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Gravestone Symbolism



To sum up then, the use of mortality symbols on memorials to the dead is ultimately derived from the obsession with death that arose in a Europe traumatised by the Black Death in the mid-fourteenth century.  This gave rise to representations of death in the art and literature of the period that were later to find their way on to sepulchral monuments of the later middle ages.  While individual mortality symbols, as opposed to the cadaver, are to be found on Irish tombs from the mid-sixteenth century it is from Scotland that mortality symbols on gravestones in west Ulster owe their more immediate origins.  Given the considerable migration of settlers from Scotland to Ulster in the seventeenth-century it is hardly surprising that the Scottish tradition should be so dominant.




1. ‘We have been as you are, you shall be as we are.’

2. A spade and an hourglass have been carved on the cadaver tomb to Maurice Fitzgerald in Kilmallock.  However, this is from 1637 and is the last in the Irish cadaver series. 

3. The skulls and crossed bones found on gravestones containing the passion symbols and representations of the Crucifixion relate to a legend that when the hole for the cross, upon which Christ was to be crucified,  was being dug the bones of Adam were unwittingly discovered.

4. These also relate to the above legend.

5. A slab, dated to 1613, with almost identical carvings can be seen at Yellowbatter, Co. Louth.

6. In 1611 Sir Thomas Ridgeway brought over craftsmen from Devonshire to his proportion in Clogher, County Tyrone.


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