Different cultures give death a different meaning and significance. Symbols have been used to represent death from ancient times. Some symbols are an omen of death, and some are an indication of the inevitability of death.
Symbols come from cultural practices, and each has its energy/ impact. They mean different things though they represent death in some form.
From Greeks to Celts to Hindus, the symbols for death are often considered religious symbols. They are an integral part of the culture and reveal how different people have dealt with death.
What are Common Death Symbols?
Some death symbols have become a part of our lives over the centuries. These are categorized into three major sections- animal symbols, plant/ flower symbols, and objectified symbols.
For example, owls, ravens, vultures, black cats, bats, etc., symbolize impending death. These animals and birds are commonly considered bad luck by people.
Flowers like red poppies (WWI), lilies (Egyptian), hyacinths, and chrysanthemums express mourning and death. Items such as the sundial, candles, black ribbons, half-mast flags, hourglass, clocks, tombstones, scythe, and skulls symbolize death after it has occurred.
Death symbols are also used to find peace and accept the loss of a dear one. The symbols give comfort and strength to mourn the dead and move on.
Popular Symbols of Death
Some death symbols are more popular than others. A few of them are a part of funeral services, and some represent the mourning period. Many of these symbols have been used in entertainment media, art, and literature.
Human Skull & Crossbones
The human skull and crossbones are associated with death from the middle ages. It was commonly etched on gravestones as a memento mori, which means “remember you will die.” By the 14th century, the symbol was linked with substances that denote death (poison, dynamite, etc.) Pirates use this symbol to show their intentions.
The Grim Reaper is an angel of death and belongs to the medieval ages. It is Azrael or the Angel of Destruction in Judaism and Malak Almawt in Islam. Bible shows Grim Reaper as a sign of death and destruction.
Vultures eat carrion and are a sign of impending death. They circulate above the area where a person is dying. The birds are messengers between life and death. In Mayan culture, vultures indicate transformation (after death).
A gravestone or a tombstone is a direct symbol of the dead. It shows the location of the grave, and it stands as a memorial for the departed souls. The souls have ties with gravestones in some cultures.
Funeral services take place in graveyards. The dead are buried or cremated in these locations. It is where the last rites are performed in some cultures. A graveyard or a burial ground signifies death and cradles the dead deep in its earth.
The Banshee belongs to the Celtic lore (Irish and Scottish). It is an omen of death. A banshee is a young woman or an old hag. She is dressed in mourning clothes and found wailing or kneeling. Seeing or hearing a banshee indicates the death of a loved one.
Cypress trees are a sign of mourning. The Bible calls them a symbol of death. The cypress tree is evergreen and indicates the soul, which doesn’t die after the body dies. The aromatic tree also masks the smell of death and is planted in European and Islamic cemeteries.
The cross is a symbol of salvation for Christians. But it is a sign of punishment and death for Romans. The crucifixion of Jesus Christ is an example of a cross representing death in its severe form.
Death’s Head Hawkmoth
Death’s Head Hawkmoth has a sign of a skull on its back. In Native American culture, it denotes the soul of the dead. In Celtic culture, it forewarns death in the family. The moth causes blindness when touched, according to Welsh.
What Colors Represent Death?
Black color represents death over centuries. However, colors like green, purple, and white also symbolize death.
Black represents death as it indicates an absence of light. It is a color of mourning in many cultures. People wear black to funerals, especially in Western countries. Some cultures don’t allow the use of black in certain rituals. For Egyptians, the color black denotes the afterlife and is a sign of hope and resurrection.
In some cultures, darker shades of purple are associated with death, loss, and funerals. It is a color of mourning in Thailand and Brazil and is termed evil in Japan. In Italy, purple is not used for happy celebrations.
White represents death and mourning in Eastern cultures. It symbolizes purity and peace. In Hinduism, white is used for mourning and as a sign of rebirth or spiritual awakening. In Buddhism, white symbolizes nirvana and enlightenment.
Green symbolizes growth and fertility but also death. In Egyptian lore, Osiris, the God of life and death, is symbolized by green. Green is associated with toxic elements that cause death. This comes from the Victorian era when green pigmentation (due to arsenic) led to death.
Other Death Symbols in Art
Memento Mori is a Latin phrase meaning, “remember you will die.” It has been a part of art since the medieval ages.
What is the Significance of the Skull and Crossbones?
Tombstones etched with skull and crossbones
- Skull painting (a Mexican festival)
- Mourning rings/ pendants shaped as skulls, coffins, etc.
- Paintings like The Dance of Death by Michael Wolgemut, Young Man with a Skull by Frans Hals, etc.
- Vanitas paintings (Vanitas Still Life by Pieter Claesz) where death is presented through still-life paintings of death symbols
What is the symbol of death in the tarot card deck?
- Death card in Tarot- a major arcana with Scorpio as the zodiac sign
The symbols of death are vast and varied. The meanings, interpretations, and usage differ from one culture to another. The common point is the spiritual and philosophical significance of death across religions.
Death is a part of life. It indicates an end and a new beginning. The symbols help people come to terms with death and accept that life goes on.
Looking to learn more about symbols? Check out this article on the triquetra symbol.