14 Symbols of Death From Our Collection

Posted on by Fay Curtis.

Across the world and throughout time people have created symbols and euphemisms for death. They help the living to recognise or try to understand what death is. They are also used to help us distance ourselves from death and its reality.

In the run up to the opening of our death: the human experience exhibition at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery (24 October 2015—13 March 2016) we’ll be sharing some symbols of death from across the world. Follow the links to see the objects in our online collection search.

1. King vulture:

Photo of a taxidermy king vulture

Vultures are scavengers that eat the flesh of dead bodies. They’’re recognised as symbols of death around the world. See our king vulture on our online collection search.

2. Mummy:

Hand-drawn picture of an egyptian mummy

This drawing of an Egyptian mummy represents the preservation of a person who died thousands of years ago.

3. Bat skeleton:

Photo of a bat skeleton against a black background

We’re programmed to fear the dark (and the predators it conceals) and so things associated with night have become scary. Bats live in dark caves and other places where we might place the dead, such as crypts and churches, further reinforcing a perceived link. Here’s our bat skeleton.

4. La Catrina:

Photo of a doll with a skull face and lace hat

‘La Catrina’ is a Mexican symbol of death and an icon of ‘Dia de los Muertos’ (Day of the Dead).

Her flamboyant clothes reflect the celebratory nature of the festival.

5. Hearse:

Photo of a toy/collectible model hearse car

A hearse represents death and funerary rituals because it’s seen at the time of a funeral. Even an empty hearse is associated with death.

6. Memento Mori:

Photo of a memento mori with inscriptions and drawings on it

The images on this certificate are symbols of mortality reflecting the Latin phrase Memento mori, ‘remember you must die’. The hourglass is a symbol of limited time on earth, grave-digging tools and dead bodies suggest fresh graves, and angels are associated with heaven.

7. Death’s head hawk moth:

Photo of a death's head hawk moth

The moth’s name comes from the skull-like mark on its thorax. When disturbed, they emit a squeak or ‘scream’. See more images of this death’s head hawk moth on our online collections search.

8. Skull x-ray:

Image of an x-ray of a skull

‘Truth is an overrated virtue’ by Mariele Neudecker (2007)

Skulls are a reminder that we will all die. This x-ray was taken from a living person but it still has connotations of death.

9. Carrion crow:

Photo of a carrion crow

Crows eat carrion, the flesh of the dead, so they have a world-wide association with death. Some North American cultures believe the crow assists the recently dead to cross over to the next world by acting as a guide. See more images of our carrion crow.

10. Death personified:

Black and white engraving of a man riding a horse with a personification of death next to him

‘Knight, Death and the Devil’, after Albrecht Durer (1513)

Death is shown here on a pale, worn out old horse. He holds an hourglass to remind the knight of the shortness of his life on earth.

11. Ghostly corpse:

Photo of a model of a decaying corpse

Buddhist monks meditate on the different stages of decomposition, known as ‘the nine cemetery contemplations’. The aim is to understand that no one is bound to their body forever. This is a netsuke from Japan.

12. Jackal:

Photo of a taxidermy jackal

Psychopomps, like the jackal, are creatures believed to guide souls from the Earth into the next life. In Africa, Asia and southeast Europe, jackals live on the edge of settlements, where the dead were traditionally buried, and people feared they would dig up and eat the bodies.

13. Gravestone cast:

Photo of a cast of a gravestone with an inscription on it

Gravestones mark a burial site. They incorporate symbolism (such as cherubs) and euphemisms (‘now sweetly sleep’) into their decoration. The original gravestone this was taken from is in Henbury Churchyard, Bristol, and dates to 1720.

14. Skull and crossbones:

A green foil cut-out of a skull and crossbones

In ancient and modern Mexico these appear on Aztec temples and as sugar skulls for the ‘Dia de los Muertos’ or Day of the Dead. In Europe, the skull and crossbones emerged as a symbol of death about 600 years ago.

death: the human experience runs at Bristol Museum & Art Gallery from 24 October 2015—13 March 2016. You have the choice to pay what you think the exhibition is worth to you.

5 comments on “14 Symbols of Death From Our Collection

  1. Brian Grist

    I don’t get it. Why on earth have you partially obstructed the view of a contemporary masterpiece with a mannequin? I refer to David Inshaw’s ‘Our days were a joy and our paths through flowers’. The number of us who regard Inshaw as this nation’s greatest living painter is growing daily & this is disrespectful of his work, to say the very least. Move it further along the wall so that people can see the painting in its entirety, can’t you? Bad enough that the Museum had withdrawn this treasure from public view for a year or two but to present it in this fashion only adds insult to injury. Some of us are beginning to wonder if the Museum appreciates the popularity & artistic value of this compelling work.


    1. Fay Curtis Author

      Thanks for your comment about the painting and exhibition, Brian – just to let you know, we’ve passed this onto our curators who will send you an email.



  2. Matt

    Thank you so much for having this show. Having seen the Film It’s My Party, one becomes more convinced that the Abrahamacist you’ve gotta suffer for GOD, seems less and less meaningful or needed. And no, the Palliative Pain Killlers do not always abate the end time tortures!


  3. Sol Cohen

    I have a photograph I took of a symbol of Death, with a black covered body, white skull,open mouth with a flame, a long arm that goes up to a man’s face with a closed eye, open mouth and his tongue protrudes, and the forefinger on the hand of death is in his nose, presumably to block the breath of life.


  4. Chewi Jo

    Looking for life& death symbol,in the form of a wallcovering border,hand painted 24 caret gold,hung in historic Calhoun mansion in historic Charleston S C,1970-80s?


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