Hull Geological Society


Local Geology
Next Meeting

Urban Geology

Symbolism in memorials

(a work in progress)

Skull on gravestone

To generalise I would split the trends in symbolism on memorials and gravestones into three eras - pre-Victorian, Victorian and modern.

You will not find many pre-Victorian gravestones in Cemeteries; the first commercial cemetery opened in 1829. Hull General Cemetery opened in 1847. These memorials are in churchyards and inside churches. To me they seem to be quite blunt. The inscriptions are often worded "here lies the mortal remains of ... " or "here lies the body of....". The imagery often includes bones or a scull and crossbones (which we now associate with pirates!). There are also hour glasses, showing time running out, or winged hourglasses (literally "time flies"). Other images are crowns, cherubs, cherubs blowing horns, books, the sun...

draped urn with garland

Victorian imagery is quite solemn and the mourning dignified. They seemed to be fond of urns, draped urns, broken columns, draped columns, flowers and foliage (especially ivy, roses and passion flowers) and weeping (weeping relatives, weeping willows and weeping angels). Crosses are common and in Hull anchors have a maritime association. Posh people liked to be remembered by having big monuments in prominent positions in the cemetery. Statues became important if you could afford them, particularly angels who often changed sex to become female. This imagery continued from Victorian times sometimes until the 1940s. Inscriptions were more euphemistic - people were often "called home" or "fell asleep" rather than simply dying. There may be some biographical details about their achievements, home town or how they died.

Elvis gravestone

In modern times imagery has become more personal. The stones can be in the shape of hearts or teddy bears. Images of the individual are sometimes on the memorial early examples are photographs behind glass, more recently they are glazed on to ceramic tiles or etched into the stone. There are sometimes representations of their professions, hobbies, heroes or sporting allegiances. The inscriptions seem to be more sentimental and listing the relationships to survivors (such as something like - "a loving wife, mother and nana") rather than their ancestors.

Copyright - Mike Horne and Hull Geological Society 2020

Registered Educational Charity No. 229147