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:
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.
This drawing of an Egyptian mummy represents the preservation of a person who died thousands of years ago.
3. Bat skeleton:
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:
‘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.
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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:
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.
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:
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:
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.