Art Symbols Dictionary: Death

A Collection of the Various Symbols and Signs Associated With Death

Studio Shot Of Human Skull
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The things that symbolize death or that we associate with mourning, vary across the world. The prime example is the use of white for mourning in the East, whereas white is traditional for celebrating a wedding in the West.

Symbols and Meanings

Black: In the West, the color used for death and mourning is black. Black is associated with the underworld and evil (think of black magic, which is said to draw on the power of the devil, and the saying 'the black sheep in the family' for someone who's disgraced the family). Jewelry made from jet, a hard black stone that can be polished to a brilliant shine, became popular during the reign of Queen Victoria when, after the death of her husband Albert, she shunned bright jewelry as inappropriate. Kali, the Hindu god of destruction, is depicted as black. In parts of Africa, spirits and dead ancestors are seen as white (which is why Europeans were initially welcomed with open arms).

White: In parts of the East, the color used for death and mourning is white. It's also the color used for surrender (think of white flags being waved). Ghosts are depicted as white.

Skull: The skull of a human head. (Think of the scene from Shakespeare's Hamlet where the prince holds the skull of Yorick, a former servant, bemoaning the pointlessness and temporary nature of worldly matters.) The skull with two crossed bones underneath it of a pirate flag was to symbolize that death awaited those whom the pirates encountered. Today a skull and crossbones are sometimes used as a sign of poison.

Skeleton: A full, walking skeleton is used to personify Death.

Scythe: Death (the Grim Reaper) is often depicted carrying a scythe (a curved, sharp blade at the end of a long handle), with which he cuts down the living. It comes from pagan harvest ceremonies.

Day of the Dead: Celebrated on 1 November in Mexico by lighting candles on graves and putting out food. Some regard the orange-and-black monarch butterflies, which migrate to Mexico for the winter, as the carriers of the souls of the dead.

Flags at Half Mast: Flying a flag at half mast (halfway up the flagpole) is a sign of mourning; the space at the top of the flagpole is for an invisible flag of death.

Ravens, crows and other black carrion birds: In Christianity, these birds are regarded as heralds of death and destruction.

Vultures: Scavenger birds which feed off dead things.

Angels: The intermediaries between heaven and earth, who come to accompany your soul when you die.

Red poppies: The flower used to commemorate the dead from the First and Second World Wars.

Cypress Tree: Planted in graveyards as it's believed to preserve bodies.

Red Ribbon: A symbol for the people who have died from Aids and the fight for a cure for the disease.

Valhalla: From Viking mythology, Valhalla is the great hall of the god Odin, where slain warriors who have died as heroes go.

River Styx and River Acheron: From Greek mythology, rivers across which Charon (the ferryman) ferried your soul when you died, into Hades (the underworld where souls live).