in mourning wreaths, brooches, lockets and rings and was an effective emblem when working with hair to create these pieces.

There is also a stained glass window featuring a wheatsheaf at St Michael & All Angels in Eaton Bishop, Herefordshire but this may be a Victorian addition by Kempe after restoration.

But who lies under the Kensal Green wheatsheaf?

Thomas Millnes and his third wife, Jessie’s grave in Kensal Green Cemetery.
©Chris Bell – a family descendant

This grave contains 2 women who were, respectively, the first and second wives of the Victorian sculptor Thomas Milnes.  He is buried with his third and final wife elsewhere within Kensal Green cemetery under a far plainer stone. He certainly lived a long life – his dates are 21 December 1810 – 6 May 1888 but there’s no wheatsheaf on top of him. Milnes completed a number of funerary monuments which can be seen in churches in Gloucestershire, Cumbria and Suffolk and also statues which still stand in Norwich and Woolwich. Milnes exhibited statues and busts at the Royal Academy after entering its schools on 21 April 1841.  He also designed another monument in Kensal Green, the horse and child on top of Alfred Cooke, which, although damaged, is still in place.

However he wasn’t destined to became a major British sculptor despite, in 1858, being invited to design and model the four lions for the base of Nelson’s column.  It would have been the commission of a lifetime but his designs were deemed ‘unsuitable’ and the commission went to Sir Edwin Landseer’s monumental symbols of Empire instead.  However, Milnes lions which are, in my opinion, more lively and playful than Landseer’s can be seen in Saltaire, near Bradford.  After that he seems to have sunk in obscurity.

The ‘Sarah’ that is still legible on one side was Milnes’ first wife: Sarah Betsey Harrad. They married in London on 19 May 1866 but it was short lived.  Sarah died a year later on 1 April 1867 of ‘apoplexy’ which is now known as a stroke or cerebral haemorrhage.  Frances Eidsforth became his second wife on 16 July 1867 at St Georges, Bloomsbury and she died on 16 July 1875. She is buried with Sarah.

Milnes married his third and final wife, Jessie Anne Fletcher, on 1 June 1876 but there were no children from any of his marriages

A closer view of the Milnes wheatsheaf – beautifully carved and assumed to be by Tomas Milnes himself but no direct evidence.
©Carole Tyrrell

Little seems to be known about either Sarah or Frances and it’s a real shame that their epitaphs, presumably on either side of the monument are now illegible.  However I would assume that the wheatsheaf placed on top of them is a symbol or resurrection and a hope that they would all meet again in eternity.

The wheatsheaf is remarkably well carved and has outlasted the epitaphs. It has been presumed  that it is by Milnes himself but no definite proof has been found to be able to attribute it to him with certainty.




There is another smaller wheatsheaf in Kensal Green which is on the Samuel Horsley memorial.

These two examples are from Oak Grove Cemetery, Fall River, Massachusetts, USA – I don’t have any further details on them unfortunately.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell otherwise stated

I am indebted to Henry Vivian-Neal from the Friends of Kensal Green Cemetery for the biographical details on Thomas Milnes.


Douglas Keister, Stories in Stone: A field guide to cemetery symbolism and iconography, Gibbs Smith 2004



Symbol of the month – the grapevine

A closer view of the Salmon cross
©Carole Tyrrell

This is another less well known symbol but, in my opinion, a very attractive one. I found two examples of a grapevine climbing up a cross during a recent visit to Kensal Green cemetery together with another that only featured grapes as decoration and a fourth which had trailing vine leaves on a Celtic cross.  The first two in Kensal Green really make good use of the cross on which they are carved to its fullest advantage with the vines sinuously climbing up the stem and then the leaves almost hanging from the crosspiece. In fact the form of a grapevine almost resembles a cross with the long stems stretching up and then branching out horizontally with the grapes hanging from them. I also found a cross in Brompton Cemetery which had a design of grapes and vine leaves as a border around its edges.

For the source of this symbol we have to go back to the ancient Greeks and the god Dionysus.  He was also known to the ancient Romans as Bacchus and both of them are always represented in paintings and sculptures as holding grapes.  The latter were often depicted on Greek wine cups in tribute to Dionysus. Both of them were seen as the god of the vine and were associated with wine-making, celebration and ecstasy. Dionysus was also associated with rebirth in that, after his dismemberment by the Titans, he came back to life in an echo of the winter pruning of grapevines so they may bear fruit again during the next year. He was unique in that he could bring a dead person back from the underworld.

