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Throughout history, humans found ways to cope with death, mourning, and the circle of life through symbolism. Traditional and modern art and culture are both full of imagery related to death and the passing of life. It’s interesting to compare these vast histories and cultures across the globe to see where they overlap and diverge.
Jump ahead to these sections:
- Animals Associated with Death and Mourning
- Plant Symbols of Death and Mourning
- Objects or Phenomenons That Symbolize Death and Mourning
How many symbols of death and mourning can you name? Some are common, featured prominently in our own funeral practices and grave decorations. Others are less obvious, lurking in the shadows where we least expect them. Either way, you’re bound to find yourself surprised by this full list of 17 popular symbols of death and mourning below.
From movies to TV to nature, you’ll start to realize these images are just as much a part of life as death is itself. Common death symbols come in three major categories: animals (such as ravens and black cats), plants (like hyacinths and lilies), and objects/phenomena (such as a flag at half-mast).
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Animals Associated with Death and Mourning
Animals are a part of nature. As such, they’ve become symbols of their own. Some animals have darker connotations than others, though they’re all blissfully ignorant of their own fate within human interpretations. Most of these animals below are also seen as signs of bad luck, so tread carefully.
The raven has a long history of association with death and mourning. Most of its popular interpretation likely comes from the Edgar Allen Poe poem of the same name. The raven in Poe’s poem repeats “nevermore,” driving the narrator mad with its repetition.
However, this infamous raven got its dark start even earlier than with 19th-century poets. Birds traditionally carried a lot of symbolism within Christianity. Ravens, in particular, are considered representations of the devil.
Like the raven, vultures are dark birds. However, ravens are quiet and small. They blend in with the night. Vultures, on the other hand, demand to be seen.
These birds quite literally eat death. Their primary diet is the corpses of other animals. While they’re performing an important role within the environment by cleaning waste, they’re also an undeniable representation of death.
The ram (especially the ram head) is also connected to death. The official insignia of the Church of Satan features a ram head, so this imagery now links rams to the occult.
The ram also is associated with other deities throughout the globe that featured long horns. Over time, these took a dark turn to symbolize ritual and death.
4. Black cats
Superstition around black cats comes alive every year during Halloween. If a black cat crosses your path, bad luck is sure to follow.
In 16th-century Italy, people believed a black cat lying on a sick person’s bed meant certain death. Germanic people also thought a black cat was a sign of death. While these animals are likely just misunderstood, it’s still an interesting story.
Thanks to vampire folklore, bats have also earned a place on this list. Beyond Dracula, bats are an omen of negative energy. These creatures thrive in the dark, and they’ve become symbols of the underworld and death.
Plant Symbols of Death and Mourning
Flower meanings date back centuries, and flowers are a form of communication on their own. Some of these meanings tell a story of death and mourning. Flowers are also living proof that the most beautiful images conceal deep emotional significance.
6. Red poppies
The red poppy is the flower used to remember the dead who fell in World War I and World War II. The poppy is actually one of the only plants able to grow naturally within disturbed earth in Western Europe.
After the war-ravaged the land, poppies bloomed. The red poppy resembled the blood of fallen soldiers. Even now, years later, this flower is still a symbol of war, death, and remembrance.
7. Cypress trees
If you’ve ever walked in a graveyard in a warm climate, odds are you’ve noticed the cypress trees. These tall trees weren’t planted in cemeteries by accident.
Due to their shape, cypress trees appear to reach toward Heaven. Their roots grow in such a way as to not disturb caskets within the earth. Beautiful and majestic, these trees now stand watch over graveyards around the globe.
The hyacinth flower is a symbol of sorrow and pain. They’re common funeral flowers because of this meaning, and they’re a creative way to honor someone and their grieving family. These purple, blooming flowers offer encouragement in a time of need. When experiencing a loss, sometimes we need a bit of beauty.
While these flowers are often a sign of encouragement, they’re also commonly found in graves. Humans cultivated chrysanthemums for thousands of years.
In 15th-century China, people believed these flowers had the power of life. While they’ve traveled a long way, you’re still likely to see mums in funerals and graveyards. That doesn’t make them any less stunning.
Lily’s play a strong role in ancient mythology, so it’s no wonder they also have ties to human death and mourning. Today, lilies are one of the most common funeral flowers.
Thanks to their light color, they’re a way to remind the grieving family of the return to innocence after death. It goes to show that not all symbols of death are sad.
Objects or Phenomenons That Symbolize Death and Mourning
Aside from animals and plants, there are additional symbols of death and mourning. These developed over time through literature, art, myths, and religion.
