Top Ten Symbols Of Death
Across time, we have strived to make sense of death. Almost every culture has tried to grapple and visual death, and when words fail, symbols take their place. There are thousands of images representing death or acting as visualizations of death. Each of these symbols may differ from one another yet, collectively, they provide insights into the very meaning of death of life and of our civilizations.
1. Grim Reaper
A Grim Reaper is the most horrifying symbol of death, characterized by a skeletal figure, cloaked in a hooded black robe, with a scythe in one hand. This frightful symbol is of European origin, dating back to the Black Death of the 14th century. The Black Death brought widespread mourning and death across Europe. It wasn’t surprising, therefore, why the Grim Reaper—that typified the Black Death—is such a ghastly and terrifying symbol.
A Grim Reaper’s skeletal figure is indicative of decay and death, while its hooded black robe is symbolic of the religious men who conducted funeral services during those times. Moreover, its scythe symbolizes the harvesting of the dead and the reaping of their souls.
For Christians, the cross may signify eternal life and salvation. Yet, prior to Christianity, the cross had been an infamous symbol of torture, execution and death. The Romans, for example, made use of it to crucify their criminals and outlaws. The Romans also employed various ways of punishing criminals including stoning, strangling, and burning of criminals, but it was the crucifixion that readily sent a more menacing message to criminals and outlaws within the Roman Empire. Today, however, the cross is the most recognized symbol in the world.
3. Black Butterfly
Butterflies usually come in various colors, but seeing a black butterflies are rather rare. In many cultures, the appearance of a black butterfly is ominous and bears a cryptic message of misfortune and death. This belief is so common in countries like China, the Philippines, and some Central and South American countries.
A black butterfly dabbling around or on your skin may be indicative of the death of a dear one. Moreover, a black butterfly or moth inside one’s room or house might be indicative of the death of a beloved.
Additionally, some Celtic and Irish myths included a belief in black butterflies as representations of the souls of the dead who couldn’t to move on to the next life. Other cultures, however, associate black butterflies with witchcraft.
The vulture is truly symbolic of death because where there is a vulture, there usually is death. The creature is known for feeding off carrion. The Mayans, for example, viewed the symbol of the vulture as expressive of the transition of the dead to a new life. There is so much truth in the saying that where there is a kettle of vultures, death may not be far behind. And thus, vultures and death have come to be intricately associated with each other in many cultures.
The raven is typically associated with ill omen, loss, and even death. The raven’s black feathers and croak have made it stand out as a harbinger of death. It didn’t help the raven when literature often portrayed it as a symbol of evil and death – think The Raven by Edgar Allen Poe.
In Swedish folklore, the raven is intricately linked to the ghosts or wraiths of murdered people who were not accorded any proper Christian burial. In German folklore, on the other hand, the raven is symbolic of damned souls, and in Greek mythology, the raven is the messenger of Apollo and is associated with bad luck.
6. Skull and the Crossbones
The skull and crossbones is a popular symbol that represents death. The symbol, consisting of a human skull and two crossed femurs, has long been associated with death, poison and pirates. Historically, the Death’s Head, just like the Grim Reaper, came to be intricately associated with death in the Middle Ages and was often etched on most tombstones as a memento mori.
From the 14th to 15th centuries, the symbol was used to denote poisonous substances which strengthened its association with death. As a result, pirates began to use the symbol to strike fear in the hearts of their enemies. Even today, the Death’s Head has come to represent hazard or danger; hence, this symbol is often seen on the packaging of poisonous substances.
The crow, just like the raven and the vulture, is a carrion bird. Carrion, of course, means decaying dead animals’ flesh. As a carrion bird, the crow naturally thrives and feasts on the flesh of the dead; thus, it came to be closely associated with death in many cultures. Moreover, the crow has long been treated as an eerie creature with supernatural powers. One such power is its capability of communicating with humans.
The crow is also symbolic of lost souls and indicative of the death of someone. Hence, in some cultures, the appearance of a crow is suggestive of tragic news. It also signifies the death of a highly respected person or hero in a community.
A headstone, tombstone, or gravestone is a stele or marker, usually stone, that is placed over a grave. It is traditional for burials in the Christian, Jewish, and Muslim religions, among others. In most cases, it has the deceased’s name, date of birth, and date of death inscribed on it, along with a personal message, or prayer, but may contain pieces of funerary art, especially details in stone relief. In many parts of Europe, insetting a photograph of the deceased in a frame is very common.
9. Angel of Death
The Angel of Death is the religious counterpart of the Grim Reaper of Medieval times and can be seen in many religious traditions. In Judaism, for example, the role of the Grim Reaper was played by the Angel of Death and is referred to as Azrael or the Angel of Destruction. In Islam, the Angel of Death is referred to as Malak Almawt.
In Judeo-Christian traditions, the Angel of Death is tasked to bring havoc to humanity. In 2 Kings 19:35, for example, the Angel of Death brought about the killings of 185,000 Assyrians. There have also been other instances in the Bible wherein God allowed an angel to wreak havoc among men. Thus, the Angel of Death has come to symbolize death and destruction.
Candles may be symbolic of many things; but most specifically, they are symbolic of death. The act of lighting a candle, for example, has long been practised throughout the world for honoring the dead. It is a convenient way to feel connected with loved ones and to feel at peace. Hence, there are always lighted candles during memorials, funerals, and other rituals related to death.
Moreover, during festivities where the dead are remembered, people of various cultures set a lighted candle on the tombs of their dead loved ones. This is indicative of the close association of lighted candles with the concept of death, remembrance and hope.