As you may imagine, the early Christians adopted the less bacchanalian side of Dionysus and Bacchus.  There are many similarities between Dionysus and Jesus in that both were supposed to have been born from a mortal woman but fathered by a god, to have returned from the dead and to have transformed water into wine. The early Christians took the latter and transformed it into a miracle.  They also used the powerful symbol of the grapevine with Christ calling himself ‘the vine.’   In John 15:5 there is the famous quotation:

‘I am the vine and you are the branches.  If a man is in me and I in him, he will bear much fruit.’

In fact a vine and its branches are traditionally seen as depicting Christ and his followers, the Church and its faithful. He also uses the analogy of the Kingdom of Heaven as being similar to that of a manager hiring workers for his vineyard. The grapevine was also adopted by the ancient Roman Christian converts and appears on their graves and in their mosaics.

Grapes are an abundant crop and are one of the earliest cultivated crops known to us.  It bears fruit for the harvest and so is associated with celebration and good times.  The artofmourning website has suggested that there is also an element of birth/rebirth with the representation of the grapes and also a connection with victory.

‘The ripe harvest shows the promise of the fruits rewards being reaped and turned into the production of sustenance for the future.’

An interesting theory within the context of a funerary symbol as it hints at resurrection. There is also the theme of sacrifice. Wine, which comes from the grape, has always traditionally been seen as representing the blood of Christ and this is particularly symbolic during the service of Holy Communion within the Catholic church.  Also, during the Last Supper, Christ gave wine to his disciples and told them to drink it in remembrance of him.

But what does this age-old symbol mean within a Victorian London cemetery? As I see it, it can be a representation of the deceased becoming part of an eternal vineyard i.e. the Kingdom of Heaven or that their earthly lives were full of abundance and achievement.  But it can also be a motif of resurrection in that the grapes are crushed underfoot to be reborn as wine and this would be highly appropriate for use within a cemetery. In fact I’m surprised that it doesn’t appear more often as it is very eye-catching amongst more restrained classical symbols especially when combined with a cross.

These two fine examples come from Kensal Green cemetery and demonstrate how well a grapevine translates onto a cross. Note the three letters in the centre of the Cross which are IHS combined together. This is a Greek abbreviation for Jesus Christ, Man and Saviour which is ‘Iesus Honinum Salvator’ which translates as ‘Jesus the Saviour of Man’.

Note the IHS motif in the centre of the Moir cross in gothic lettering.
©Carole Tyrrell

The first is to Frederick Salmon and the other to George Gordon Moir. I haven’t been able to find out anything on Moir but research is ongoing. However, he obviously liked Salmon’s cross and embellishment as his is identical.

But Frederick Salmon (1796 – 1859) was a renowned and pioneering surgeon and he has a fascinating story to tell.

Salmon was a restless Victorian medical man out to make his mark and improve the lives of his fellow citizens. In many ways he was a maverick destined to rebel against and work outside the medical establishment of the time. As you can see from his epitaph he founded St Mark’s Hospital which is still in existence, based in Harrow and is part of the St Bart’s and the London NHS Trust.

Frederick Salmon founder of St Mark’s Hospital

He was born in Bath in 1796 and, at 15, was apprenticed to a surgeon-apothecary. Somewhere along the line he met William White, one of the earliest surgeons to write on rectal disease. Salmon always credited White with the direction in which his own career went which was in the field of proctology.

However, the medical establishment frustrated Salmon. Training depended on money and influence as posts had to be bought and so were often earmarked for friends and relations of surgeons and physicians. In 1817 he paid £8.15s.0d to become a house surgeon at St Barts and then rose to a surgeon’s post. He also wrote a book on intestinal disease in 1828 which ran to four editions. But Salmon became part of a medical scandal when, in 1833 aged 37, he resigned with other staff members from the General Dispensary in protest. They were angry at the plans of the hospital governors to revert to a system in which posts were up for sale to those who could afford to pay. The Lancet declared in the same year that the practice was ‘one of money, of favour and of family interest.’ Salmon was now a free man and obviously one of considerable charisma and talent.  He founded St Mark’s in 1835 with the City of London providing much of the finance. It was in one room with seven beds and 2 other staff members at 11 Aldersgate Street in the City. A plaque still marks its location. It had the less than catchy name of St Mark’s Infirmary for the Relief of the Poor afflicted with Fistula and other diseases of the Rectum. But it soon acquired a nickname: The Fistula Infirmary.  Despite several moves and expansions of premises St Mark’s remained in the City until 1995 when it moved to its present location.