Candles are common during funerals, memorials, and other death traditions. In some cultures, such as in Latin America, candles are a way to bring families close to their deceased relatives on certain days of the year.
Candles help with both religious and cultural rituals, such as lighting a candle for someone who died, shrinking the gap between the living and the deceased.
Clocks and other symbols of time, like hourglasses or sundials, are all a reminder that our time on Earth is limited. Every minute that passes is a minute closer to death.
In many cultures, the family stops the clocks in the home at the time of death to pay respects to the deceased. Either way, the ticking of time never ceases.
13. Flag at half-mast
If you’ve ever seen a flag at half-mast, you might wonder what happened or who died. Flying a flag at half-mast (halfway up the flagpole) is a sign of mourning.
It’s a respectful way to honor the passing of someone important or to offer condolences after a tragedy. The space at the top of the flagpole represents the invisible flag of death.
14. The color black
Of course, no list of the symbols relating to death would be complete without the color black. This is the color we wear to funerals in Western cultures. It’s dark, reflecting the dimming of the soul’s light as we fade into the afterlife.
Why is black associated so heavily with death? This is a practice that dates back to ancient times. In the Middle Ages and Victorian period, mourning clothes were always black to show an outward display of inner feelings of turmoil.
The most memorable scene from Shakespeare’s Hamlet is where the Prince of Denmark holds the skull of his former servant. The skull has long been a symbol of death. It serves as a reminder that we’re all just bones underneath, and that life is fleeting.
The infamous Grim Reaper himself is often depicted carrying a scythe. A scythe is a type of curved, sharp blade that rests at the end of a long handle. This comes from Pagan harvest ceremonies, but it’s also rumored to “cut down” the living.
Tombstones themselves are a symbol of death. These are used as a burial marker. They show where loved ones are buried within the earth.
The tombstone is a legacy in itself. Typically made of stone, this is a way for the deceased to keep their memory alive after death.
Find Peace Through Symbolism
These symbols above gained popularity as a way to bring sense and peace to the unyielding nature of death. Though the end of life is unavoidable, peace is possible if we look for nature and stories for signs of hope. From the familiar skull to the watchful eye of a raven, these images earned their place within human history.
By exploring the culture and symbolism around death, we take steps towards accepting our own mortality. Death is the great equalizer, but we don’t have to let that get in the way of living a full life.
Start end-of-life planning to discover just how freeing it is to make plans for your own death. Like these symbols above, it’s not as scary as it seems.
- “Birds Are Used as Christian Symbols.” Catholicism. 30 October 2004. Catholicism.org.
- “Cypress Tree.” Symbolism Project. SymbolsProject.edu.
- “Flag Etiquette: Half Staff Displays.” US Flag Organization. USFlag.org.
- Larson, Barbara. “Chrysanthemums.” University of Illinois: Yard and Garden. Illinois.edu.
- “Mowing with a Scythe.” PennState Extension. 1 May 2012. Extension.PSU.edu.
- Roth, Ginny. “The Truth About Black Cats.” Historical Collections of the National Library of Medicine: Circulating Now. 31 October 2018. NIH.gov.
- “Victorian Mourning Etiquette.” Tracy Chevalier: Author Research. TChevalier.com.
- “Why the Poppy?” BBC. BBC.co.uk.
Candles are used in many cultures as a symbol for loss and grief, along with a white dove, or here in Ireland, the triskele has been adopted by the Hospice Friendly Hospitals Programme as a bereavement symbol to let visitors and staff know that a recent bereavement has occurred.What is a symbol for grief? ›
Candles are used in many cultures as a symbol for loss and grief, along with a white dove, or here in Ireland, the triskele has been adopted by the Hospice Friendly Hospitals Programme as a bereavement symbol to let visitors and staff know that a recent bereavement has occurred.What is the symbol for life after death? ›
The ankh symbol—sometimes referred to as the key of life or the key of the nile—is representative of eternal life in Ancient Egypt.What are the symbols of remembrance? ›
The poppy remains a humble, poignant symbol of Remembrance and hope.Is there a universal symbol for death? ›
The human skull is an obvious and frequent symbol of death, found in many cultures and religious traditions.What objects represent death? ›
A scythe is a common symbol of death in art. It is usually associated with the Grim Reaper, a figure that represents the end of life or mortality. The scythe is also often seen as a symbol of power and authority, representing the inevitability of death and reminding us of our own mortality.What are symbols for deep sadness? ›
You might have seen rainstorm images, ravens, and skull or grim reaper symbols. Barren landscapes and faces of cliffs are popular, too. All of these are commonly associated with depression because they capture the essence of the darkness, despair, struggle, and thoughts of death that are hallmarks of major depression.What is the color for grief? ›
Black – Western World
Wearing dark colours for mourning has long been a tradition in many parts of the western world, in particular large parts of Europe and North America. The association of the colour black with death and loss is centuries old and is believed to have originated during Roman times.
