My favorite kind of gravestone art is probably the pre-colonial headstones in the northeast United States. One of the most common motifs from that era (and one of my favorite) is the death’s head. The essential design consists of a skull (sometimes happy looking, sometimes not) with wings on either side.
I was first exposed to the death’s head through the work of Tim Burton. It is a motif he uses repeatedly in his films and artwork. For some reason, I really latched on to it as a symbol, and through it I was led to gravestone art.
Now it’s easy to dismiss the death’s head as a silly symbol used by goths and wannabe tough guys, but its origins are much more somber, and sobering.
Historically, it represented the presence of death, and acted as a reminder to all that passed by that one day they too would die; it was often accompanied by the inscription “Memento Mori”, which is Latin for “Remember Death”. Some may look at this as a wholly dour expression, but I tend to view it more as a caution to not waste your life and to value the days you have left.
Either way, this symbol has come to define early American gravestons, and it persists across the public consciousness in myriad forms and with myriad meanings. And even though the death’s head is no longer in vogue when it comes to memorial art, I hope someday I do get to carve one on a headstone because it won’t look dour or gothy or depressing or silly - it will look...life affirming.