The Black Hart

Scotland to Salem: The Gravestone Collection

1 May 2021

There's something intriguing about burial grounds and the rituals we have around death and remembrance. The house I grew up in had a garden that led directly onto a graveyard, separated by a wooden fence. I spent a lot of time walking through, looking at all the different gravestones, and as I've got older I still visit graveyards when I come across them.

Gravestone (or headstone) designs come in so many forms, but for this collection I've focused on a few recurring motifs I've seen. Most of the images I've used below come from the gravestones in Salem MA and a few places in Scotland.

Landscape photo taken from a hill overlooking a large gravestone, with Glasgow city in the background under grey clouds.

Glasgow Necropolis

Death Heads

Seen on lots of early gravestones, the skull or deaths head has quite clear connections to death. This photo I took in Salem is one of my favourite examples - a skull and crossbones. The Skull being popular in old graves (say 1700-1800s) means that they are often worn down by the elements. For some reason this one from 1769 still has a really clear design. You might have seen me use this image before - its one of my favourites.

Another example from the same cemetery (there were a few with very similar designs - perhaps made by the same person) shows a skull with wings, representing the dead's ascension up to heaven.

A photo of an old graveyard with slanted grey stones in green grass. The stone in the foreground leans heavily to the left and had a skull with wings carved into the centre top. There is an inscription which is difficult to make out.

Deaths head gravestone in Salem MA

A photo in a graveyard, the stone in the foreground stands upright, at the top is a carved design showing a skull and crossbones. There is an inscription on the stone which is hard to read, but the date 1769 is clear.


Most of the cemeteries I visit are in churchyards and specifically relate to Christian burial grounds. One common feature I've seen in and outside of specifically Christian graveyards is archways. This could be a design feature chosen to echo common features from within churches, but is also thought sometimes to represent a passage - passing through an archway means going from one place to another - so perhaps and archway represents the passage from living to dead, or mortal to heaven.

A very large and ornate stone with an inscription in the centre, made from red and grey stone. There are repeated archway patterns from the top of the inscription carved into the stone, to a spire-looking top section which has a large ornate cross at the very top. There are carved figures stood either side, making the stone look like a mini cathedral.

Stone outside Rosslyn chapel, Roslin, Midlothian

A slightly overgrown graveyard among trees. In the centre of the image is a pale gravestone with an arched shape, echoed in the carvings on the face of the stone which also has carved Passion flowers in the centre top. An inscription can be seen in black but is difficult to read.

Grave at Abney Park, Stoke Newington, London


Fairly clearly a Christian tradition, crosses on headstones are common in any countries where Christianity has a long history. This example, (photo from is one of the stones that remains at the ruins of St Bride’s Chapel, Scotland. The chapel was dedicated before 1648 and all that remains now are the font and some stones. It’s unclear wether this stone with the cross design was to indicate the site of the chapel or the burial ground of Chapel Dermid.

A black and white photo of a very worn stone with a large simple cross design in the centre.

Cross stone from St Bride’s


Hands are an interesting feature, seen less often than the other symbols seen above that can mean a variety of things. A hand pointing upwards generally is pointing up to heaven, but a hand pointing down does not mean the opposite, rather it is usually meant to represent the hand of God coming down, usually indicating a life cut short.

In Abney Park cemetery, a beautiful, interesting non secular graveyard in Stoke Newington is this example of a hand gravestone, which resembles the same fist symbol used to represent righteousness and fighting for what is right.

Black and white photo of some tall graves in front of trees. The centre stone is a tall obelisk with a hand in the shape of a fist at the very to

Obelisk gravestone with a Fist, Abney Park Cemetery, London.

Close up of the upper part of a gravestone, with a carving showing two clasped hands above the inscription ‘till we meet again’.

Photo by Allison C Meier, JSTOR daily


Another pretty clear symbol - an angel represents heaven watching over the dead. There are some beautiful examples of angels weeping over headstones.

A graveyard on a sunny day, in the centre of the image is a large block grave marker with a huge angel sitting atop.

Angel at Glasgow Necropolis

A large ornate tombstone made from a white stone with the name Evelyn Story on the front. Draped across the stone is a carving of a weeping angel laying face down.

The grave of Emelyn Story in Rome, carved by her husband William Wetmore Story, 1894. Via Wikipedia

Weeping Willow

Like the crying angels, a weeping willow is thought to represent mourning. Other interesting symbolic meanings of the weeping willow are that it requires and so usually is found near bodies of water, evoking again the 'weeping' tears idea, but also are fairly hardy trees that only really require a lot of water and not much else in order to survive. The weeping willow was particularly fashionable as a headstone adornment in the Victorian period, when many mourning practices became highly popular (probably due to the Queen's eternal mourning period after the death of Prince Albert).

Detail of a white stone laid onto the ground, showing a simple carving of a weeping willow tree.

Photo by Chris Raymond

White illustration of tiny simplified gravestones on chains

Design inspiration for the gravestone mini collection