From the beginning St Mark’s filled a desperate need for London’s poor to be able to access treatment. Salmon was not only able to attract significant funding but also wealthy patrons and supporters. Sir William Copeland, Lord Mayor of London, was a grateful patient who became St Mark’s first President and Charles Dickens presented several autographed copies of his latest book, The Pickwick Papers, and 10 guineas in gratitude.  This was after having undergone a rectal operation without anaesthetics. Salmon was reputed to have performed 3500 operations without a single fatality which was an incredible achievement at a time when antiseptics were unknown and anaesthetics were only just coming into use.

Salmon retired, due to ill health, in 1859 and died at Ombersley near Droitwich on 3 January 1868 aged 72. St Mark’s was his lasting legacy and there is a ward named after him.  Today the hospital is one of only 14 worldwide hospitals to be recognised as a centre of excellence by the Worldwide Organisation of Digestive Endoscopy.

Salmon was a  vine that bore fruit as did John Edward Taylor (1830-1905)

Mr Taylor’s magnificent Art Nouveau style monument is tucked away on a lower path in Kensal Green Cemetery. It dwarves  the far more recent surrounding graves and headstones. Such unashamedly Art Nouveau memorials are rare within cemeteries.  There’s one in Streatham cemetery, a lovely gem in West Norwood, another in Hendon and there are undoubtedly others scattered across London.

Here the grapes are carved on the left hand side sidepiece flanking the main memorial. These reflect the Art Nouveau love of natural forms and structures. The movement used the curving, organic lines taken from plants and flowers. But, by the time Mr Taylor’s widow Martha died in 1912, Art Nouveau was about to be replaced by the angular lines of Art Deco.

Taylor was another restless Victorian man who was involved in many areas. He was the second son of John Edward Taylor senior who founded the Manchester Guardian in 1821 backed by a group of local liberals known as The Little Circle. They had successfully lobbied for parliamentary reform in the era of rotten boroughs and as a result of their efforts Parliament passed the Reform Act of 1832. Taylor senior witnessed the Peterloo massacre in 1819 but been unimpressed by its leaders. The Manchester Guardian is still in business but now renamed the Guardian and Taylor edited it until his death at the early age of 52.

After the death of his older brother, Russell, in 1848 Edward became co-owner and then sole owner of his father’s paper in 1856. He also edited it from 1861-1872.  Newspaper ink was in his blood and he also became owner and then co-owner of the Manchester Evening News until his death. He was also a philanthropist and believed in education which led him to become a trustee of Manchester College from 1854 until his death.  He founded the Manchester Aid Society in 1863, advocated temperance and free trade and was also involved in the British and Foreign Bible Society. On top of this he was also a director of the Buenos Aires Great Southern Railway Company.

Taylor remained a lifelong liberal and in 1895 he refused a baronetcy offered to him by Lord Rosebery. But he was also known as a great art collector and a generous one.  He often lent out some of his collection to local exhibitions in Manchester or at Burlington House.  After his death, Christie’s held a sale of his collection over 12 days and achieved record prices for the time. Taylor lived in London after his marriage in 1861 to Martha Elizabeth, the sorrowing wife, recorded on the monument.  The newspapers passed to other members of the extended family.

This is less ornate and, instead, features vine leaves cascading on a Celtic cross with again the very ornate combined letters of IHS in the centre of the cross, or the nimbus, with a dedication below to Matilda Morris who died on 10 December 1881.  Again I haven’t been able to find out anything about her but research is ongoing.

This is an example from Brompton Cemetery and here the grapevine and leaves form an intricate pattern around the cross. I may not be able to read the epitaph on the flat slab beneath until the winter die-off.

