Winged Death's Head
By Merissa Mack

“Life is uncertain, Death is for sure

Sin the wound and Christ the cure”

-popular New England epitaph (Ludwig 88)


(Deetz 74)



The winged death’s head was the first gravestone design of the colonies (Deetz 69). Its popularity is rooted in the Puritan loathing of icons, something they associated with Catholicism. The design was meant to be an “earthly and neutral symbol, serving as a graphic reminder of death and resurrection (71).” The urban centers were more apt to stick with this general pattern, but in rural communities it is interesting to note how their gravestone art evolved into their own versions of the classic (78).

(Deetz 70) 

As time goes on though and religion becomes less ridged, so too does the gravestone art become less rough and much more relaxed with its use of symbolism. Therefore, with the spiritual movement of the Great Awakening comes the use of a second gravestone motif the winged cherub (Deetz 71). As seen in the image on the left of the shift in grave art in the Stoneham cemetery of Massachusetts, we see that this change was a gradual shift (70).

 In the South, unparticular Charleston, we see that most, if not all, of the gravestone art also harkens back to the New England design (Combs 6). Although it appears that this classic design was not quite as popular in the south as it was in New England (8). Here is where there is an emergence of the skull and cross bones motif (13). This also later evolves into divergent mixture of a cherub with crossbones (Combs 16).

“By the end of the eighteenth century the winged death’s head and skull and crossbones had all but disappeared as a funerary motif (Combs 19).”


“The Mary Peronneau stone, 1741, (Circular) Congregational Churchyard, Charleston. Slate" “The John Neufville stone, 1749, Huguenot Churchyard, Charleston. Slate.”

(Comb 14)



Grave Stones Home / Winged Death’s Head / Winged Cherub / Other Motifs / Bibliography




Death and Mortality:



New England

Prevalence of Death

Chesapeake Bay Area






About the Authors