Crow and Hemlock tree are the symbols of sadness and depression. Crow is considered ugliest among all birds and is a symbol of ill - omen.What is a death flower? ›
Chrysanthemum. In the United States, this gorgeous flower has many meanings, but it is often used as an expression of support and encouragement to “get well soon.” In many European countries, chrysanthemums are placed in tombs and are considered a symbol of death.
In Germany, ravens are damned souls. One of America's favorite authors, Edgar Allan Poe, used the raven to tell the story of a heartsick young man mourning the loss of a loved one named Lenore. "The Raven" has been a part of the American literary canon for decades and is part of our cultural literacy.What is the bird of death? ›
Ravens are often seen as symbols of death on battlefields. They swarm over bodies to eat the decaying flesh, carrion, of dead soldiers.What is the flower for remembrance? ›
Thanks to his poem, poppies quickly came to represent both gratitude and hope for Veterans and survivors of the First World War.
Poppy. Poppies are recognized worldwide as a symbol of respect and remembrance. They are often used to honor and remember those who have served their countries.What color flower is for remembrance? ›
Red represents admiration and love. Pink signifies remembrance. White represents innocence and love.What is the color of death and sadness? ›
Black. The colour – or rather adsense of colour– black is often linked with negative associations, such as death, fear or sadness, according to the Journal of international Colour Association (opens in new tab).What is the symbol of suffering and death? ›
The cross probably is the most easily recognized and widely known symbol in all the world. It can be seen everywhere in human culture and history. It is so simple that we overlook its importance.What insect represents death? ›
Moths are often seen as symbols of death in many cultures. In some Native American traditions, moths are seen as the souls of the dead. In other cultures, moths are seen as messengers from the other side.What is the sad eyes symbol? ›
Pleading Face Emoji
Besides conveying such acts as pleading, begging, or beseeching, the Pleading Face emoji also variously conveys sadness, guilt, cuteness, and even arousal.
All of the positive emotions (e.g., joy) were portrayed as circles surrounded by curved lines and all of the negative emotions (e.g., distress) were portrayed as downward-pointing triangles surrounded by sharp lines.
“Gray” “Gray” was indicated among the top three colors for sadness, fear, and contempt (Figure 2).Why can't you wear red to a funeral? ›
Why you shouldn't wear red to a funeral. Wearing red to a funeral can be a sign of disrespect. It will give others a completely wrong impression if you wear a bright and bold colour to a funeral, as this goes against the dark, muted colours associated with sadness and mourning.What colors represent the 5 stages of grief? ›
Each color is a particular wavelength of light, a particular state, and you can blend colors. You can think of grief in those ways as well. ” He then listed his colors out: denial as magenta, anger as red, bargaining as green, depression as grey, and acceptance as “marked by light”.What does pink mean at a funeral? ›
Pink: admiration, appreciation, elegance, grace, love (often used at the funerals of women or children)What is the symbol in the 7 stages of grieving? ›
The central symbol in The 7 Stages of Grieving is a suitcase, which symbolizes the weight of grief. As the play's central character, the Woman, shares stories about personal, political, and communal grief, she moves back and forth between states of intense pain and eerie numbness.What objects represent sorrow? ›
- Candles. Candles are common during funerals, memorials, and other death traditions. ...
- Clocks. ...
- Flag at half-mast. ...
- The color black. ...
- Skull. ...
- Scythe. ...
Hyacinth: The purple hyacinth is a popular symbol of sorrow and regret. For a funeral setting, this expression is certainly appropriate. Sometimes, a simple acknowledgement of the family's grief is enough.What flower symbolizes loss of a loved one? ›
The chrysanthemum, or mum, makes a wonderful choice when mourning with a family that has ties to Europe or Asia. China, Korea and Japan use white chrysanthemums to symbolize grief.What is the universal flower of death? ›
In the United States, mums symbolize truth. However, in much of Europe and in many Asian cultures, white chrysanthemums are generally used only at funerals and signify death, mourning, and grief. What is this?
Amorphophallus titanum is often called corpse flower because when it blooms, it emits a powerful stench similar to that of rotting meat. This scent, along with the deep-red, meaty color of the open spathe, attracts insect pollinators that feed on dead animals.