Of course the use of the grape and vine might just indicate that they liked a drink or two……but that’s something that we will never know…


©Text and photos unless otherwise stated Carole Tyrrell


site on mourning jewellery – well worth a look.

A closer view of the Salmon cross
©Carole Tyrrell

Stories in stone, Douglas Keister, Gibbs Smith, 2004

An Illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, J C Cooper. Thames & Hudson 1978



Symbol of the month – the Lamp


Tombstone with sculpted lamps dedicated to Marie Cordelia Winfield who died aged 19
©Carole Tyrrell


I was looking for butterflies, the Marbled White to be exact, on a side path in Brompton Cemetery when I found this memorial.  Should I rub one of the Aladdin style lamps and see if a genie appeared to grant me three wishes?  I was intrigued as to why they were on the stone and so began my research for this month’s symbol – The Lamp.

The grave is that of Marie Cordelia Winfield who died young at the age of 19.  There is another family member commemorated on the headstone who is called James Alfred Winfield.  But it’s very lowdown on the stone and the encroaching summer vegetation obscured it making it difficult to read.

Lamps are an unusual symbol to see in a cemetery but Light as a motif in itself has been used in many forms.  Often it’s represented by the eternal flame or a downturned/ upturned torch but lamps are rare.  Obviously now I’ve said that, I’ll see lamps in every cemetery on every tombstone but so far it’s just been this one.

The Winfield lamps appear to be oil lamps and these have been used as illumination for thousands of years. In Arabian folklore a genie’s lamp contained a magical spirit known as a djinn or genie.  This mythical being could help or hinder those who were brave enough to rub the lamp as in the story of Aladdin.

An example of an Aladdin Lamp.

In this story the lamp was seen as a gateway to another world of mystery and other gods.  The symbol of the lamp was later adopted by Christianity as many pagan motifs were and it came to symbolise Jesus as the ‘light of the world’.  There is a famous passage in the New Testament in Matthew 25:1-13 of the parable of the 10 virgins:

‘Then shall the kingdom of heaven be likened unto ten virgins, which took their lamps, and went forth to meet the bridegroom.

And five of them were wise, and five were foolish.

They that were foolish took their lamps, and took no oil with them:

But the wise took oil in their vessels with their lamps.

While the bridegroom tarried, they all slumbered and slept.

And at midnight there was a cry made, Behold, the bridegroom cometh; go ye out to meet him.

Then all those virgins arose, and trimmed their lamps.

And the foolish said unto the wise, Give us of your oil; for our lamps are gone out.

But the wise answered, saying, Not so; lest there be not enough for us and you: but go ye rather to them that sell, and buy for yourselves.

And while they went to buy, the bridegroom came; and they that were ready went in with him to the marriage: and the door was shut.

Afterward came also the other virgins, saying, Lord, Lord, open to us.

But he answered and said, Verily I say unto you, I know you not.

Watch therefore, for ye know neither the day nor the hour wherein the Son of man cometh.

                                                                            King James version

 There are several other references to lamps in Matthew 6:22-23, Revelation 22:5 and also John 5:35 in which John the Baptist is described as

he was a burning and shining lamp, and you were willing to rejoice for a while in his light.’

And let’s not forget God appearing to Moses in the burning bush.  There is also a famous quotation from Psalms 119:105:

‘Thy word is a lamp unto my feet, and a light unto my path.’

The lamp as a representation of God and faith appears in other religions including the Jewish Feast of Dedication or Festival of Lights and also Diwali which is the Hindu Festival of Lights.  Judaism sees lamps as a way of lighting the way for the righteous and the wise.  This is represented by the seven branched ritual Jewish oil lamp which is known as a menorah.  Lamps are also an integral part of the Orthodox and other Eastern Catholic churches as they are used on the Holy Table or altar and also to illuminate icons.  In Chinese religions an oil lamp is always lit at traditional Chinese shrines before either an image of a deity or a plaque in classical Chinese characters with the name of the deity.  Lamps also feature in the Koran. There is also a strong element of self-sacrifice associated with the lamp as it consumes itself in order to bring light to the world.

