Meaning of Carved Images

On Cape Cod there are about 2400 old slate gravestones dated prior to 1800. Most contain carved images involving skulls, heads or sunbursts. These images are distributed approximately as follows:

  Winged Skulls 70%  
  Winged Heads 25%  
  Sunbursts 5%  

The grim winged skulls of the early 1700's suggest that a hereafter in hell awaits many of the citizens. However, wings attached to the skull hold out the possibility upon death of the soul ascending to heaven.

As the decades passed in the 1700's, the winged skulls became less menacing. Many skulls from the mid 1700's are shown with a benign expression with a few even smiling. Some winged skulls are displayed in flight to heaven. Later in the 1700's, winged heads gradually replaced the winged skulls. These winged heads in various forms are referred to as soul effigies, cherubs or angels. The winged heads generally show confident faces reflecting increased optimism about salvation and the soul rising to heaven. The inscribed epitaphs reflect this optimism. Late in the 1700's gravestone styles began a major change with the appearance of sunbursts and urns.

Early in the 1800's the period of interesting winged skulls and winged heads came to a close. The use of sunbusts ceased after a few decades. The urn and willow carved on slate and later carved on marble became widely used. The urn and willow image shifted emphasis away from the fate of the soul of the deceased to the mourning of the survivors.

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