Skulls, Cherubs, and Willows, Oh My! – Interpreting 17th, 18th, & 19th Century Gravestones

Halloween is the perfect time to visit a graveyard, and the older the better. We admire old gravestones for their artistic qualities and respect them as reminders of our own mortality. But did you know that gravestone fashions evolved over time and can also provide clues about the ideological changes of an individual and society as a whole?

The Styles of Death

In New England, there were three basic designs carved into gravestones between c. 1620-1820: death’s-head, winged cherubs, and urn-and-willow. 

Death's-head, the winged cherub, and urn-and-willow gravestone motifs. (Photo courtesy of Deetz, James. In Small Things Forgotten: An Archaeology of Early American Life. New York: DoubleDay, 1996, p. 97)

Death’s-head Motif c. 1680-1790

The death’s-head was in use from c. 1680-1790, during which time the Puritan church was dominant in New England. The death’s-head motif can be described as an “earthy and neutral symbol, serving as a graphic reminder of death and resurrection.” When looking at the epitaphs on the gravestones in conjunction with the symbology of the death’s-head, there is a focus on the mortality of man.

 Cherub motif, c. 1760-1810

The cherub came about during the religious revival movement known as the Great Awakening. During this time, the cherub, which the Puritan’s feared could lead to idolatry because it portrayed a heavenly being, grew in popularity and acceptance. This shift can be attributed to a shift in religious thought towards allowing the individual to have personal involvement with the supernatural. The epitaphs at the time are indicative of the belief that the soul left the body at the time of death. No longer did they say “Here lies…” but instead they specified that it was only the body which remained, “here lies buried the body…” It can be argued that the cherub motif is symbolic of a focus on the immortal component of death.

Urn-and-willow motif, c. 1760-1830

The urn-and-willow motif goes hand-in-hand with a shift from rounded to square shoulders on the gravestones. These gravestones often marked cenotaphs. The stylistic shift in design represents a shift from the graphic representation of the mortal or immortal component of an individual to a symbolic commemoration. Epitaphs on urn-and-willow gravestones often recognize worldly achievements. 


When you are traipsing through graveyards this Halloween, take a closer look at those gravestones. Not only will the epitaphs tell you about the people who are buried there, but when you know what you are looking at, their gravestones may teach you about their world as well.

Happy Halloween!


About Megan L.

Megan graduated from Boston University in 2008 with an M.A. in Historical Archaeology. While in graduate school, she wrote her master's thesis on 18th-century glass drinkingware excavated during the Big Dig and interned with NMSC for 2 years. Megan has been a full-time employee since February 2010.
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