Indeed, some scientists remain skeptical. But a growing number are challenging our species' monopoly on grief. They've identified mourninglike behaviors not just in cetaceans, but in elephants, giraffes, chimpanzees and other primates and, possibly, turtles, bison and birds.What butterfly represents grief? ›
It's considered a message from your loved one since you're no doubt feeling blue and sad in your grief and longing.
Birds. Specific birds have a variety of meanings. Collectively, birds signify the transition between life and death. Also, this animal symbolizes freedom since they have the liberty to fly to any location.What bird visits from heaven? ›
The idea that cardinals — or a redbirds — are “messengers” from departed loved ones has been around for a long time, crossing cultures and spanning years. Many people believe seeing a cardinal is a “sign” that those who have passed are with us in spirit.What bird is from heaven? ›
Cranes are ubiquitous in the earliest legends of the world's peoples, where they often figure as harbingers of heaven and omens of longevity and good fortune. They are still held sacred in many places, and for good reason.What bird carries the soul of the dead? ›
Some ancient traditions state that sparrows carry the souls of the dead, so it is deemed to be bad luck to kill a sparrow. Some sources say that sailors would get tattoos of sparrows so they could carry their souls if they died in the middle of the ocean. Sparrows are the most referenced bird in the Bible.Why not to wear a poppy? ›
Some people feel the red poppy has become too political, and that some politicians have used the powerful feelings it creates to justify war. Others refuse to wear poppies because they feel there is too much pressure put on people to wear them.What flowers represent life after death? ›
Hydrangea. Hydrangeas are the flowers of sympathy. If you wish to offer your condolences, this is a great choice. You can choose to either send a floral arrangement with hydrangeas or opt to send a potted hydrangea is often sent to the grieving family as a living memorial to their loved one.What color flowers for grief and loss? ›
Blue flowers represent condolences, sadness, and mourning. Blue can also express peace, hope, and well wishes. Pink flowers signify compassion, sympathy, and innocence. Pink can also suggest remembrance, making it a common colour for funeral flower arrangements.What color roses when someone dies? ›
At a funeral, the classic deep red rose evokes love and grief. The yellow rose is often given by friends to show their bond. The rarer dark pink roses are used to express thankfulness to the deceased.
Flowers, butterflies and skulls are typically used as symbols. The cempasúchil, a type of marigold flower native to Mexico, is often placed on ofrendas and around graves. With their strong scent and vibrant color the petals are used to make a path that leads the spirits from the cemetery to their families' homes.What indicates death? ›
In the hours before death, most people fade as the blood supply to their body declines further. They sleep a lot, their breathing becomes very irregular, and their skin becomes cool to the touch. Those who do not lose consciousness in the days before death usually do so in the hours before.What is the symbol of death and danger? ›
The skull-and-crossbones symbol, consisting of a human skull and two bones crossed together behind the skull, is today generally used as a warning of danger of death, particularly in regard to poisonous substances.What is the flower of the dead? ›
Marigolds. Often called “flowers of the dead,” cempasúchil, or flor de muerto, these bright orange and yellow flowers' fragrance is said to attract souls to the altar. Their bright and cheery color also celebrate life instead of feeling bitter about death.What does the cross on a sugar skull mean? ›
Sugar Skull with Cross Temporary Tattoo
They are used to represent soul of departed loved one and honor it upon its return home.
Home altars are decorated with marigolds (the flower of the dead); favorite dishes such as tamales, tortillas, pumpkin and mole; candles; incense (copal); toys and other enticements; and objects of personal use.What bird symbolizes death of a loved one? ›
Raven. Ravens are larger than crows and have a different tail shape and flight pattern. Ravens and crows are both black birds that act as a symbol of death or mourning.What animal represents surviving? ›
Peregrine Falcon: Symbol of Survival.What is the butterfly of death? ›
In some cultures, seeing a black butterfly means death. Whose death it is often is left up to the person witnessing the butterfly's flight interpretation. It could just as easily mean the death of a job or a relationship. The message of rebirth is often associated with a black butterfly.What is the burst of energy before death called? ›
The surge of energy before death is often referred to as “terminal lucidity.” This phenomenon occurs when a dying person, who may have been unresponsive or unconscious, suddenly becomes clear-minded, alert, and communicative.
Sudden nocturnal death, while relatively uncommon, can occur as a result of a variety of factors, including stroke, seizure, sedative overdose, and, most frequently, sudden cardiac arrest, physicians say.What are the animals of death? ›
- Cardinals. As we previously mentioned, cardinals often act as reminders of those we have lost. ...
- Crows. ...
- Vultures. ...
- Worms. ...
- Snakes. ...
- Bats. ...
- Hyenas. ...