There is long tradition of lamps representing purity and virginity as well as love. So it’s highly appropriate for the Winfield tombstone which is dedicated to a young girl.  When I looked more closely at the Winfield memorial I noticed that both of the lamps were pointing towards the cross in the centre with what I presumed were the rays of the sun coming from behind it almost like a halo. The lamps are obviously lit as fumes are coming from their spouts and, to me, they seemed to be illuminating the way through eternal darkness towards the light of a new life.  I thought that it would have been comforting to those left behind to mourn the loss of a daughter who had been taken too soon. As the epitaph says:

Greatly loved and sadly missed.’

However,  as I explored further in Brompton I noticed actual lamps placed on top of graves or alongside them.  These were mainly on the graves of Polish people.

In Poland, there is a long tradition of lighting lamps and candles on their All Saints’ Day which is held on November 1st each year.  This is the day before the Christian festival of All Souls Day which is traditionally held on November 2nd.   I visited Brompton Cemetery on November 1st 2015 and witnessed the local Polish community’s celebration of All Saints with lit tea candles and lamps on top of Polish and non-Polish graves alike. The lights were again being used as a way to help the souls of the departed on their way and so the tradition continues.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell



Symbol of the Month – the open book

Another example from Beckenham Cemetery where the inscription is now unreadable but the weathering of the stone makes it still very attractive.
©Carole Tyrrell


Sometimes a wander through a cemetery can make you feel as if you’re in a heavenly library due to the number of open books reverently laid on top of graves.  They’re usually made from stone or granite, inscribed with the name and dates of the deceased and often a decorative book marker complete with carved tassel keeping the pages open.  On first appearance the open book can seem a very simple and obvious symbol and it’s used in place of a more formal headstone. But, as with other symbols, it can have alternative meanings.

The 3 dimensional version that is carved to simulate a real book is a 20th century innovation.  Prior to this it was rendered in a 2 dimensional, flat form and can be found on 18th and 19th century tombstones as part of an overall design or epitaph.  This example is from the Gibbs memorial in Brompton cemetery in which the downwardly pointing finger indicates the large open book.

The open book can almost resemble a visitors book with the deceased’s details inscribed on it as if they were signing in or checking out for eternity and sometimes one page is left blank for perhaps the partner who will follow.  On a recent stroll through Beckenham I came across several variations:

For example, there was one with both pages blank which could indicate that the inscription has worn off or that they were ready to be written for eternity.  The latter echoes the well-known phrase  ‘he or she can be read like an open book’ and the empty pages  can indicate that this is how they want to be judged on the Day of Judgement.   The echoes the quotation from the Book of Revelation 20:11-15:

And I saw the dead, small and great, stand before God; and the books were opened: and another book was opened, which is the book of life: and the dead were judged out of those things which were written in the books, according to their works. King James Bible

This is also why the open book is also known as the Book of Life as it contains everything that the deceased has done throughout their life and for which they will now be accountable. Christ is often depicted carrying a book.  J C Cooper also sees it as the Book of Life and adds that it can also represent

‘….learning and the spirit of wisdom, revelation and …wisdom.’

It can also indicate a chapter of life has ended or closed.

Here the Book doesn’t have an epitaph but instead is inscribed with a Biblical quotation from Jeremish 31:3
©Carole Tyrrell

In this example, a favourite verse has been inscribed on the pages.  It is a quotation from Jeremiah 31:3

The LORD hath appeared of old unto me, saying, Yea, I have loved thee with an everlasting love: therefore with lovingkindness have I drawn thee. King James Bible

This makes the symbol almost resemble a Bible.  Other suggestions are that it can indicate the grave of a writer, publisher or even more obviously a clergyman.


It can also indicate a chapter of life has ended or closed and a variant is the closed book.  I found this one in West Norwood cemetery and it clearly indicates a life that has ended with the final chapter now written.

An example of a closed book from West Norwood Cemetery/
©Carole Tyrrell

So the open book has made me think about how my book of life would look on my last resting place. I’m determined to make sure that it’s a good read for any passing visitor.

©Text and photos Carole Tyrrell unless otherwise indicated.


An illustrated Encyclopaedia of Traditional Symbols, J C Cooper, Thames & Hudson, 1978

Stories in Stone, a field guide to Cemetery Symbolism and Iconography, Douglas Keister,

Gibbs Smith, 2004