Symbols of death
The human skull is an obvious and frequent symbol of death, found in many cultures and religious traditions. Human skeletons and sometimes non-human animal skeletons and skulls can also be used as blunt images of death; the traditional figures of the Grim Reaper – a black-hooded skeleton with a scythe – is one use of such symbolism. The skull and crossbones motif (☠) has been used among Europeans as a symbol of both piracy and poison.
Decayed cadavers can also be used to depict death; in medieval Europe, they were often featured in artistic depictions of the danse macabre, or in cadaver tombs which depicted the living and decomposed body of the person entombed. Coffins also serve as blunt reminders of mortality.
Less blunt symbols of death frequently allude to the passage of time and the fragility of life, and can be described as memento mori; that is, an artistic or symbolic reminder of the inevitability of death. Clocks, hourglasses, sundials, and other timepieces both call to mind that time is passing. Similarly, a candle both marks the passage of time, and bears witness that it will eventually burn itself out. These sorts of symbols were often incorporated into vanitas paintings, a variety of early still life.
Religious symbols of death and depictions of the afterlife will vary with the religion practiced by the people who use them.
Tombs, tombstones, and other items of funeral architecture are obvious candidates for symbols of death. In ancient Egypt, the gods Osiris and Ptah were typically depicted as mummies; these gods governed the Egyptian afterlife. In Christianity, the Christian cross is frequently used on graves, and is meant to call to mind the crucifixion of Jesus. Some Christians also erect temporary crosses along public highways as memorials for those who died in accidents. In Buddhism, the symbol of a wheel represents the perpetual cycle of death and rebirth that happens in samsara. The symbol of a grave or tomb, especially one in a picturesque or unusual location, can be used to represent death, as in Nicholas Poussin's famous painting Et in Arcadia ego.
Images of life in the afterlife are also symbols of death. Here, again, the ancient Egyptians produced detailed pictorial representations of the life enjoyed by the dead. In Christian folk religion, the spirits of the dead are often depicted as winged angels or angel-like creatures, dwelling among the clouds; this imagery of the afterlife is frequently used in comic depictions of the life after death. In the Islamic view of the Afterlife, death is symbolised by a black and white ram which in turn will be slain to symbolise the Death of Death.
The Banshee also symbolizes the coming of death in Irish Mythology.
Black is the color of mourning in many European cultures. Black clothing is typically worn at funerals to show mourning for the death of the person. In East Asia, white is similarly associated with mourning; it represented the purity and perfection of the deceased person's spirit. During the Victorian era, purple and grey were considered to be mourning colors in addition to black. Furthermore, in Revelation 6 in The Bible, Death is one of the four horsemen; and he rides a pale horse.
- Glennys Howarth; Oliver Leaman (2003). Encyclopedia of Death and Dying. Routledge. p. 416. ISBN 978-1-136-91360-0.
- literally 'remember to die', Oxford English Dictionary, Third Edition, June 2001
- Eiseman, Leatrice (2000). Colors for Your Every Mood: Discover Your True Decorating Colors. Capital Books. p. 136. ISBN 9781892123381.
- Revelation 6:8 (New International Version) at Bible Gateway.com
- an analysis of symbols of Death on the tombstones of the Knights of the Order of St John at the St John's Co-Cathedral at Valletta, Malta, as appearing in Dane Munro, 'Memento Mori, a companion to the most beautiful floor in the world' (Malta, 2005), 2 vols. ISBN 99932-90-11-4.