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Graveyard Rabbit of South Alameda County by Cheryl Palmer is licensed under a Creative Commons Attribution-Noncommercial 3.0 United States License.

Monday, February 23, 2009

Skull and Crossbones

During a recent cemetery journey I ran across a headstone which caught my full attention. This headstone was the first I had seen like it. There was a skull and crossbones etched into each side of the grave marker. They were well crafted indeed, but gave me a start when I first saw them. This grave marker belonged to a man who had passed away less than two years ago.

My first thought of this symbol, the Jolly Roger, of course reminded me of pirates. Pirates? Maybe back in the day, but now? Many years ago symbols such as this were common. They are not as common these days.

My next thought led me to wondering if this man was possibly a motorcycle rider? I know the skull and crossbones have been worn by many riders over the years. I decided to explore the meaning of the skull and crossbones.

In Britain between 1600 and 1820 it seems skulls and crossbones were very popular. The popularity died out after 1820 as there was more sensitivity to death and afterlife. In early New England days it looks as if these symbols were very popular with the Puritans. Supposedly skulls and crossbones were long used to mark entrances of Spanish cemeteries.


Some people think this symbol on headstones has to do with witchcraft, while others believe the deceased may have been a captain who ambushed pirates!

Apparently, there are women's headstones, as well as men's, with skulls and crossbones on it. Would this symbol have a different meaning for a woman?

These are some explanations I found as to what the symbol may mean on a headstone:

-The deceased was infected with a bad disease
-To remind the living, that they too will die.
-The deceased man was a Freemason
-Death and Mortality

Over time symbols have changed. Most of what I have spoken about thus far regarding the skull and crossbones, refers to having been used many years ago. But what about now? This grave marker I came across was from a grave that was less than two years old. So what does this mean in today's world?

I decided to make a phone call to a monument company to ask what symbolism the skull and crossbones has in today's marketplace. The person I spoke with at the monument company assumed I was referring to a specific grave that he has seen. It is highly unlikely that we were speaking of the same gravesite, as I live several cities away from the monument business I called.

This person told me that he wouldn't have this particular symbol on any of his families monuments, and said that the cemeteries wouldn't allow anything that wasn't proper to be put on a headstone. He thought I was complaining about the symbol! I explained I was just curious as the one I saw startled me. He understood the being startled part and said most likely the person just really liked pirates. As he continued with his conversation it became apparent the grave he was referring to was that of a young person's grave! He related that the symbol on this headstone was likely due to the young man being a fan of pirates, such as The Pirates of the Carri bean. My mind was trying to imagine the skull and crossbones on a child's headstone. The person's headstone I was referring to is far from a child, he was thirty eight years old.

This is the plaque in between the two symbols~

In Loving Memory

Now At Peace

Perhaps this man had a troubled life. Perhaps the meaning of the skulls and crossbones on his grave refer to death and mortality. Perhaps he was a motorcycle rider. Perhaps he had been ill for a long time. Perhaps...

Whatever this man went through and whatever the symbols mean, the most important message I notice on his headstone is that he is "Now At Peace."

4 comments:

lindalee said...

Your post caught my eye. When I was in Scotland several years back, the skull and crossbone tombstone also was of great interest to me. I was told that it was a symbol for the Knights Templar and a Masonic burial. Of course many of the tombstones I was photographing were from the the 1500's. It's an interesting topic. Thanks for your blog

Cheryl Palmer said...

Hi lindalee,

Photographing tombstones from the 1500's would be so exciting, and from Scotland to boot! It is funny, in different places and times the meaning seems to vary. I need to meet a local Mason, or, maybe a Mason will read this and post a comment to let us know if this is a current symbol being used today. I did not see a Masonic symbol though on this grave I have been refering to. I appreciate and enjoyed your comment! Thank you!

S. Lincecum said...

I've seen skulls and crossbones on graves, but they are usually much older. I even saw them on a woman's grave from the late 1700's. Haven't seen them on a recent gravestone. Thanks for the post!

Cheryl Palmer said...

Hello S. Lincecum,

I hadn't seen the skull and crossbones on a recent monument either! On older graves, it was more common for sure. Thank you for the comment!