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Aug. 1, 2023

Eternal Reminders: Hourglasses and Skeletons as Markers of Mortality

Eternal Reminders: Hourglasses and Skeletons as Markers of Mortality

Our views on death and mortality have definitely changed over the centuries. With improvement in living conditions, medical care, etc, collectively as a society we tend to shy away from the finality of death and try to look beyond to what the afterlife may provide; especially as a way to comfort the living after losing a loved one. However, only a few centuries ago death was a part of everyday living and we are truly reminded of it when we walk through  the burial grounds of the 17th century and find mortality symbols carved upon the stones. These symbols are very rarely used today, but at one time were quite frequent as a way to remind the living that life is fleeting and death comes to us all.

Two of these mortality, symbols are the hourglass and the skeleton. The hourglass is used to represent the quick passing of time; life slips by quickly and we should be careful to appreciate what little time we have upon this earth. On occasion, the hourglass may have wings which quite literally tells us that time flies.

The full body skeleton was used as a reminder that death comes for us all and that we cannot escape our mortality. After death, our physical body decays and becomes nothing but a skeleton which later turns to dust. It is an exceedingly morbid thought. Skeletons were especially popular on the tombs of those of the Puritan faith as a heavenly afterlife was not guaranteed to all, but death was a certainty regardless of who you were in life.  Intriguingly, the additional symbols held by some skeletons, such as the scythe, arrow, or swords, bear individual meanings of their own, hinting at the circumstances surrounding the person's demise. Arrows, a possible indication of a plague victim, and scythes, representing being cut down in the prime of life.

Photos: Old Burial Hill (Plymouth, Massachusetts), Old Burial Hill (Marblehead, Massachusetts), Old Burial Hill (Concord, Massachusetts), and Charter Street Cemetery (Salem, Massachusetts)

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